“People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.”
– E.M. Forster’s 1909
science fiction short story
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“The Machine Stops”
Audrey Williams is someone who, just by being who she is, shows us what we once had and what we are losing.
Almost since the day when Safeway opened its store at Webster Street and Geary Boulevard in San Francisco in 1983, Audrey has been a checker dispensing warmth and cheer to customers.
Most days Audrey, a 69-year-old great-grandmother, wears magnificent headdresses that she creates out of woven pieces of fabric.
All this – her ebullient manner and costumes – isn’t to be found at other local neighborhood markets, which increasingly cater to San Francisco’s affluent inhabitants.
So I see the exit of Audrey, who says she likely will retire this year, as emblematic of where our society is headed: more machines, less contact with humans. At Audrey’s Safeway, there already are six self-checkout lines.
This is part of a larger trend. Elon Musk and other investors committed $1 billion toward development of “a machine capable of performing any intellectual task that a human being can,” Bloomberg News reported last month.
Recalling the world a few decades ago, I think I first felt the loss of human interaction at the gas station, where attendants no longer filled your tank. The arrival of the ATMs was my next signpost. Today I use ATMs regularly, and almost never deal with bank tellers.
On any street in any city, you see people hurrying along, their faces buried in their phones. Adding to the Orwellian texture of this visual, more people seem to be wearing black these days.
Marcia Basalla, the office manager in my dentist’s office, complains that when she sees people in coffee shops or anywhere else, they are often so immersed in their phones that they view any attempt to make small talk as an unwanted intrusion.
“Before, we lived without all this technology, and now people feel they can’t live without their phones,’’ Basalla said. “They can’t be without it. When the cellphone towers go down, what are people going to do?”
To my sons, who grew up with gas stations without attendants and with the ever-expanding presence of ATMs and smartphones, this is the way life is.
Wishing to be an optimist and not desiring to be a Luddite, I want to believe I worry too much about the effect of machinery on mankind and that I am attaching too much meaning to the departure of Audrey.
But we will lose something special when she and people like her leave and are replaced by machines that perform any intellectual task now done by humans. No machine will ever think to put on one of Audrey’s wild headdresses.
I do what I can to fight back. I try to keep my nose out of my cellphone and stop to gaze at every sunset I see. I’ll also make a point of getting in Audrey’s checkout line for as long as she is there.
Susan Sward is a San Francisco-based freelance writer, whose most recent piece for The Sacramento Bee, “Nature provides a salve for the soul,” ran on Jan. 1. firstname.lastname@example.org