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Eliminating the personal touch

ALL YOU want to buy is a loaf of bread and a quart of milk. But from the way the grocery store cashier is moving, the bread will go stale and the milk turn sour before you actually get through the checkout line. We've all been in this situation before and impatiently wished that we could just nudge the cashier out of the way and ring up the bill ourselves.

A few supermarkets are beginning to make it possible to do just that. Grocery stores in Northern Virginia have implemented automatic checkouts so that shoppers can ring up and pay for their own food items without the help of a cashier. The new system is being tested in an express lane at a Harris Teeter store in Arlington. Shoppers can pay with bills, coins, credit cards and debit cards. Other chains - SuperFresh and Winn-Dixie - also put self-service checkout lanes in their stores, although their payment options aren't as extensive.

This technological development has the potential to make grocery shopping much more convenient and efficient. Harris Teeter company spokesperson Sonya Elam said in a personal interview that customers have been very pleased with the way self-service lanes have made buying groceries easier.

But while this development can be interpreted as positive since it will make our daily lives more convenient, it is worrisome too. The idea of shopping without customer-employee contact has long-term social implications.

Granted, there already are numerous examples of modern conveniences that decrease or eliminate the need for contact with another human being. Automated telephone messages have replaced the need for talking with a person in a variety of businesses and the Internet makes it easier and easier to shop online. Similarly, ATM machines have made banking something that doesn't need to involve personal contact. Now it's possible to buy gasoline at the pump with a credit card - there's no longer a need to go inside the store to pay an attendant.

But all of these existing services have something in common: Every person receives virtually identical treatment. The service that once was performed by a person does not vary from one patron to the next - and this makes these functions easy to automate.

The idea of self-service grocery shopping, however, crosses a line that computerized phone messages, ATMs and automated gas pumps do not. Unlike all of these services, grocery shopping is not a uniform experience. Every person who goes into a store does not need the same kind of service - people buy different things and use different forms of payment to do so.

Harris Teeter's new system indicates that perhaps there is no limit to what can be turned over to machines. If self-service can be implemented in grocery stores, it is easy to imagine how this might be applied to any kind of retail store. The new technology makes it at least plausible that we'll see self-service in clothing, office supply, and drug stores. And any change toward having self-service stores as the norm promises to affect the way we interact with other people in public.

Our culture is impersonal enough as it is. Making it possible to buy everything without interacting with another person would make it more so. Technology that gives us the ability to buy everything we need without interacting with other people has the potential to decrease the level of interpersonal contact in our lives. And that isn't something to look forward to.

Interacting with other people is a positive and necessary part of daily life. It keeps us from forgetting that we live around and among lots of other people. Moreover, it reminds us that what we do affects those people. This is something we easily can fail to recognize when our daily activities involve clicking a mouse or using a credit card instead of talking and listening to people face to face.

Increased efficiency isn't an absolutely desirable goal because, at some point, it comes at the cost of human contact. There must be some line between using technology to make our lives more convenient and employing technology to eliminate the need for people.

Of course, the fact that Harris Teeter introduced this new technology should not make us all tremble in fear for the repercussions it immediately will have on American culture. Elam said that Harris Teeter probably will install the new system in no more than 10 stores in the next year.

But it should make us stop and think about the difference between what we can do with technology, and what we should do with it. Making shopping an activity that only involves picking out what you want and swiping a credit card could eliminate the need to interact with another human being. And while this might make life more convenient, it wouldn't necessarily make it better.

(Bryan Maxwell's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)

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