Nancy Colier
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Ctrl Alt Depleted: Our Collective Tech Fatigue is Real

I pulled into the Dunkin’ Donuts off the highway, hoping to purchase some sugared treats so as to sedate my family’s traffic irritation.  I headed in with a long list of orders, from my husband’s simple hot coffee to my daughter’s iced almond latte with 2 hazelnut pumps.  

Inside, families were gathered at two kiosks, tapping at prompts, occasionally requesting help from the two humans behind the counter, and bickering about how to make it work.  After a 10-minute wait, I met the computer screen with whichI would be interacting for the foreseeable future. Multiple icons for food, beverages, and other products awaited, each with its own drop-down of sub tabs, which birthed more sub tabs. I began with the simplest item: coffee, regular, hot.  Locating the “small” icon took time but I’d successfully accomplished my first task, I was winning!  But then came the first obstacle in my Dunkin’ journey: trying to find the tab for decaf.  Finally I gave up and called out to one of the humans. “can you help me get a decaf?”  Rather than taking the order herself, she showed me how to navigate to a separate page with different options. I then moved on to bigger challenges like no-whip chocolate and iced latte, while rapidly losing hope that sedating my family with sugar was going to be possible.

Trying to fulfill the rest of my order required several more S-O-S calls to the nearby humans.  At some point, I was released and took my place among the other humans waiting for our orders to appear.  When my food finally arrived, I checked to make sure the computer had heard me correctly, only to discover that my croissant was missing.  When I inquired, I was informed that the store was out of croissants. “Was anyone going to tell me, or maybe remove the charge for it?” I asked, perplexed.  It was explained that the computer had registered the croissant “purchased” and so it was charged, which is “how the system works.” The employee didn’t know any more than that, but she said I could have a donut instead.  I didn’t want a donut, but I took my donut and left.

An interaction that could have taken a few minutes, had we used old fashioned human communication skills, like language, took 45 minutes. What could have been an easy, simple exchange was a difficult, frustrating, and disempowering experience.  An interaction that could have led to a connection with another human being, instead left me feeling alienated and alone.  

But the goal is not to connect these days, as Bill Campbell, head of Americas at Toshiba explained. The goal is “to reduce the number of necessary interactions with store associates down to as few as possible,” which to me, sounds chilling and contrary to what we need as humans at this moment in history.

It may not be what the stores need either. While the technology was designed to lower labor costs, a.k.a eliminate jobs, kiosks, unfortunately, need frequent assistance from human employees. Some larger stores found that their employee to store ratio increased as a result of the touch screens. Theft is also a major problem.  A 2018 report by Adrian Beck, adviser to the ECR Retail Loss Group, found that stores with self-checkout machines would see losses from theft from 31%-60% higher than the industry average.  

Technology frequently doesn’t do what it’s designed to do, it doesn’t make our lives easier or more efficient. These de-humaned machines make everyday tasks more exhausting and difficult, and simultaneously leave us feeling powerless, consoled only by a donut in our bag that we don’t want.

If you’re also fatigued and disheartened by this new reality, you’re not alone.  But human agency is still a thing; we can change what doesn’t serve us.  And yes, we still do get a say in the matter of our own lives.   

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