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Open the Pod Bay Doors HAL

         I like to write with a pen on paper.  I like food and I like people. I’m a waiter.  I like being a waiter.  I like describing food, writing orders, interacting with customers, giving the order to the cook, serving the food, seeing satisfied families, couples and people.  I like the job.  It fits like a glove.

         I used to work at AT&T and while there I was running Human Resources type sessions about Hertzberg Motivational Hygiene Theory.  The bottom line was that the “Work Itself” is the most compelling reason people are satisfied in a job, and satisfied people stay in their job.  They, AT&T, turned “Work Itself” into it’s exact opposite, but that’s another story.

            Suddenly the Computer has come into the restaurant where I work.  Two input screens.  No more checks.  Scraps of paper and then navigating with fingers on a screen; five layers in to get a diner into the digital world.  Each item is another screen.  Focused on the screen, people become a background blur; a background blur that I don’t want to interact with so as not to screw up my inputting.  Hit SEND, don’t forget to hit SEND, and the order is transmitted to the cooks.  Two terminals at the kitchen end, one for hot and one for cold.  What could possibly go wrong?  I go back to make sure they’ve got the order, and that they have it right.

         My order input time has tripled, and I can’t wait to get away from the people at the table so I can get to the computer screen and get the order in.  I’ve also had to refigure my time dealing with the immediate items like drinks and appetizers verses the main diner items, as the data entry has become an extra step, which is directly visible to the custom.  The data entry is now part of their dining experience. On the second night of operation a customer commented that we ”all looked like a bunch of robots”.  I’ve become a cog in the machine. 

         It just doesn’t feel right.  I don’t feel right.  There’s an anxiety that I feel when I get to the screen.  It’s not like writing or surfing on a computer.  It’s physically touching a screen to input information that is hierarchically absurd.  If one hits the wrong button or makes a mistake, backing out of it is way more cumbersome than getting in to it.

         The morning after the new system was installed, the NY Times had a front-page story with a picture of a sleek white plastic robot waiter in Japan serving drinks to ladies in a cocktail lounge.  Later that night I was channel surfing through the movie “Terminator 3” when the good guys plugged into Skynet in order to save the world and inadvertently doomed the world, since the people that make movies and videos use different software for this, including programs for video transcoding which are useful for this.  Quoting Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot”, in the August 2018 Common Ground “Everything, it seems, depends on HMI, the HUMAN-MACHINE-INTERFACE.  In a world increasingly controlled by smart machines, who will be master and who will be slave?”

         With the introduction of the Human-Machine-Interface, “Work Itself” is now dominated by the Screen.  We fit into it. The giant steel and iron frame of the industrial era has been replaced with an interactive screen that demands our absolute attention. The machine has taken over.  

         My wife worked in Hospice home care for many years. 
Toward the end of her career, an MBA took over for the company that was originally run by a nurse administrator.   The new “bean counter” in charge, increased the nurse’s workload by 50%, while increasing the marketing and IT sections.  More computer time, less people time.  Humanity sacrificed for efficiency.

         I’ve also been watching the decline in human contact during my weekly supermarket shopping.  The clerks used to take my money or credit card, run the transaction, and give me back my receipt or change, with a brief exchange of words and smiles.   Now, with the new improved Screen experience, the clerk stares at the cash register screen, while I, the customer, navigate through the credit card screen.  Neither of us talks nor makes eye contact, as we each stare at our individual screens until the transaction is complete.  “Thank you and have a nice day.”

         Casey Schwartz’s “Save Us From Our Phones” (NYTimes 8/16/18), “The liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our times”, writes James Williams, a Silicon Valley-type philosopher in “Stand Out of Our Light”.   We are transfixed by our screens, thumbs twitching, lost in traffic, lost on the street.   A week before Christmas 2017 there was a published study about the street traffic on Fifth Avenue in NYC.  It seems as if “walking while texting” or simply being on the phone, is causing pedestrian blockages and slowing down the rushing masses.  A savvy world traveler once compared lunchtime on Fifth Avenue to a crowded street in India.  We have this jam-packed moving mass of people and half of them are now on their phones, with their attention totally on the machine.  It was bad enough to start, it only gets worse.

         As I’ve shared this essay with a few people, the most common response is an all too familiar recognition that this indeed is also their experience.  They then usually start to recount their experience, and the doctor or nurse interaction is the most common.  Where the doctor used to come into the room, look you in the eye and ask you about your condition, they are now on the machine within seconds of a “hello”.  An individual told me that they we’re so annoyed by the doctor being focused on the computer while doing the interview, that they took out their phone and started checking messages.

         Somewhere in all this mayhem and alienation, somebody is doing very well.  I suspect it’s the bean counters within the industries and the heads of the software companies.  For a brief period during my earlier years I flirted with becoming an “efficiency expert” or Industrial Engineer.  I was involved with a series of projects where I was able to maximize people’s efficiency in order to produce financially positive results.  In all cases, I started with the individual and build the working arrangements around them.  In all cases, the “Work Itself” improved and the financial results proved it out. 

         I look around at the situation I’m currently in, at the grocery store, at the doctor’s office, all around me, and it looks like the opposite of “efficiency”.  The accountants in the back room or managers in the Executive Suite are making the decisions based on what they perceive to be the “bottom line”.  “Hit One Button” to get your final results, it saves time.  It doesn’t matter that it took more time at the front end, because those are the “low level” workers interacting with the customers or clients.  It save time at the back end and the folks in the back room are running the show.

         It’s like the Wizard behind the curtain in “The Wizard of Oz”, putting on a ferocious face in order to keep you in line.  You somehow become out of step if you’re not keeping up.  The genie is out of the bottle, and we forgot to consult with our ethicist before letting him out.

“Open the Pod Bay Door HAL…I’m Sorry Dave , I can’t do that.”