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There is a difference between utilizing technology to create efficiencies and to dissolve perfectly natural, human connections. I encountered that difference two weeks ago at LaGuardia Airport.
Arriving at Terminal C an hour before my flight home to visit my parents, I wanted to grab an iced coffee on my walk over to my gate. I knew the terminal was undergoing serious renovations and had been so since 2012. Each time I traveled, I was struck by yet another change — the expansive food court, the multitude of phone charging stations, the iPads built into seating booths near some of the gates. And on this trip, I experienced the latest installation — “automated” ordering and paying at the corner coffee and convenience stores.
I walked up to the coffee counter — yesss, no line! — and made eye contact with the barista to begin placing my order.
“Hi, can I please have a –“
“I”m sorry ma’am, I can’t help you,” she cut me off. “You need to type your order into the screen.”
I stared back at her with what I assume was a completely blank expression on my face.
“Well wait, what are you ordering?” she asked.
“Just an iced coffee,” I replied.
“Oh, then yeah, you have to use the screen,” she said as she turned away from me and pointed to her right, where the ordering tablet was located.
Miffed but still wanting my coffee, I obliged, finding “cold brew” in the digital menu, submitting my order and taking the receipt it printed for me. Well, that was unnecessary, I mumbled to myself as I walked to the other end of the counter where the barista already had my iced coffee prepared for me. She turned away from me before I could offer a quick “thank you,” so I made my way over the the cash register (why ordering and paying couldn’t be done at the same time, I do not know).
Standing idly next to the two cash registers, which were actually additional tablets, was yet another woman. She must have noticed my intention, because before I could even open my mouth, she said, “I’m sorry ma’am, I can’t help you. You must use the screen.” Really?!
It turns out that she could help me when I couldn’t get the barcode from my first receipt to scan on the second tablet to pay for the most frustrating iced coffee of my life. Also, “cash” and “register” are two words that can no longer be placed next to one another — that whopping $3.48 went on my credit card despite my protests because tablets do not accept cash (duh). Coffee in hand, I shuffled through the terminal feeling the most perplexing combination of confusion, rage and isolation. FROM THE MOST MUNDANE PURCHASE EVER.
While this rant pertains to what I normally consider to be a non-event, I feel like the implications behind my coffee-buying experience speak volumes about a new way we are using technology — and not for the better. Technology obviously serves to automate certain jobs, but some jobs simply shouldn’t be automated.
The role of a barista, for example, is typically a personal one — at least the way I’ve come to appreciate it. You exchange greetings, share your name, receive one of the most important beverages of the day just the way you like it and say thank you. That simple-but-pleasant connection is no less efficient than this “automated” system; in fact, I’m pretty convinced man handles it better than machine. Yes, we can actually take an order, fulfill it and operate a cash register in a third of the time it took these three tablet installations and two disengaged employees two weeks ago.
Now I understand that the change is new to LaGuardia, and that requiring a person to stand there and parrot, “Use the screen, use the screen,” is only a temporary solution until people come to expect that that’s how it’s done. However, I DON’T WANT TO COME TO EXPECT THAT. I don’t want another machine replacing another human connection, no matter how small or short that connection may be. We talk about “disconnecting from technology to reconnect with others,” but changes like this achieve the exact opposite.
Call me old-fashioned. Call me intolerant. But I want to order and pay for my coffee with another human being, not a collection of cold, redundant and incredibly irritating glowing machines. Is that so much to ask?
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The Third Metric