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Four Years at the Mount

Junior year

This month we asked our students to watch this 1991 United Airline
and asked them to weight in on its relevancy today. 
As always, their response surprised us.

Balancing efficiency and alienation in the age of technology

Shea Rowell
Class of 2019

(2/2018) "Please listen to the following options, and select one of the following; press one if you are calling to ask about ticket sales; press two if…" the sickeningly robotic voice intones as I struggle to maintain composure. Phone to my ear, I listen to the litany of options and hope that at the end of the list I will hear those rare but magical words: "If you’d like to be connected to the next available associate, press 0 or stay on the line." This means that I am only a brief on-hold music interlude away from contacting a real, living human. Shocking, isn’t it? There is nothing as relieving as finally connecting with a real person on the other end of the phone, or better yet, face-to-face. Human interaction, however, is a phenomenon which is slowly disappearing from the daily experience of most Americans.

Technology, of course, is the culprit. It has empowered us to order pizzas, book hotel rooms, and pay for our groceries without the strain of conversation with another person. In fact, many of my peers suffer from a condition known as "phone anxiety," which amounts to fear of speaking to strangers on the phone. Technology is obviously not an inherently negative thing. The majority of technology’s "side effects" are remarkably positive. Technological advancements in education, medicine, transportation, industry, etc. have made once-difficult tasks easy. Most Americans now have the world at their fingertips through their smart phones, tablets, and laptop computers. The possibilities are endless, and technology is moving and improving every day.

It is no secret, however, that technology makes humans more and more distant from each other. Our social interactions largely take place over social media platforms, our communication takes place over text or email, and our daily tasks can be more easily managed on the computer or the latest app than though more direct means. Society has irreversibly changed, and this is not a bad thing. There is immense value, however, in taking a step away for a few moments.

During my winter break, my sister and I hopped on a plane to visit our grandmother who lives in Florida. Taking a step into her house is like stepping back in time. If the grandmother vibe was unclear by the pink floral wallpaper she had hung in every room, or the light blue Grand Marquis parked in the driveway, it was made remarkably clear through the lack of technology in the place. She does not own a computer or a smart phone, nor does she intend to change that. Her daughter recently bought her a tablet as a gift. Interested, my sister and I asked her what she uses it for. "Email," she responded, "and I only check it a couple times a week."

This was a completely foreign concept to my sister and I, who were both born and raised with accessible technology. And surprisingly, our stay with her was refreshing. For the majority of the trip, I left my phone out of sight and out of mind, trying instead to meet my grandmother on her level. The trip was filled with conversation. I learned more about her and her life in my five-day visit than I had known in the twenty-one years I had known her before. I learned about her childhood, her relationship to my grandfather, her hobbies, etc. I will cherish the relationship I was able to build with her in that week.

A famous and slightly cliché Maya Angelou quote reads: "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." I hope, in my week with my grandmother, I made her feel as loved and cared for as she did me. The simple act of putting away the cellphone or computer to be fully present with others reminds them that they are valued and loved. They will remember how you make them feel. The same principle applies to businesses.

During my summer breaks, I work at a small farm-to-table restaurant waiting tables. The restaurant has only twelve tables, and the same staff comes back day after day to cook, clean, and serve each day. The customers get to know the staff, and we get to know the customers—at least the regulars. The personal touch makes all the difference. I can welcome them by name: "Good morning Miss Kathy! I’ll be right back with your coffee" and then ask about her week while we wait for her food. She, and many other customers, come back, not for the food or the prices (although both are excellent) but for the personal attention they receive from the staff; each staff member, in turn, cares greatly for the customers.

At the restaurant, we make them feel cared for. Staff are closely accessible to customers, and attentive to their needs. Technology, however, has a bad habit of distancing and distracting us from that personal touch. Recorded phone messages and online services make the customer feel alienated and isolated. Customers remember that feeling, and return to the places where they feel welcomed and loved.

It is impossible, of course, to completely abandon technology. I greatly value the ability it gives me to contact people who are far away from me, to quickly order whatever I may need on Amazon, or to sate my curiosity with a seconds-long Google search – not to mention the entertainment of Netflix or Spotify! It is, however, important to recognize the changes it creates in our lives, for better and for worse. It can enhance our world without distancing us from one another, but technology users must find the balance themselves. Businesses, likewise, must remember that alienation is a side-effect of efficiency, and that the customers reaching out to them are not as robotic as the services they are offered. As humans, we desire connection and community, intimacy and love. We will remember how others make us feel; let us spread compassion instead of alienation.

Read other articles by Shea Rowell