Strolling through Park Slope this afternoon, perusing the boutiques and dodging baby strollers on the snow-lined sidewalks, I noticed a vacant ad poster on the side of a corner store. I imagine the posting ordinarily housed an ad for liquor or perhaps a public service announcement – but this empty ad space simply had white text on a red background: “Thank you for shopping here, your patronage is appreciated.”
I suppose this sign was designed to make me feel appreciated – but it didn’t. It actually didn’t make me feel anything. I had no reaction at all to the sign.
Another example. Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying to get internet connectivity installed in my new apartment. This endeavor has led me to spend a lot of time talking to automated phone systems. These computerized voices have evolved much since their initial inception – some of them can even understand your speech. The typical phone system is set up in a tree formation, where your initial choices will lead to several more levels of choices (branches) until you find what you need or you reach a real person. It’s not so much the concept of the automated system that bothers me; I suppose it’s a necessary evil for most companies. The thing that irks me is that the voice is programmed to speak in the first person, saying things like “Hold on, I’ll connect you” or “Just a moment while I try that extension.”
As technology advances we continually program machines to act like humans. The problem is that technology, no matter how advanced, will never be human. Technology is technology, humans are humans. It’s possible for us to create posters to thank me for my patronage and it’s possible to program a voice system to ask me to wait while a connection is made – but these things lack human interaction. A poster can feature text thanking me, but I will not feel thanked. An electronic voice can ask me to wait, but I will not be patient. The human emotions of gratitude and patience are uniquely human. They cannot exist outside of a human connection.