2009-09-10 / Sam Bari

Isolation — a societal issue in the computer age

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand
By Sam Bari

The computer age, coupled with a worldwide failing economy, has fostered many changes in the way we live as a society. The bottom line is that we are becoming less societal every day.

Companies are downsizing by outsourcing work. More people are working at home because they can. Many businesses prefer a home worker to a person needing a desk and office space, purely for economic reasons. Any work performed on a computer can be monitored by login and logout times, track changes in word processing, or proof of work by finished assignment.

I have clients in other parts of the country that I have never met and rarely call, yet we have been doing business for nearly a decade by e-mail. Without a doubt, the computer age has made humans less social. Oneon one interaction to establish a relationship is an exception in today’s business arena. It was not that long ago when a one-on-one initial meeting was mandatory to give the involved parties a level of comfort by establishing good will.

Water cooler conversations, coffee breaks, two-hour lunches and happy hour are all activities of a bygone era. We have entered an age where most corporate employees don’t know one another other than through messaging online.

Even personal relationships are often initiated on the Internet. Computer dating and matchmaking is a billion dollar industry, more so now with the advent of computer video cameras and databases that verify identity and credibility.

The last bastion of societal interaction was the bar and restaurant. Everybody went to some version of “Cheers,” where a bartender, waitress or at least some other patrons knew their names. Even that is possibly going in the history books with the growing popularity of computerized restaurants, where interaction with restaurant personnel is no longer required.

Inamo, a computerized Asian fusion restaurant in London, caught the attention of CBS and was featured on the Early Show a few months ago.

The restaurant cuts out the middleman with a system that directly connects customers to the kitchen. Overhead projectors, touchpad tabletops and a computerized ordering system completely changed the dining experience, said CBS News correspondent Richard Roth.

Ordering was done from the table’s touchpad top, and sent directly to the kitchen. Apparently, the restaurant works like an iPhone, with a digital dining menu that includes computer games and a map of the subway system.

The wait staff brings out the food, helps with the technology and delivers the check. The restaurant was allegedly designed for diners that don’t want to socialize.

Noel Hunwick, creator and co-owner of Inamo, told CBS that the experience is about customer control.

“We wanted to put the customer in a position where they could order when they want, get their bill when they want, and at the same time really customize their entire environment,” he said.

I don’t know why, but I suspect that the intent was to eliminate the surly customer, not the waiter that showed up at work hung over or in a bad mood.

Anyway, the computerized atmosphere even extends to a digital tablecloth that works as a touch screen computer. The menu is displayed in plain view in front of each place setting, and diners can touch the screen to indicate their selection. Conversing with a waiter is unnecessary.

The idea spread like proverbial wildfire. Now, computerized restaurants can be found in most metropolitan areas, where the highest technology is readily available.

The ultimate in minimalism is supposedly being introduced to the public later this year. An eastern seaboard restaurant chain will allow customers to make reservations at home online, order meals from an online menu and pay by credit card in advance of going to the restaurant. The only conversation required is for customers to tell the hostess their names when they arrive.

If trends continue, social events will cease to exist. We already live like a society of cave dwellers. We stay in our individual caves and don’t come out except to replenish supplies.

It won’t be long before people will go to social gatherings and not know what to do. They’ll stand around and ignore each other because the reason for being there is obsolete. We have invented ourselves into a life of solitary confinement. Have the machines already taken over?

I fear the worst if any more social interaction is eliminated from this system that we can’t understand.

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