“I like to be reminded this city survives because of these machines. These machines keep us alive, while other machines are coming to kill us. Interesting, isn’t it? The power to give life, and the power to end it.”
-Councillor Harmann, The Matrix Reloaded
Digital Automation Has Benefits And Detriments
I had an interesting revelation the other morning.
There I was, standing near the checkout in the Giant Eagle in Dublin. I was picking up some breakfast croissants and coffee before heading in to continue packing up our office equipment.
As I weighed my options, I noticed only one manned check-out register. But 7 of the automatic scanners were available.
If you only have a few items, the automatic scanners are great; you scan, you pay, you pack, and you go. However, if you have a problem, they only exacerbate the issue and gum up the works. Digital automation is great for the simple tasks that can be… well, automated.
Anyway, I chose the convenient path and went for the scanner. I scanned my stuff, following the directions of the female robot voice, paid my money, and packed up my items. That’s when I noticed that there were 6 other scanning stations with people all doing the same thing; scanning, paying, packing, and going.
Here’s what they weren’t doing; making small talk, looking at other people, interacting with other people, or smiling!
However, that wasn’t the big revelation.
The Unseen Cost of Digital Automation
Many of the services now automated by machines were once performed by people. We have automatic teller machines doing our banking. We have scanning stations at the grocery checkout replacing cashiers where you simply scan, pay, pack, and go. Our petrol stations allow for quick tank fill-ups by allowing drivers to pay at the island and pump their own gas.
Here’s the big revelation.
Before the turn of the century, people performed all of the above services, and more. And back then, those mundane activities forced us to look at people we didn’t know, and learn how to interact with them.
Prior to automating those services, we had to engage other people, and we learned how to be civil. In those situations, we learned how to start a conversation with another person. We practiced how to greet other people by looking at them in the eyes and shaking their hands. We observed how to smile and project our personality. And we learned to listen for verbal cues so we could tell when the other person was finishing their thoughts.
Our children learn how to behave in our society by observing and mimicking adult interactions. So, what are we teaching our children today? We are teaching them how to swipe a screen. We’re teaching them how to shout at other people and browbeat those with a different point of view. We are showing them how to rush through life avoiding people who don’t look like us. And we’re showing them that they don’t need to respect the views of other people because compromise is a “dirty word.”
As Digital Automation Grows, Find Other Ways To Interact With People
In the past decade, we’ve accelerated the use of digital technology to automate mundane activities, increasing productivity and reducing costs. Now, I’m all for progress and using technology to free people from the tyranny of the mundane. However, we need to acknowledge that an unforeseen consequence has been the erosion of our interpersonal and communication skills.
Those mundane interactions we rarely gave a second thought were really learning laboratories where we learned how to communicate with people. We are human beings. And human beings learn what works by trial and error.
If we continue using digital technology to automate repetitive tasks and free ourselves from the tyranny of the mundane, then we need other ways to practice our interpersonal and communication skills.
The Dale Carnegie Course is a cutting-edge program in time-spaced adult learning. As instructors, we’ve always offered professionals and business owners options to enhancing their interpersonal and communication skills. But we’ve also assumed participants had a certain level of proficiency in speaking and interacting with other people. In my opinion, current and future instructors will need to enhance their approach. We can no longer simply be trainers and facilitators in the classroom. We’ll also need to be long-term coaches, offering our clients ideas and practices to enhance their relationships with their friends, family, and business contacts.
This is our new reality, the integration of our humanity and technology. Having one does not preclude the existence of the other. We can’t regress to a less enlightened era. Instead, let’s use our tech to bring us together and solve the larger challenges in our global society.