A Look On the Lighter Side: For human contact, your choices have changed

A Look On the Lighter Side: For human contact, your choices have changed

“Welcome to our automated system,” the computer chirped at me over the phone. “Please listen carefully because our menu choices have changed.”

Some choice! According to a recent article in The New York Times, computers are taking over more and more aspects of life, from teaching school kids to answer phone calls to caring for the very old. I was just about ready to blow this computer up.

“If you are calling to open a new account, press one. If you are calling about payment on an existing account, press two. To return to the main menu, press….”

Unfortunately, my problem didn’t quite fit into any of their neat little menu numbers. I voiced what I needed: “Supervisor!”

The jaunty little machine voice replied, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand that. If you are calling to open a new account, press one…”

I should correct my earlier statement. The computers are invading every area of American life except one: the precincts of the very rich. And it’s either ironic or creepy that it’s the very people who have created this wall of mirrors around us — the billionaire entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley — who choose not to live this way, themselves.

“In Silicon Valley, time (spent by children) on screens is increasingly seen as unhealthy,” says The Times. “Here, the popular elementary school is the local Waldorf School, which promises a back-to-nature, nearly screen-free education.”

Wealthy parents want their children playing with real wooden blocks, not virtual ones. Well, of course they do! What fun is there in toppling your playmate’s tower of blocks when it’s just a virtual picture on a screen?

There are apparently lots of studies showing that too much time spent on screens — more than two hours a day — corresponds with lower test scores for thinking and language. It may even affect the physical development of children’s brains.

Bill and Melinda Gates’ own children were not allowed to have cell phones of their own until they were 14.

So, while the rest of us are forced to beg computerized programs to renew our prescriptions, or give us an actual appointment with our doctor, rich people don’t bother with any of that. They want to deal with humans.

Or, as the article put it, “Human contact is becoming a luxury good.”

That got my attention. Nurses, teachers, sales clerks — all luxuries.

Does that mean they’ll be exotic and prized — like polo ponies? Let’s hope that, unlike the polo ponies, the teachers and nurses will at least get themselves a piece of that money.

Of course, I suspect that the kind of “human contact” rich people want is the kind they can fire whenever it gets problematic. Polo ponies can’t ask for a raise, or for time off to visit a sick relative.

As for the rest of us, the “non-luxury goods,” I’m afraid we are in for a lot more automation in our lives. The article mentioned an automated healthcare avatar that nagged its 68-year-old patient whenever it “saw” him drinking soda instead of water. Automation has even been taken to horrifying extremes — as when a doctor “robot” (i.e. a doctor on a screen, speaking from miles away) rolled into a patient’s hospital room recently to give him the bad news that he was terminal. Talk about having no bedside manner — there was no one even to hold the man’s hand.

My biggest concern is that young people — by which I mean anyone younger than me, but especially my children — will not know how to communicate with other humans.

They might not even know how to dispute a bill. All this automating means that no one will ever be there to answer pesky questions like, “How do you know that?” or “I don’t see my problem anywhere on this list.”

And good luck asking to speak to a supervisor.

Good luck even if you get one! In my particular call, I finally managed to locate a human being. But as soon as she asked me why I was calling, and I replied, “It’s about your recent correspondence,” she stopped me short.

“A recent what?” she said. She had never heard of the word “correspondence.”

I had no choice. I asked for her supervisor.

“I don’t have one,” she replied.

“Really?” I was incredulous. “You have no supervisor? So, if you decided not to show up for work tomorrow, are you telling me no one would notice?”

She exercised her human prerogative. She hung up on me.

Perhaps I would have done better with the machine.

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