Human Cashiers and Other Relics
Musings on The Ruinous Rule of Technology
Driving away from a doctor’s appointment recently, I passed through the parking garage’s exit lane. An older man sat within the little grey payment booth, taking credit cards and doling out unwanted receipts. I had seen him the week before at an earlier visit, but I guess somehow, this time, it struck me. Did he spend hours in the little booth regularly?
Parking booths aren’t exactly a new thing, but I never considered that someone occupies one more than once per week. On this occasion, I pitied his cramped surroundings and unenviable task, the final wallet grab from a stream of exiting patients. I wondered how he must endure the grouchy and harried souls fumbling for wallets—the many excuses and moods, or the lack of eye contact. Even more so, I wondered how he might feel about himself—unnoticed, utilitarian, confined; the way millions of people in similarly boring jobs may feel.
Something basic struck me, though. Here was a living person, possibly bored, but still interacting with an impressive stream of faces and hands. I greatly prefer a living, breathing parking attendant to the automated captors that invariably dislike the way I insert my credit card. This man relieved me of the cold-hearted ticket machine battles; he was real.
My ticket man is not unusual, though. An entire world of people labors faithfully in obscurity, far from the camera-hungry politicians and technology experts who tell the rest of us how to live and move the 21st Century way. There these workers are, doing their assigned part to make the big machine run, attracting little applause for faithfulness in tiresome things. They mow medians, drive UPS trucks or clean airport bathrooms, seldom lauded for making life prettier, faster, or more pleasant for everyone else.
Best of all, these warm-blooded employees are among the last vestiges of real, live human authenticity. They temper and soften the cold digital efficiencies of our modern life. Although the grocery checkout is expedited by the same technology I often loathe, the human cashier who chats, smiles and slides my bread across the scanner puts back some warmth into the experience.
We all encounter mass society’s grumpier efficiencies—Atlanta’s bellowing TSA agents are surely one of the shining examples. They leave us feeling drained because they serve technology’s dictates amid a sea of humans. Even care for our bodies must bow to digital lords; routine medical visits always start with an annoying little touch-screen tablet that I must fill out, time and time again—as though I’m a complete stranger—along with several screens of legalese. I may have willed my house to a lawyer somewhere, only because I badly needed a cavity filled. Whether traveling or seeing doctors, we must waive away our rights to sanity.
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Of course, we still appreciate some things that make the boring parts of life go faster. I used to imagine how wonderful it would be if such-and-such could be zapped to my home, or automated, or something more like the Jetsons’ happy world. What if we stuck a little card in a slot to receive food instantly! Now we do that all the time, although Chick-fil-A at least makes it their “pleasure” to speed us through our meal.
As life becomes a series of QR codes, obscurity only increases, and human contact holds a vintage charm. I line up with the 80-year-olds at CVS when the human cashier is available; I’ll skip on-the-job-training and computer-voice commands in the self-checkout lane. My favorite cashier is a jovial, older black lady to whom every customer is “honey.” She offers all sorts of advice on products, savings, and life in general, as though it’s her own little shop we are browsing.
Sadly, we now expect the mass retailers to exhaust us—we can’t find employees, or the ones they manage to hire behave like bored automatons. Small retailers like my local Ace are a bit of an expensive refuge from such experiences. Nonetheless, even my fancy dog food store now has a self-service checkout, even though I rarely see more than two customers in the store at one time. Last week, I never saw an employee at all; I admire this quaint dog-food honor system, though; and maybe stuffed rawhides aren’t popular for the flash mob crowd.
Perhaps the most egregious example of technology’s ruinous tradeoffs was the govern-sponsored delinquency of education-by-zoom. Our national Covid fears made it easy enough to stay home for a while, until we noticed that our boys couldn’t read or do math; they were instead tutored in multitasking between Google Classroom, Roblox, and other brain drains. Despite its obvious blunting of real intelligence, schools continue to add technology to in-person learning, and they usually brag about it.
Never in the slower days did we consider that there was something life-giving about human interactions, however brief or hum-drum they may be. Little did we imagine that the noble idea of work would be automated or legislated away, requiring little of us in return but signatures, phones, and forms. Now, AI promises to relieve the masses of thinking, as well.
What speed we have gained was long ago surpassed by what we have lost; but life moves much too fast for anyone to notice. For now, we can treasure those relics of a bygone age, the warmth that still powers the big and faceless machine; here’s to the the fast-disappearing and comforting human cashiers.
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