A slightly toasty, briny smell wafted from the open kitchen, an umami of golden sesame seeds, green nori roasted over a flame and the northern sea on a balmy day. A spry young waiter stood at our table calmly explaining that we would be ordering all our food through the tabletop iPad. For the sum of 25 Euros per person, we would each be allowed to order 6 small dishes every 15 minutes until we were full. We could also order drinks but those would cost extra. All orders would be made with a touch of the small, flat screen glistening on our table. It seemed to beckon to us, its smooth, black surface reflecting the red lanterns overhead.

“Oh, it’s like a sushi boat!” I exclaimed after his explanation. My mind, still grappling with the novelty of it all, seized the closest thing from the known. He raised his eyebrows and smiled. I began to realize, embarrassingly, that I was not the first person to come up with that, perhaps he had heard it every single day more than once. Nonetheless, he kept it professional, “I guess so, but you once you pick out a dish with the iPad and hit send, the order will be made, so you can’t return it.” Then he smiled and promptly left us alone with the iPad.

Over the course of the next hour, I found myself happily tapping away at the iPad along with my tablemates. I had eaten all the sushi I craved, including a few delicacies I never had the courage to order before in places with harried or snobby servers. I also ordered several drinks freely without so much as a glance of judgement or weariness from the staff, who were all unusually friendly—something so rare that it was rather odd, like they were all high on ecstasy. Perhaps they had retained their cheerfulness because they no longer had to deal with the constant demands of hungry customers, at least, not directly. The waiter even looked genuinely sad when we got up to leave. For someone whose most memorable dining misadventures comprised of terrible service and botched orders, it was a welcome change. I felt free, happy, and extremely full, all the while, relatively discreet and anonymous.

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Somehow, excellent service has proven hard to find on a consistent basis. Once you do get it, like I did in this restaurant, it feels like a prize, something meaningful to cherish, not least because we find ourselves living among strangers more and more. Interactions between strangers have been growing exponentially since mobility has increased by leaps and bounds over the years. At the same time, this interaction has been noticeably decreasing in depth and duration as technology advances alongside as well. This new experience seemed to be a perfect marriage between the two: good service and convenient technology, where they support each other mutually and positively. But this may not always be the case.

A few weeks ago, Amazon unveiled Amazon Go, a grocery store with no check-out lines and no cashiers. Human interaction and wait times have become nonexistent, a customer can simply grab items from the shelves and “go”. Understandably, this development has been met with great alarm and scenarios of robots replacing humans seem more real now than ever before. A bleak future where individuals completely isolate themselves from their neighbors, no longer talk to each other, or even make eye-contact may already be here, if not, it is close at hand.

I can well imagine how frightening it must be to realize your job can be replaced by a machine, one that might even do it with more precision and efficiency. As a customer, I have had extremely positive, meaningful experiences with kind and helpful sales people who have added immeasurable value to my errands and purchases. But I have also had unpleasant interactions with service personnel bitterly tinged with rudeness, prejudice, xenophobia, or even racism. A simple trip to the grocery store may range from very painful to mildly inconvenient. I also travel often and stay in many different places all over the world where I don’t speak the language. For me and many others like me, Amazon Go could easily be a Godsend. If this is the harbinger of the future, this may change travel, our lives, our experience of the world in ways we can’t even imagine, both positive and negative. This is uncharted territory.

If we took a random sample of people from any big city today, they would be as diverse in background, race and nationality as if we had traveled around the globe. As exciting as it is to be able to experience the cuisine, art and music of a wider world, we also find ourselves living among strangers more and more as populations grow and migration alters the face of cities and countries. The world has become more globalized. Economies, countries and fates have become irreversibly tied together, connected like never before.

Yet, somehow, or because of this, a significant number of us behave as if we still live in small tribes ruled by kings or warlords, cut off from the rest of the world, or ardently yearn for the golden days of total independence and isolation long passed. In all the years that we’ve lived in this more globalized world, in all time that we have been working and living in so-called “melting pots”, “multiculturalism” and “diversity” seem more controversial terms now than ever before. We struggle to see the value in them or in globalization at all.

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In the face of these massive changes in economies, populations and technology, people wax melancholy about losing something precious with time, of losing courtesy, politeness, the old charm of the “mom and pop” store. But I strongly doubt there was ever a time when truly every customer was treated with kindness and respect. These romantics love to praise the quality and perseverance of local shops, but I can’t help but notice they often ignore the minority businesses in the same area that have also been there for many years. For them, diversity means decline, foreigners are just tourists, even if they have been living there for more than a generation. There is something rotten about a locally-owned business that treats certain customers like superfluous garbage, even when it finds itself struggling in the new worldwide marketplace that is the internet.

Somehow, this is all leads to the internet. It is also exacerbated by the internet. For every business with terrible service, for every missing product and unfulfilled desire, there is usually a quick solution on the internet. It doesn’t really matter anymore if the nearest florist to me is a xenophobic asshole who mocks my American accent (which he happens to be), I can order flowers online or find the locations of all his competitors in my area. It hardly matters if I can speak the language of the country I live in or not. It doesn’t even matter if I’m an asshole myself and loathe every single person I encounter, as long as I can click on things online and pay, I can acquire nearly everything I want. There seems to be something inexplicably wrong about this.

There is also something wrong with massive multinational megastores spreading to every part of the globe, monopolies feeding off the naked desires of people everywhere, and once diverse companies becoming more imposing, more authoritative and monochromatic. We seem to be painting ourselves into a dark corner with our insatiable hunger for convenience and instant gratification. Our choices may dwindle even faster than our jobs and wages when corporations begin to flex their grips on our once all too willing necks, once wanting simply to be seen, to be fed, to be serviced without judgement.alightcirclecloudcity6mpbaecker

As machines and computers do more and more of our work for us, we strive to recognize and appreciate the unquantifiable value of being human—before it’s too late. We cherish the rarity of real human connection, sincerity, the importance of daily person to person contact and the psychological necessity of belonging to a group or family. There is and always has been something undefinable about us, our relationships and our numerous interactions with others.

Having worked for many years in customer service myself, from restaurants to stores to corporate, I know very well how difficult it can be to uphold the ideal that the “customer is always right” or to maintain “service with a smile”, especially during long shifts with cranky or downright hostile customers. I used to tell myself that it wasn’t really me serving a rude customer, it was a representative of the company. Once I donned the uniform or suit, I was someone else. Someone who could talk to hundreds of people every day like they were all my friends. Someone who could cold call strangers all over the world to conduct a survey or share a “special offer” no one should pass up. Someone who deeply cared about the instant gratification of a random passerby. When the real me would like nothing better to do than something else, anything else, or pour the entire extra-large, ice-cold soda over the customer who just called me a racial slur. Oddly, the better and more productive at my job that I became, the more robotic I felt.

Whenever I experience bad service myself, the first thing that occurs to me is to immediately leave and go on the internet. I would rather go somewhere else for my dinner, groceries, clothes, or bookings. To find someone else who cares. Someone who makes the connection between keeping their business and providing good service to their customers. Someone who can simply do their job without making others feel stupid, inferior or an inconvenience. Someone that I managed to be all those years.

Perhaps that someone may be appreciated now more than ever before. Or perhaps that someone may be spared a great deal of hardship and pain by being replaced by a machine.

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Text and images by M.P. Baecker ©2018.

21 thoughts on “Among Strangers

  1. This blog brings me back to my days as a patio furniture saleman. Nothing would’ve made me more happy in those days than if I could’ve hid in the back room, and sent a Lost in Space kind of robot onto the showroom to deal with those awful customers. I think there is a lot to be said for our recent technological advances, but they do seem to be moving us away from nature and the wisdom of the earth, and toward self-destruction. We. Shall. See.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The times when I wish I had that Lost in Space robot have been numerous! I wish I had one to run my errands or to attend functions I don’t want to go to! I’m really curious to see what it would be like to live with a robot, but then again, people already have Alexa…it’s happening already. We shall see indeed!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You have duelled with and fused conflicting conditions into a single emotion of alienation. In the most basic of it forms, it is the existential angst, the problem of belonging, so to say. Be it globalisation or robotisation, each was designed originally to enrich the human experience but seems to have failed the very purpose of its genesis. On one hand, the existence of entrenched parochialism tends to drive one away to non-human channels of interaction, the ridiculously restrictive puppetry of automation makes one burn for the human touch on the other. Come to think of it, we have managed to reduce even flesh and blood humans to moronic androids by requiring them to respond using pre-determined scripts, as in call centres.

    I am afraid our perturbingly myopic self-centredness is fatally affecting our viability as a species. No wonder we are facing unexplainable and uncalled for carnage, devastation and reversal to barbarianism. Do we need an apocalypse, a holocaust, a Hiroshima, a Nagasaki, a Holodomor, or a Matrix to realise the value of our fellow human? I wish I had answers. I hope we do not go the way of Eloi and Morlocks.

    Those images have a hypnotic aura. They seem to be able to pick up the threads of your words brilliantly and transcend the reader millions of light years away into some unnerving future that we are all busy weaving. Unfortunately, the Hairy Ape doesn’t belong even there.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dear Uma, Your words are so beautiful to read, I am beginning to wonder if I am writing these blog posts just to try to elicit another incredibly thoughtful, bright and deep comment from you!!!!😂 Maybe I should just publish a comment Hall of Fame one of these days! (I’d probably get more likes on it than my own posts!)
      I can only say simply Thank You! I have a strong visual art background and was on the path to becoming a “master” painter with the support of an art community, but my life took a u-turn, and now I have taken this somewhat convoluted route to art by way of writing. I made the images first, and then I wrote the words to try to “be worth” the pictures.

      Your last sentences are as clear as stones skipping on a still pond. With the technology we have now and are developing, where buttons/triggers are more sensitive, our actions more far-reaching and with greater impact on the whole world, a big, hairy ape pulling those very fine strings is indeed an apocalyptic scenario. Can those fine strings ever create angels? Or do they exacerbate a regression into that ape? Is it the chicken or the egg? It’s too bad that wisdom or love of mankind is hardly ever a requirement of technology or power. It should be.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. First off, beautifully rendered, MP. Your text and images are a work of art, every time, and I dare to say even improving. Can a good thing continue to get better? You have proven the answer is yes!

    I am a longtime proponent of globalization, of technological advancement, and of automation, as you probably already know. I embrace wholeheartedly my ability to ship things to my home (from across town), free of shipping charges and in two days or less. I would love to walk into the local store, grab what I need, and leave without the hassle and awkwardness of the line (or the silly small talk with the clerk when other matters attend my mind). And this from an admitted and obvious extrovert!

    As well, I’d love to sit in at a booth, in a restaurant, sometimes, and order great food and great drink and indulge in it without human interruption, save for the company I take with me (or the equally thrilled neighbor table). I don’t know why, but the thought of a simplified and automated future is somehow a more romantic notion to me than any “good old days.”

    I suppose, in many ways, I am the oddball.

    But, of course, the jobs … the jobs!

    To them I say, “bye.”

    I think we’re overworked. I think we’re underpaid. I am a retail sales guy who threw out “the customer is always right” a long time ago, and I’ve earned the glowing respect of my customers for it. I’m the friendly “look buddy, calm down, this is how it is” guy. It seems to work; I do okay.

    But the time is coming – and quickly – when everyone will want to get what I sell quicker and cheaper from a 3D online catalog and I’m just fine with that. In fact, I hope, in the future, it’s free to them. It should be.

    I’m of the mind that society is this big production we put on, and mostly to make a few people rich while the rest of us “work and save.” And charge up the bill. I’m of the mind that the long-run of capitalism is coming to its theatrical close, though perhaps not in my lifetime. But sooner than we know the cost of production, due to automation, will become essentially zero and zero will be the cost of goods. With no one required to work, and everything costing nothing to build, we’ll have to change.

    Harari wrote an article last year (I referenced it here, http://www.tombeingtom.com/the-future-is-unwritten/ ) about the dark side of that world. I understand the trepidation concerning it. But afraid of it, or not, it’s coming. The human race will face a future where we have to decide if technology means egalitarianism, if it means a tiny elite and a massive “useless class,” or if it means the end of all mankind.

    I know where my vote goes. 😉

    Will the future be a lonely dystopia or the great society, at last? I suppose that’s the same question you asked in your last paragraph. Is there any room for humans in the world to come?

    I think there is. All I have to do is look through your text and your images again to know what a beautiful thing a human can do, when they have the time to follow their heart.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Tom, your comment is so thoughtful and beautiful, I want to publish it as a separate blog post!! You’ve given me a lot to ponder, don’t be surprised if I cite this and those articles about the future! Lots of food for thought there! I often don’t know where the inspiration will lead me or when it will come bubbling up!

      I absolutely admire and cherish this rare something that you and Harari both have in common, this wonderful iconoclastic quality that enables you to see human actions–present and past–without idealism, nostalgia or sugarcoating, to see the darkness behind them but not let yourself get bogged down in defending them or trying to “normalize” anything about them. Very refreshing! I wish Harari was required reading for all schools.
      Yet, perhaps unlike Harari, you have this great optimism despite the brutality of human history! Your optimism is infectious and I couldn’t be any happier and more thankful about that! 👏👏👏👏

      You said it so well, so precisely: “The human race will face a future where we have to decide if technology means egalitarianism, if it means a tiny elite and a massive “useless class,” or if it means the end of all mankind.” I know where my vote goes as well!

      Technology is another tool at our vast disposal, we can use it towards egalitarianism, or to oppress. We have to make our intentions clear on what exactly we want to achieve socially and consciously strive towards that if we want to avoid the bleak future scenarios that can very well occur! But we’ve already seen how oppression and inequality plays out in the past, we don’t need to see it again! If pessimists say that humans aren’t capable of being better based on our terrible history, then it should be because of our terrible history that we have every reason and every motivation to improve! We have enough tyrants to look back at, anyone (other than Trump) can see that tyrants are never happy, no matter how much power they have. We don’t want to see dictators or a few ultra powerful elites using robots and drones to do their bidding. Is it not enough to have learned about the oppression and slavery that went into building the pyramids or colonizing the world?

      The past is our launching pad not our ideal and not our pattern! I’m with you brother! Also, kudos on your customer service!👍 That whole “customer is always right” is very alienating to the human service worker (I sound like Marx here!) if a company truly wants that, they’d be better off with a real robot!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I love the way you put that, MP! “The past is our launching pad” for the future. We are not doomed to repeat it! In fact, the only thing stopping us from a brighter future for humanity is our own mindset. If we can change our minds, we can change the world!

        See, now you know what I mean by “I plan to save the world next Thursday.” I’m slowly saving us all, one Thursday at a time. 😉

        P.S. To be compared, in any way, to Harari, is the highest compliment. Thank you!

        P.P.S. There are few words more misleading, and dangerous, than the word “patriot.” Alas, our myths draw us together and makes us “strong.” I dream of a day where we can bust those myths and be a humanity that is truly strong, as one, and beyond illusion. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • You are definitely saving the world!👏👏👏👏 And it’s not even Thursday yet!
          I think Harari is the historian who can write closest to objectivity that I’ve ever read! I wish his voice would be heard above the pomposity of propaganda and patriotism! If we can strengthen that voice somehow by our writing Amen!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. You’re asking the right questions. The scenario of robots replacing humans dreads me to death. What seemed once as the far future is knocking on our door already.

    We in a way became robot-like ourselves. Look at the lives we’re leading.
    I read recently that the number of mobile phones surpasses the number of people on Earth. How scary is that?!
    We are talking about the most intelligent species of mobile devices nowadays. Phones instead of people, with or without quotation marks on ‘intelligent.’

    Now, for fear of sounding hypocritical, I’ll address the pros only briefly. I hate doing housework, and would gladly buy myself a 3 in 1 robot that could do the vacuuming, the dishes and the laundry. I also like to relax when traveling so I wouldn’t mind being replaced by a robot, trusting it can do better.

    Other than that, no robots in my vicinity please.

    I do like Terminator, but gee it was ‘only’ a movie, right?

    Liked by 3 people

    • 😂👍 I am totally with you on the housework! I would love to have a robot cleaning everything in my home, especially the bathroom, if they could invent a kind of Roomba that can climb tiles, clean walls and toilets, I’d be the first in line!

      I actually insist on putting away my phone when I’m talking to someone or walking, maybe I’m odd, but I feel very insulted if one of my friends looks down on their phone when we are in the middle of a conversation! I can only imagine that in my daughter’s generation, this may not be a “problem” at all as everyone would be attached to their phones (perhaps literally)! 😄 I don’t know what to make of it, but I’m sure as hell NOT nostalgic about the past! I think we have to look at technology as a tool to aide us in our lives not as the end goal, a clearer intention can determine the creation and a better end result. No Terminator please🙏.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’d be pleased with sth in the middle. I like the middle.
        You think that’s odd? Putting away your phone when talking and walking. I rarely take my phone with me. Plus, I’m the only person I know who doesn’t have a smart phone. How odd is that, you tell me?
        I simply like to do my work at home, when I’m out I’m out to have a good time and not to hang on the Internet. It is convenient, I know, maybe I’m not cut out for such convenience.

        Liked by 1 person

        • 👍the middle’s better than the beginning! No smart phone means clearer focus! People think they can multitask better with the phone, but I never believe any of that, they just have even less attention to go around! Here’s to oddness!

          Liked by 1 person

    • I love your response!! 👍 I think that whole corporate representative idea is very alienating to the person doing the job. When I worked as a cashier, if I was working under the shift of a cool manager, he would calmly and smartly refuse service to belligerent customers, while some managers insisted that I serve everyone, even some blatantly racist customers that made me cry. I think if someone is being really rude, people have the right to refuse service, it’s too bad it’s not exercised more, maybe we wouldn’t have so many assholes running around!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Agreed! This idea that the customer is always right is bullshit. Actually, my worst District manager (he paid women less, no joke) told me once that the customer wasn’t always right. The only thing I ever agreed with him on. When I worked at Toys R Us, this man came in towards closing wanting to return a toy he bought almost 2 years ago. It had a one year return promise. It was beaten up. When it was refused to be returned. He started screaming at the top of his lungs, threatening the old lady at the service desk. I was working on the floor. Eventually, the manager got up there & called the police. I’ve never seen anyone so irate & he had no reason to be upset.

        Liked by 2 people

        • 😂I’ve had my share of customers from hell too! Thankfully, there weren’t so many of them, but we tend to remember them those strange, rude ones the most!😄 I remember there used to be this angry old man who came in every week and didn’t believe I ever gave him the correct change, I would have to count back the money 2-3 times in front of him before he would accept that I wasn’t swindling him or miscounting, ironically, the anxiety and stress he gave me because he was so critical made me sweat with the effort to not make a real mistake when counting!😅 I couldn’t help realizing that the man actually substantiated his horrible view of the world!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. You realness of the current issues on this is a key point. The probability that globalization is slowly burying human relations, a catalyst maybe for mental depression and isoilation to the human race. We have windle the need for one another physically and in strength. We have embraced fakeness of smile and support of minority. We have gotten and missed to understand the social component of globalization with all it’s goodness. The hope of globalization for equity is on. However, globalization has given us great benefits of human race and growth.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you for your insightful comment! I especially loved what you wrote “We have gotten and missed to understand the social component of globalization with all its goodness.” That’s the huge issue that I am trying to examine more. There is always this interplay between technological change and social change and they don’t always combine well to equal “progress”, however I do not idealize the past or want us to go “backwards” either. It would be better if we used technology to aid the social component instead of the other way around, or not even thinking of the social ramifications of machines, robots and globalization. It should be in the service of our mutual humanity.

      Liked by 1 person

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