Self Serve

There are no self-serve gas stations in Richmond, BC.  This is a rare but not unique circumstance; another Vancouver suburban municipality, Coquitlam, has none either, and both Oregon and New Jersey in the U.S. have only full service stations.  The reasons seem to vary—supposed fire hazard (while pumping), increased employment, cultural aims in the case of Oregon—and I’m generally sympathetic to the idea of giving someone a job, as opposed to inserting a card into a machine.

But the other day, while driving through Richmond on a near-empty tank, I found myself thinking, ‘Nah, I’ll just keep going into Vancouver, where I can fill up without having to talk to another human being.’  And I should add that the cost of gas is no higher in Richmond than it is in Vancouver; it is in fact sometimes cheaper.

Just another case of technology isolating us, playing very effectively into the fact that social interaction requires effort, and wherever technology allows us to avoid that effort, the need follows.  Technology feeds itself; we merely provide the food.

Our relationship with technology, especially digital technology, is invariably complex, and it’s difficult at times to know where the causation lies.  Here’s an article about a classical musician performing on stage who notices an audience member recording his performance with a phone.  ‘Is this good or bad?’ he wonders.  His answer is that it is both, and so the conundrum continues.

Regardless of whether self-serve technology is good or bad, it is of course coming on, full-tilt.  I check my own book out of the library now, sliding the bar code beneath the shimmering red line, and we’ve all seen the self-serve checkouts proliferating at the supermarket, while line-ups grow at the remaining human-attached tills.

As with so much of new technology, there are three stages to the self-serve onslaught: resistance, acceptance, then, as the technology gets us in its unfeeling grip, intransigence.  We no longer want to go back.  The deed is done.  (I’m still in the resistance phase when it comes to self-serve checkouts.)

3360848077_3eb327ab8bThis gnarly relationship extends all the way out, I would suggest, to that which we have with robots, particularly sociable robots.  Theorists make much of autonomy, when trying to define the difference between a computerized machine and a robot, but it’s not an easy line to draw.  Any of us know that an ATM is fully capable of acting autonomously.

But properly sociable robots—the kind which talk, sigh, even tell jokes—have been proven to enhance the emotional and psychological health of seniors in long-term care facilities.  And we are not talking here about only those seniors suffering from some degree of dementia (although those with all their faculties intact are reluctant to admit to their bonding with an automaton).  It seems we are genetically programmed to respond to gesture, facial expression, even tone of voice.  So when these robots raise an eyebrow, smile, purr contentedly, or turn their ‘faces’ to follow us across the room (as they do), we can’t help it.  We buy in.

Undoubtedly these robots are great at reminding us to take our medication, but do we really want them as friends?  Sherry Turkle, M.I.T. Professor of Science and Technology, has asked, “Do we want to make [robots] in such a way that we’re going to love them because they will be pretending to love us?”  Because we should not, in the end, be fooled here; the response we helplessly give to these charming machines, as they push our “Darwinian buttons”, is entirely illusory.  As Turkle puts it, “There’s nobody home.”

My daughter flew from the nest to attend Quest University this fall, a terrific institution where they teach that, in any good debate, the questions are more important than the answers.  So here are a couple of questions to further this small contribution to a much wider ontological debate:

Is a caregiving robot the ultimate in self-serve?

If/when you get there, to that advanced, isolated age, do you want a robot taking care of you?

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