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