Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Bowling Alone alone

I've mentioned Clifford Simak before (but none of those references are related to this post, so I won't link them), and his prescience about technology and its affect on human society.  His major work is "City," really a collection of related stories, the central one (it won a place in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame) being "Huddling Place."

Simak imagines a future imaginable then (not now; though; and our present is unimaginable as his future; something interesting there, but we can't stop now), when technology has allowed humans to scatter into personal strongholds, away from cities because the need for them is no more (whereas, in modern times, we seem to be more dependent on cities as the base technology of sewage and sanitation and transportation make city dwelling more important than ever; well, that and industrialization, as more and more us of continue to move away from agriculture and land-based sources of income; again, the future is never what we imagine).  This is possible partly because of air travel (helicopters as flying cars) and through communication technology (that has more to do with Star Trek holodecks than Skype).

The result is, in "Huddling Place," a man who has developed such an attachment to the family estate, and such a fear of leaving it, that when he is called to perform life-saving surgery on a friend and philosopher (whose philosophy will change the shape of human existence, if he can live to write it down), he fails.  He can't leave, he can't even bear the thought of human society, and his friend dies (the drama of the story is a bit more poignant than that, but that's a fair plot summary).

Who'd have thought, with all the differences in our present and Simak's imagined future, that we were actually moving closer that that nightmare, thanks to technology Simak never imagined?

In the survey, nearly 31 percent of millennials said that the reason they use the drive-thru isn’t speed or convenience, but because doing so requires the least amount of actual human interaction. Such a tendency will, no doubt, encourage companies to further automate the fast-food purchasing process. In many airports, for example, orders are already placed in kiosks, paid by credit card in the kiosk, and picked up at the counter.

For the moment, the food is delivered by a human being — but it’s not difficult to imagine a time in which the same job couldn’t be performed by a none-too-high-tech robot of some sort. If nothing else, surveys such as this one will encourage companies to find ways to phase out employees.


“I’ve been inside restaurants where we’ve installed ordering kiosks … and I’ve actually seen young people waiting in line to use the kiosk where there’s a person standing behind the counter, waiting on nobody.”

Pudzer added that his goal is open fully automated restaurants that require no human employees.

We should pause here to point out that what happened to most U.S. manufacturing jobs was automation, not foreign competition.  Auto assembly lines use robots now, not laborers at every station performing repetitive tasks for hours.  It's probably inevitable fast food will be fully automated one day.  But it's interesting the millennials are hastening that.

I can only say my daughter, nearing the quarter century mark, would rather order on-line than go to a store (except for groceries), and I suspect she'd be more comfortable ordering from a kiosk than dealing with a human being.  And of course there are the tables of younger people in restaurants all studiously studying the screens in their palms, rather than talking to each other (the way they still do in TeeVee commercials).

This is a trend that makes "bowling alone" look like a communal activity.


  1. "These are the stories that the dogs tell when the fires burn high and the wind is from the north."

    I'm always thinking of Simak's books when thinking about so many issues. He had a real insight into things. I think the eventual abandonment of Earth for Jupiter, though scientifically naive is a good prediction if you replace the internet for Jupiter. It was one of the great shocks when I realized that the people living in the large, expensive houses only went outside to get into their cars or mow their law, the ones who didn't hire someone to do that. Maybe they would occasionally do a bit of work on the landscaping but they never went out otherwise. Then I noticed that it wasn't just them, the streets downtown, compared to how they used to team with kids going out for the evening, are largely empty as they stay home and watch things and get into trouble inside.

    As my old dog slowly dies I've had occasion to think a lot about that book, City, and its presentation of the moral superiority of dogs to people. I can't imagine a dog shirking his responsibility like that.

    I think I'll go read something.

  2. That, and as humans "evolve" (i.e., improve, which isn't evolution at all, but social darwinism; which is to say, Darwinism) they lose all connection to "common humanity" and even to each other, and leave the planet for parts unknown.

    The whole idea of people abandoning any sense of human community seems right, although also most peculiarly white and upper-class American. A science-fiction version of Cheever.

  3. A science-fiction version of Cheever.

    OK, that is the best paragraph of commentary on Cheever I've ever read. A lot of the commentary on the distant, anonymous, depersonalized, isolated in art of the post-war period doesn't seem to be taken for the tragedy it is. Alex Katz's paintings always seem that way to me only he seems to even remove any sense of tragedy from it.