Our Electronic Masters

I got to the post office early today to avoid the long lines at lunch. A homeless man was the only person in front of me. I’d be in and out in minutes. A postal worker came up behind me and asked me if I was just here to mail the packages in my hand. Yes, I nodded hesitantly, knowing what was coming next. He wanted to introduce me to the Post Office’s new auto mailing center. I had purposely avoided it. I had prepared for my standing in line with something to study. I treasure these moments of stillness.

With the enthusiasm of any salesman he walked me through the process. I’d forgotten my glasses so he helped me read the screens and make my choices. In the time it took to go through all the screens twice, the three people who had been behind me in line, finished their business.

The auto mailing center is great if you want to post a package off hours or if you are too impatient for lines. But I resented the extra mental effort and time that self-service required. I had other things than the mechanics of the postal process that I wanted to think about when I was at the post office. Now my trips to the post office are going to be one more place where I have to pay attention to the mundane.

I’m not consistent in my dislike of self-service. I love gas stations where I can conduct my entire transaction at the pump. I marvelled the first time I used the self-checkout counter at Home Depot. But contrarily, I refuse to use the self-checkout at Albertsons (maybe because standing in line there affords a glimpse at the gossip magazines). In those places where I’ve developed strategies for waiting, I am most resistant. The machines do not save me time; they steal time I’ve set aside.

I think I resent having to do it myself. All these mechanisms that enable us also pressure us to be self-reliant. If we can do it, we should do it. I feel so consumed by these little chores that I have no time to pursue anything greater. These machines are here to serve us yet they demand our time and attention. I miss being helped. I miss the human interaction. The polite conversation about the weather. The requisite “Have a nice day.” The machine flashes that on its screen, too. But it doesn’t mean it.

One Response to “Our Electronic Masters”

  1. CMB Responds:

    I’ve been running across more and more of these automated checkout machines and agree with you that it just isn’t the same as interacting with a “real” person. I keep thinking of the clerks who are now looking for another job because they have been replaced. I like to see technology advance as much as anybody else but if I have to do some of the work at the store shouldn’t there be some kind of a discount?

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