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?