Humans v. technology

I walked into a Home Depot the other day and was greeted by a human being.

“Be sure to ask if there’s anything we can do for you,” he said

“There is something you can do for me,” I said. “I need some Velcro tabs.”

“Go down aisle 8 here by the blinds, and go straight across. There’s an end cap there with all sorts of Velcro items,” he said.

And, indeed, there was. Then I went through the self-service checkout and didn’t speak to another human again.

So what’s a better commentary on the state of technology and society? The human I talked to, or the automation I didn’t?

David Brancaccio, of APM’s Marketplace, had a great idea to travel across the country to see if it’s possible to do so without ever having a transaction with a human.

“I wanted to know if technology has become so widespread, you can go 3,200 miles — coast-to-coast — and never have to do business with a human being,” he said.

Presumably, this would prove that the robots are coming and this would affect us all….how, exactly?

Brancaccio is describing his experience this afternoon on Talk of the Nation, but on Marketplace Money on Saturday, he declared to host Tess Vigeland that he had, indeed, driven across the country without transacting with a human — you didn’t really think it was going to come out any other way, did you? — while confirming he also had interactions with humans:

Brancaccio: Well, I know. It’s hard to know exactly how to manage that social situation, even though I thought long and hard about what to do. She’s the human who lords over the four checkouts at a Krogers store. She has a personality the size of Virginia and was very much intent on helping me get smoothly through the checkout with my corn. So I got out of their by the skin of my teeth. And I did manage to ultimately do it myself.

Vigeland: Did you talk to her at all?

Brancaccio: Yeah, words were exchanged.

Vigeland: Oh no.

Brancaccio: Yeah, what am I going to do, act like I’m mute? So yeah, there were words there. She’s a lovely person. She didn’t like the machines much. She said the software: not so good. So they have people like her watching over things.

Vigeland: And we mentioned that early on the show as well…that is one of the problems with the self-checkout. You mentioned you were in Oz, so… Kansas, I presume?

Brancaccio: Well, it was actually Oklahoma City. It was midnight the other night, and exhausted, I stumble in and I’m coaxing the self-check-in robot at the hotel to take my credit card when this smiling man shows up. His name is Oz, and he’s apparently the night manager, and he’s seen my name on the reservations, and Tess, he’s a big fan of the show and wanted to say hi. So what am I going to do? So I shook his hand and then I checked in with the machine. But yeah, another encounter with a human.

This all proves, we imagine, that technology has, in fact, become widespread, more widespread than it used to be. But hasn’t that always been the case with technology?

Left unresolved in all of this is the increasing importance of the humans who know instantly where the Velcro is, especially since it’s becoming more obvious that people are often choosing good customer service over price and — when they want to — humans provide pretty great customer service.

What Brancaccio accomplished was proving that we can avoid human contact if we work unreasonably hard at it while driving coast to coast. But the question that might be more illuminating today, is whether you go out of your way to avoid human contact in daily transactions, not because technology is creeping into your life, but because you’d rather not deal with a human?

  • Tyler

    I’m an enormous fan of the self-checkout, and have seemed to master the technology. I figure that if I have to bag my own groceries, I might was ring myself up, too.

  • John P.

    I always try to always go to the human checkout lane even though the stores try to encourage you to use the machines by not having enough people on the registers.

    I figure it’s one more person that has a job, and one blow struck to prevent the robots from taking over the world.

  • David

    Try going to the store not knowing the name of the thing you need. I went to the local hardware store and held up what I needed, when they didn’t have it I went to the big box a bit further from my house. They had what I needed but I still didn’t know what it was called.

    I held up the plastic cap that goes in foot of my patio furniture. The first guy didn’t know what it was, but the guy standing next to him knew exactly and where it was located in the store.

  • Craig

    Perhaps we should start considering the benefits (and problems) of starting to move away from the philosophy of requiring (often menial) labor to “earn” the right to survive?

  • kennedy

    Good = I really like being able to pay at the pump when fueling up.

    Bad = One technology application that I hate is the robo-calls that will undoubtedly ramp up as we approach the election this fall.

  • Conner

    It’s amazing how easy it is to avoid human contact these days. And also how often I choose the machine vs. the human because the machine make things less complicated. Ordering pizza online for instance.

    But no machine can understand when I say the “doohickey by the battery” when I walk into an auto parts store.

    The other benefit of machines is they are never crabby. Because nothing ruins a good day as much as a crabby teller/server/checkout person. Then again nothing brightens a bad day as quickly as dealing with a happy person excited to provide great service.