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The unsettling grip of the automated gods

So the perfectly enjoyable dinner with friends was over and it was time to get the bill.

The waitress informed us they were in front of us. And there were the machines, ready to be poked and prodded with enter this and enter that and computerized math full of tip percentages.

Followed by the electronic signature which might as well have read Lee Harvey Oswald, given my cursive challenges with a pen.

So how long will it be before there is no waiter or waitress and we are just ordering off that dadgummed computer at every restaurant?

Not very, apparently.

Over the holidays, I heard an estimate that one third of the jobs in America will become automated in the next decade.

In the electronically dominated age we live, this is considered progress. And some automation is needed progress. But a lot of it is a nuclear threat to our lives.

Full disclosure. I have never used an ATM machine. I don’t do my banking online and am not interested in learning how to do it. I like getting the bank statement in the mail and checking to make sure the books are correctly balanced. I pay the bills by check. Through the mail. I have never used the self-checkout line at a grocery store. If I had my way, I would carry enough cash in my pocket to pay for gas, restaurant meals, groceries and incidentals every month instead of using a charge card.

One of my friends says I am swimming upstream — at about a 45-degree angle. He’s correct.

Another friend says he always uses a teller when he goes to the bank — to preserve their job. And he’s correct.

If you want an indication of where we are headed, consider what seems like daily announcements locally of retail outlets closing, their market share eaten up by online shopping. That’s a lot of jobs lost for retail clerks, jobs that go to people trying to make ends meet and improve their economic standing with hard work.

Consider, beyond the economic struggle, the loss of self-worth that comes with not having a job. For a significant portion of the population, employment is the primary source of pride. A lot of that population is part of the third that will lose jobs to automation in the coming decade.

What will be the social impact of that job loss should it become long-term, a distinct possibility?

From a practical standpoint, there is a portion of the consumer product market that works for online shopping. But I can’t buy a shirt online with confidence it will fit when it magically shows up at the door. My wife can’t buy any clothes online.

What she can do is order a double-waffle iron online and experience that sinking feeling that comes with electronic messages seconds later that make us suspicious our charge card has been compromised. Not exactly what the doctor ordered for that Christmas morning feeling.

We recently made reservations online for a one-night motel stay at a price, according to the online language, of $98. When we checked out, the bill was $239. There was no one online to tell us of all the “extras” and fine-print conditions that would more than double the price. Good thing this wasn’t two decades ago. Would have fractured the family budget.

So this is where we are at the start of the third decade of the 21st Century.

When we sit down at dinner, the cell phone has priority space over the knives and forks. That rectangular gadget has replaced over-the-picket-fence conversation with our neighbors. One survey says 70 percent of us don’t have any significant friends among our neighbors.

When it’s time to buy that special gift for someone, we scroll our computers rather than stroll the mall. We don’t ask a clerk to compare two like items. We fill in the boxes on the screen and wait for the delivery, all the while giving up parts of our identity to the online god rather than Maggie in Aisle 4.

Some of this is convenience and fits our brisk lifestyles in 2020. I get it. But a lot of it is not progress when you consider the dangerous economic and social overhaul it is creating.

Tease me all you want about being old fashioned. I will own that. And I will not go quietly into that automated night.

I like talking with the waiter and the waitress, the folks in the checkout line at the grocery store and the tellers at the bank.

I just hope I still have the opportunity to do it a decade from now.

David F. Troisi is retired as editor of the Sun-Gazette.

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