Creative Destruction

March 24, 2007

Faceless Transactions vs. the Human Touch

Filed under: Content-lite — Brutus @ 11:57 am

I’ve grown weary over the years of the number of ways corporations have taken human interaction out of regular business transactions. The most irritating example for me is the telephone customer service line. It frequently takes a ridiculously long time to navigate through the maze to “Press 3 for all other inquiries” to get to an actual person. It’s an utter waste of time. Other examples include the ATM, the self-check out lane at the grocery, and the venerable vending machine.

I’m not wholly opposed to every time-saving efficiency dreamed up by technologists. Vending machines, for instance, never bothered me, and the ATM is pretty good, especially when banks charge “teller fees.” However, there is something to be said for simple face-to-face human interaction, which machines simply can’t replicate. Given a choice, I’ll stand in line a few minutes at the grocery before I go to the self-check out. Why? It’s purposely so that I can exchange a few words and jokes with the clerk. It’s a simple gesture, but I want to feel like a person rather than a mere transaction, and based on the positive response of most clerks, they appreciate being treated like real people, too, rather than being reduced solely to the function they perform by customers who treat them like machines.

In the comments to a previous post, Brandon Berg wrote:

[I]f you really want to spend the extra time and money just to have a chat with a stranger about his daughter’s soccer game, you can always call up a travel agent. But really, the world runs a lot more smoothly when we don’t insist on making a box social out of every transaction. Then we can take the time and money we save on faceless transactions like these and spend them with the people we really care about.

This logic is unassailable, but the ethic behind it strikes me as cold (not particularly so but in that blithe, passive sense of people who don’t ordinarily care about others as people). Not every social transaction, if you will, is deep and sincere, but even small, quaint interaction with others beats the anonymity and indifference we experience in most human society.

When I first began riding the Chicago L to work everyday, I was surprised how folks, even when pressed close to each other in a full train, adopt a strictly no conversation, no eye contact wall of impassivity. Outside of rush hour and when the train is stopped due to some delay, it’s curious to see how that rigidity breaks down and people start recognizing others around them in various ways. We become social animals again, but only after specific triggers that experienced riders internalize over time. Under normal conditions, we act as though essentially alone in a crowd.

Another revealing microcosm is the lunchtime gauntlet at the various fast food franchises featuring what I call sandwich builders. It could be Subway, Chipotle, Pot Belly’s, or some other joint where you enter on one end, bark your selections to the builders, and eventually pay up and get out of the way. The business model is to serve as many people between 11:30 AM and 2 PM or so, while downtown is populated with workers, because many of the franchises aren’t even open at dinnertime (downtown empties out). So the sandwich builders push the materials through the assembly line as quickly as possible and extract only the needed information from patrons (mayo? lettuce? black beans or pinto?). Pity the poor diner who doesn’t have a quick answer. Even worse, pity the poor sandwich builder, who is limited to a dreary function. Once in a while, it’s possible to observe that they interact with each other in a sort of esprit du corps, but they almost never speak to people ordering food in any significantly human manner.

All of this goes to a collapse of community we in large, efficient, modern cities experience every day. (Fast food in small town America is much more leisurely, in my experience.) The effect is chronicled in a book by Robert Putnam titled Bowling Alone. It’s on my reading list and I haven’t gotten to it yet, but I’m sympathetic to the ideas in the book as described by the book reviews and reader comments. Most of us appear to be willing to trade social networks and the human touch for greater efficiency. Few of recognize what we’re giving up in the process.


  1. Most of us appear to be willing to trade social networks and the human touch for greater efficiency. Few of recognize what we’re giving up in the process.

    Er, I think we recognize it. We’re giving up social networks and the human touch, because – like you just said – we’re willing to make that trade.

    For most people, social networks and the human touch are valuable things to have, but we primarily get them from our families, friends, or coworkers. Like you, I enjoy chatting with the cashiers at Safeway. (We have a running joke: they ask if I want help taking my bags out, and I respond that I want a line of dancing girls and elephants and fire jugglers. They laugh and say they don’t have that; I pretend to get mad and say that if they aren’t going to even TRY to fulfill my requests, what’d they ask me for in the first place?)

    But the cashiers at Safeway aren’t my family, and if someone invented a way for me to save (say) ten minutes every day by redesigning the store so that there was no checkout process, I’d take that deal. Ten more minutes to be with my family is worth more than sharing a joke with Karl the checker. I’d be quite aware of the tradeoff I was making, too.

    Comment by Robert — March 24, 2007 @ 12:15 pm | Reply

  2. I find the “navigate through 200 irrelevant options to finally get to someone who can answer your question” phone game annoying too. But I tend to think of it as an example of what happens when an automatic system is badly designed rather than an argument against automatization. I don’t enjoy interacting with tellers, store clerks, airline employees, or random strangers on the subway. I’d rather have the spare time to spend with my family or even, FSM forbid, by myself. If I want to interact with strangers I’d rather do it over the internet where I can safely go away if I get tired of or bored or uncomfortable with the interaction. Face to face contact with stangers is overrated. Most of them smell.

    Comment by Dianne — March 24, 2007 @ 4:36 pm | Reply

  3. Many of those corporate voice-recognition systems appear coded to understand several common profanities. At least, I have found more than once, after navigating around unable to find what I’m looking for and barking a few expletives, I get routed to a live human being.

    It didn’t work for Verizon, though 😦

    Comment by S. Weasel — March 25, 2007 @ 2:06 pm | Reply

  4. The trick I use for Qwest’s automated voice-recognition system is to repeatedly pound the 0 button on the phone. Works in 30 seconds flat.

    Sadly, when you call Qwest, all swearing does is make the computer say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand what you said.” Which, of course, only makes you swear more.

    Comment by Off Colfax — March 26, 2007 @ 1:36 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: