Isolation and Interaction

Yesterday, I went to Panera Bread. I like the place because it’s a good haven for a writer. You can sit there and people-watch as you eat your overpriced panini, read, or write, and nobody will think you’re an oddball because nine times out of ten, someone else will be sitting there doing the same thing.

Anyway, in this particular Panera, they rolled out a small kiosk* that lets you order and pay for your meal without talking to a soul. Because I try to avoid talking to people at all costs, I was sorely tempted to use the kiosk, but because I’m supposed to be not avoiding talking to people, I knew I ought to go up to the human cashier instead of the kiosk. But I gave into temptation and used the kiosk, and my order came out just as usual (although it was kind of creepy because the machine thanked me for my order using my name, which it had gleaned from my credit card).

Of course, I began to overthink about this interaction with a machine instead of a person. Self-serve kiosks (and similar technologies) aren’t new by any means. In many grocery stores, they have self-checkout counters, and you can order practically anything you want online and you don’t even have to talk to the guy who delivers it to you because he rings the doorbell and runs away because (a) he’s afraid of your hysterical barking dog, or, more realistically, (b) he’s on a tight delivery schedule.

[As an aside: It’s not a new notion that many jobs could be eliminated by this technology. Even if Walmart replaces four of its regular checkouts with self-checkouts, it would still need one person to supervise and make sure the self-checkout machines are working properly and that nobody steals anything.** But still, that’s three jobs being eliminated. In a quasi–fast food restaurant like Panera, you could eliminate all the cashier positions and just have one person monitoring the kiosk while everyone else is in the back, invisibly preparing the food and sliding it out to the customer.]

I always hear that although we are the most connected society in history (because of the Internet, faster transportation, social media, etc.), we are also very isolated. It is entirely possible to work completely from home (via the Internet), order everything you need from afar (also via the Internet), and basically never leave the house. Obviously, this is incredibly convenient, but our biology dictates that we are social creatures. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all need some type of human interaction to be fulfilled (Skype, TeamSpeak, and social media don’t count). To cut yourself off is to make yourself miserable.

I know I’m probably making a big deal out of nothing, but sometimes it does seem as though with all our “progress,” we are forgetting what makes life fun and surprising. Sometimes it’s those little interactions with a cashier or with the greeter at Walmart or with that random person you see in the street that can make your day. Being isolated in front of a computer screen can sink you into a dark depression in such a gradual way that before you know it, you’re so used to being alone that you cannot bear the thought of any other alternative. You think you’re just fine, then you speak to a real-life person and realize how much you’re missing by not being present in the world.***

*I love the word kiosk. It sounds so nice when you say it.

**My brother works in a grocery store, and based on what he says, people are very skilled at stealing and would probably still do so no matter how many employees were watching.

***This post is more or less a warning to myself: don’t use the self-serve kiosk!

4 thoughts on “Isolation and Interaction

  1. I worry about isolation too, Maggie. I can go for days without talking to anyone and crave a little human contact. A few seconds of small talk with a barista or cashier can be nice, and non-threatening. I have to admit though, sometimes I use those kiosks and the self- checkout lines in order to avoid people. I can’t tell you how much Netflix and Redbox changed my life.

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  2. I remember Andy Warhol writing about his dream of the AndyMat, where people would get their food and then sit and eat in a little cubicle with a TV set and never have to interact with anybody (which we’ve kind of ended up with, except with smartphones instead of television sets).

    He always affected to dislike human interaction, but I just read that one thing he was very quiet about was that he was a practicing Catholic and worked every Sunday in a soup kitchen. So, not so isolated after all.

    In terms of what your brother says, he’s right. Losses due to stealing, in that sort of situation, are really just part of the cost of doing business. Some people will always find a way to take the five-finger discount.

    And I guarantee that calculations have been made, comparing 1) how much it would cost to hire more security staff, vs. 2) how much would be saved by reducing, by a particular amount, the losses.

    If the cost is more than the projected savings, then you live with the status quo.

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    • Sometimes we probably feel as though we are more isolated than we actually are–we look at everyone else’s life based on their Facebook and their Instagram and they always seem to be having a swell time with others. But that’s not the reality.
      And for the amount of stealing that goes on, probably not worthwhile to hire more people to prevent it.

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