Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Convenience Zombies

I have written about this topic before, but found the following article fairly compelling. As someone who has a foot in the technological world, but who readily chooses substance over convenience, I found these words to ring very true:

Convenience seems to come at the price of interaction — the sort of day-to-day interactions that make us a part of our communities. Instead of chatting with the person at the grocery store check-out we do battle with the automated self check-out machine. Instead of going to a teller at the bank we find any old ATM to do our banking. Jobs that involve serving the public are quickly disappearing as they are replaced by machines and internet-based services. And I can’t help worrying that the increased lack of human interaction is going to be socially detrimental and isolating.

I really believe that these daily interactions mean something, and I believe that they add richness to my life. I’ve recently heard that Blockbuster is going under and that NetFlix will soon be our primary movie procuring option, and I have to say that I’m very sad about this. In fact, my regular Sunday night trip to the local Blockbuster to pick out a movie with my husband has become something that we both cherish. After dinner we set out on a short walk to the store and hope that “Movie Guy” will be there.

“Movie Guy” is our most trusted Blockbuster employee who can always be counted on to provide excellent recommendations for movies both new and old. It seems that he’s seen every movie ever made and has detailed opinions about all of them. I’m not going to invite Movie Guy to my next birthday party, but we have a relationship nonetheless. It’s a relationship based on similar taste in films, on a shared sense of humour, and on one person doing his job really well and other people benefiting from that person’s expertise.

Ironically, it wasn't too long ago that Blockbuster was the convenience store of movies, putting independent after independent out of business. In fact, some of those Movie Guys had been, at one time, owners of their own rental places, which served not only as businesses, but gathering places for movie fanatics. So, one might view Blockbuster as an intermediate step on the process of moving towards full privatization and individualization.

This is one of the reasons why I have withheld complete support for a view that suggests a person can rely solely on internet resources or books to fuel their spiritual practice. Even a tiny group of people meditating together, yoga together, or studying sacred texts together has an effect one really can't come by doing it all "alone."

Beyond that, though, the larger issue is really the general struggle with community many of us have. Perhaps it won't be a big deal if, for example, Netflix takes over the movie rental industry. In and of itself, it's not terribly important. However, it does play into a trend of ease, that is coupled with isolation and a "checking out" of formerly everyday interactions.

A few months ago, I stepped up to the check out counter at our local library to borrow some movies. The woman behind the desk said, "Have you tried our individual check out yet?" I turned around and saw the row of computer check outs that are rapidly replacing interaction with a live person in our libraries. I wanted to say "Yes, but I prefer working with you." Instead, I just said "Yes" and she proceeded to pull the movies out of their covers, while saying "we're trying to get our numbers up on the check out machines."

The first thing I thought was "Aren't you concerned about your job disappearing?" Although it is the case that librarians are diversifying their skill sets these days, which is a positive, it's also the case that budgets are getting cut routinely. Underwriting billionaires to build new football stadiums seems to be more important than keeping libraries open and filled with intelligent, friendly staff folks.

After that initial thought, I felt a bit of sadness, noting how these kinds of interactions are slowly being whittled away by computerization, and unfortunately, we aren't doing a great job of shifting to a different mode of interacting with each other.

Again, I think it's more the general shift going on that's alarming, as opposed to any specific interaction. I have seen some librarians, for example, spending more time helping people locate information and resources vital to their well-being - so perhaps there a lag I'm witnessing there, which in the end, will result in much more interactive community libraries.

But I'm not sure it's a lag that can be generalized to the broader picture.

The world is obsessed with connectivity. Everyone needs an iPhone, instant access to email and text messages, instant access to products and information and yet I get the sense that we’re all more disconnected than ever. Sure, we can get 60 text messages a minute from our closest friends, but we avoid human beings in public like lepers. We plug up our ears, glue our eyes to our phones, and block out the random people who fill our days. We reject them thoroughly, then go back to our concrete boxes to eat dinner in front of TVs instead of with our families. We know a thousand methods for keeping in touch but we’ve forgotten how to reach out. We’ve forgotten how to say saying hello to the person sitting next to us on the bus simply because they’re sharing our space for awhile.

I would like to think we are in a transition period, where people are still trying to find the balance point working with the new technologies we have. But so much seems accelerated these days, and it takes more effort to be ok with not keeping up with it all. I see it even with people who are dedicated to slowing down, to practicing meditation and other spiritual practices, to prioritizing paying attention over production and speed. All of that is at odds with the demands of their workplace, or their families, or some other vital part of their lives.

In fact, I can see it in myself, having spent the past three or four years advocating with others that our Zen Center get more "online" and "connected with the outside world." It's not that this is a bad thing, but that it has forced a few folks, including our head teacher, to plug into technology in ways they might have not chosen to without the pressure coming from us. And while I believe we are correct to be moving in this direction, it has brought up all sorts of questions about how to apply the ancient teachings that are supposed to guide our lives to what we are doing online.

While my own experiences and learning probably makes me more optimistic than the author of the article I am quoting above, I do think there are more and more people who have become "Convenience Zombies." You even see it amongst people coming to zen centers and yoga studios. "Just teach me how to meditate. Just tell me how to move my body. No ritual. No archaic texts. I want to feel better NOW."

It's all a cause for pause. Because those disappearing "Movie Guys" are symbolic of a larger trend, one that we really might want to reconsider, even if it means slowing things down a bit.


Karmic Mishap said...


I like this post, thanks for sharing these thoughts and experiences.

I, too, am a modern human in a city, so I must also deal with the things you speak of. It is interesting to me, because I make an effort to look at people and at least acknowledge them non-verbally (usually with a nod or wave), but in today's urban environment, this is often looked upon as rude behavior.

I think that one force driving this trend is urbanization itself, combined with cultural heterogeneity. People in my city, for example, are from many different cultures, and, as such, don't all share the same mores on what's polite behavior in public. Women from some cultures could see even my small acknowledgement that they exist as some sort of invasive and perverted gesture.

Worse yet, for any individual, there are likely to be some people in the urban environment who will disapprove of them based on such things as sex, race, gender, clothing, etc., and This contributes a great deal to the issues you refer to. Many people I know share my opinion that the average stranger on the street has zero right to judge my behavior or appearance, and so many folks take the step of simply blocking those people out so their cultural opprobrium cannot affect them unduly.

A very interesting component to all this, as you mentioned, is the role played by telecommunications technologies. I think that they really do promote connection, but that they allow people to Choose who they connect with and attribute importance to, rather than being stuck with the people in their geographical location.

I wish people would pay more attention to their surroundings, but I can surely understand the defense mechanisms that keep them from doing so. It's dangerous to acknowledge others in an urban environment, one could be emotionally damaged or physically assaulted. Today, it's too dangerous for many people to be themselves in person with strangers.

In closing, I like the old Oscar Wilde quote in this regard:
"Give a man a mask, and he'll tell you the truth." Thanks again for your great blog posting!

NellaLou said...

Different cities have different mores. Some value the social connections while others are more individually oriented. Around the world it is different, some societies are based on social contact and the cities thrive on that. But even in North America there are differences. I find the East coast of the US and central Canada to be socially cold while west coast and mid-west much more socially engaged.

Convenience is certainly a factor. We have to make an effort, and not necessarily at a time of our choosing, to be social. Retreating into a bubble, whether it is a cultural bubble or one of our own personal convenience and comfort, adds to isolation which stokes the fear narrative that we are fed daily.

For some reason this post brought to mind the lines from Eliot's poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The whole poem speaks to this alienation, the illusory dream-like nature of our little bubbles, the overwhelmingness of human interaction and the fear of each other that is often dominating our lives.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Nathan said...

Wow - Wilde and Eliot quotes. Pretty cool! Thank you both.

Karmic - "It is interesting to me, because I make an effort to look at people and at least acknowledge them non-verbally (usually with a nod or wave), but in today's urban environment, this is often looked upon as rude behavior." This is something I have really noticed in recent years. Sometimes, I'm feeling outgoing and friendly, and that goes right into how I interact with strangers. And it's quite a mixed bag of responses. What's funny is that I seem to "fit in" more when I'm emotionally down because bodily, I become more restricted in movement and expression. Kind of makes me wonder about the connections between surroundings and "internal landscape."

Nella Lou - I certainly have experienced those geographical differences you've talked about. Although what's interesting is that I'm from the Midwest, and most of my experience is coming from living here. However, compared to some other places I have been in the U.S., strangers are more friendly here. My experiences in Canada have been mostly positive, but I can't say I've seen a lot of Canada.

Petteri Sulonen said...

I'm one of the people who doesn't miss "cashiers" -- i.e., person-to-person interactions with people involving quick, routine transactions. Like checkouts. Things that can and are easily being automated.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is that such interactions are deeply embedded into the power structures of the society we live in. One party is vastly more powerful than the other. I'm the customer, and the customer is always right, especially if the other party is an underpaid, disposable, low-skilled worker doint a menial service job. That alone robs the interaction of much of its human dimension and perhaps even reinforces the fucked-up ways we deal with each other.

I do like the little interactions where the power asymmetry isn't as big. And... at least where I live, those kinds of interactions don't seem endangered at all.

I live next door to a market. I buy fish there. From a stall run by a fishermen's collective selling their own catch. They're rightly proud of their very fresh fish. They know me, and they know the kind of fish I like. I know that if I want, say, filleted pike-perch, it's best to come on Friday afternoon because they've just prepared them for Saturday morning's rush.

They seem to enjoy chatting with us, giving us tips and suggestions and, of course, preparing the fish however we like. We enjoy these interactions too. There's lots of us. And that's just one example. I have similar interactions with the people who cut my hair, the people at the Vietnamese and Kurdish shops, the people at the Nepalese lunch place. If I go to the library, I can self-check-out, but the librarians there are always thinking of new fun stuff to do there, they always have time to chat about books, they like to take suggestions, and so on.

Simply put: I don't think automation or the Internet is to blame. It's just plain ol' power relations. If we changed the rules, automation really could free us from mindless drudgery and let us do more of the stuff that makes life worth living. Meaningful stuff, like helping someone discover the world of books, providing someone with really fresh fish, or cutting someone's hair in such a way that his wife smiles at him when he gets home.

Perhaps then there wouldn't be such a need for escapism, even.

Nathan said...

"Simply put: I don't think automation or the Internet is to blame. It's just plain ol' power relations. If we changed the rules, automation really could free us from mindless drudgery and let us do more of the stuff that makes life worth living."

I think this is a great point. I totally agree that some of the things that can be automated probably should be. No doubt the whole "customer is right" view creates a barrier between the average cashier or grunt-level employee in large stores and anyone shopping there. Hell, I have been that employee before, and would rather not return to such a job.

Part of the challenge, though, also lies within the power structures. Automation has been a great excuse for cutting piles of jobs, and then shifting the money saved upward. The whole stick in automated cashiers at the chain grocery store, and give your CEO another fancy house on some island.

So, I think there's both a need to help folks get more creative about what constitutes work - which is something I'm really interested in right now - and also figuring out ways to break through the current power structure more, so choices around automation, for example, doesn't automatically also mean piles of newly unemployed people.

Petteri Sulonen said...

"So, I think there's both a need to help folks get more creative about what constitutes work - which is something I'm really interested in right now - and also figuring out ways to break through the current power structure more, so choices around automation, for example, doesn't automatically also mean piles of newly unemployed people."

Absolutely. Technology itself is value-neutral. It can be used for good or for evil. The trouble is that we think of a company, for example, in really stupid terms -- that its function is to provide value to shareholders, and that's it. What about providing gainful employment to its employees, valuable services to its customers, good customer relationships to its suppliers, and some socially useful function overall?

From where I'm at, all that is a good deal more important and interesting that shareholder value. What could we do with automation if we approached it from that angle?