Do we need more efficiency,
or more empathy?

Robotization and automatization of daily life is delivering a cheap, sad ‘user experience’ to the modern citizen.

A daily tale:

It’s Monday morning. I’m in the small, cozy train station that I use to commute, almost daily. I just noticed I ran out of tickets, so I need to buy some more. It’s been years since they removed any middlemen in this process: now the guy that used to both sell tickets and serve coffees in the station’s cantina only performs the latter (and the lattes). The tickets booth was closed for good, and now everything related to buy transportation titles is a business where you have to deal with a vending machine.

I struggle for some seconds with an awfully designed UI screen to find the option I need, and then I got to insert my credit card into a separate pod. I do so. After typing my PIN, the small LCD screen of the credit card pod outputs a message ‘Invalid card’.

OK. Thank goodness there’s a twin machine just besides, so I spend another minute doing exactly the same with an identical device (and card!). Now the purchase is completed successfully and I got my ticket. I would like to think what the heck really happened inside that evil circuitry that it rejected something that was easily accepted in exactly the same kind of setup, but then I see how I miss my train because I spent so much time dealing with that nonsense.

Next one is coming in ten minutes, so I sit down in a bench and start thinking about what if the other machine also failed. There is no one I can complain about. The dude in the station it’s only responsible of the coffees he serves, he has nothing to do with these kind of problems he used to solved so quickly in the past, when a troubled commuter, desperate and fearing missing his train, was pleading in his window for her broken ticket to be replaced (or something like that). He would understood inmediately, and quickly released a new one, and gave it to her with a soft smile.

While lost in these thoughts, my convoy arrives. In front of me, a retired man is holding his mobile phone. His face looks disgruntled. He listens, then every twenty seconds he says out loud to the microphone “Yes” or “No”. After a few rounds, not only his face but his entire head starts shaking as a clear sign of annoyance. He’s probably dealing with those answering machines that big phone companies place as a firewall to demoralize customers and keep them from moving to another company, or to try to complain about latest bill.

After eight minutes of trip, the train slows down until almost stop. It finally stops in the middle of two stations. After to minutes of unjustified stop, it restarts moving, but only for 10 seconds until the brakes scream again and the train fully stops one more time. Why did it so then? No answers. No reasons. There’s no way to access driver’s premises for asking, nor he tells commuters using the speakers. He probably doesn’t care.

Robotization and automatization of almost all daily processes is probably making everything faster and more efficient but: What are we?

Finally, I arrive to my destination. To get out of the station, I need to repeat the same thing I did when I picked up the train: to check out my ticket in another machine with another LCD display. This time, no other humans present. Just me, a whole rack of checkout machines, and a couple of surveillance cameras. I insert my travel card into it. Another error message. “Cannot read magnetic stripe”.

Bummer, how come? It’s a brand new one I just bought 30 minutes ago…!

The transportation company is almost completing its process of substitute every human employee by a team of hardware-software service in order to save money and become more “efficient”, while freeing workers from boring tasks (and send them to the even more boring unemployment).

I felt completely unattended.

Finally –and fortunately– this situation was unstuck because, by chance, the third checkout machine recognized my magnetic stripe (again, why?) so I could escape from the prison that stations are nowadays. But I’ve seen almost every day the same situation happening everywhere, all the time. People completely lost (mainly the elder) in front of complex screens that use anything but human language for communicate, and with no alternatives to choose from.

Totally unattended but totally monitorized, surveilled, screened.

Robotization and automatization of almost all daily processes is probably making everything faster and more efficient but: What are we?

Just a bunch of Agents in a Computer simulation or sentient human beings?

What kind of persons are we evolving to when almost every information exchange we make is done across a screen?

What kind of communication skills are we going to develop when the language we read on those screens is whatever but natural?

How are we going to learn to correctly and sanely express our feelings and emotions when we are used to be left being unattended by stupid automatic display messages?

Virtual assistant displayed in the websire of spanish railways. Is this the solution? I don’t feel like it…

Agile communication and information processing can be make compatible with a more human experience, if we think about rolling back this mad tendency of rushing to pull out from the labor market to each and every middlemen and replace them by a cold display. They (the shiny post-capitalist economy leaders) made us believe that all these middlemen are necessarily bad because they only exist to make everything more expensive, where a mobile app can make it better.

What if we train a new generation of middlemen, not in the business sense, but in the public service?

They could learn all these cold, senseless information coming out from a central control machine, and re-interpret them into human interaction on the ground. No more confusing displays that are connected to fragile systems. Just clean, clear signs, information typed and printed using natural language, and well-trained, empathic human agents. May be it is not the cheapest option but… wouldn’t it be the better?

Like one can read into the gospels: “Man shall not live not on bread alone…” nor on efficiency alone. But empathy.
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