Choose the Person, Not the Machine

Recently, I visited Johor, which (as most of us know) is right across the border. It was a simple day trip, nothing very special or over-the-top. My friends and I were on the way back and at the Singapore immigration there was a horde of people flowing in a singular direction, all headed for Singapore.

At customs you have two choices, to go through the traditional customs officer who will stare you in the face and stamp your passport, or to go for the biometric passport scanner, which will subsequently scan your fingerprint, and the door will automatically open. They have this at Changi Airport as well so most Singaporeans are well acquainted with this. I trudge up and see that there is at least a four to five man queue at each of the Automated booths but that the solo manual booth (with the customs officer) had only one person in queue. So naturally I went straight for the manual booth, quickly got my passport stamped, smiled at the customs officer who smiled back at me, and was on my way home.

The people that queued at the automated booths still stood patiently in line, contented at their choice.

But why should they be? Why would everyone rush for the automated booths when there is an obviously shorter alternative to the side?

To answer that question, I think we have to look at the social and technological trends. Zoom out for a while and think. Where else in Singapore is this situation familiar?

In fact, you don’t have to look very far, just walk into your local supermarket and you’ll see a similar situation at the cashier. We have the normal cashiers with their scanners and cash registers and then you have the self-service counter. You’ll get your very own scanner and you can choose a bunch of payment options and even package everything yourself before leaving. There are six booths in a small space and it’s just so much more efficient, and as a bonus you can avoid the tired glare of the cashier. A win-win situation it seems.

Now when you order fast food delivery there is also an online option where you just go to the website, scroll down and choose your orders, key in your address and press enter. You don’t even have to call anymore. On top of not hearing the tired and unappreciative voice of the delivery serviceman/woman, you eliminate the chance of the guy getting your orders wrong. Machines won’t fail you.

And of course, going back further in time, borrowing library books and topping up your travel card is also much more preferable when machines are in the equation. In Libraries machines have already taken over and librarians are there to merely assist the checking out process while people prefer using the top up machine at MRT stations rather than go to the station staff. I mean, why depend on someone when you can just do it all yourself and save yourself the trouble of all that human interaction?

But then again, what is so wrong with all this human interaction? What makes talking to another stranger so difficult? I see a lot of MRT control stations empty but a line forming at the top-up machine, I see how tolls in Malaysia don’t even require you to look at the person on duty, you just tap a card on the scanner and it deducts some money from it. The fact that technology is progressing isn’t really an issue. The fact that a lot of this technology promotes anti social behavior isn’t the biggest worry either. The biggest fear is that we are subconsciously taught to hate the sight of a stranger.

The above examples are so commonplace, that day-by-day, it slowly roughs away our edges, making us formless and unsubstantial. We don’t give ourselves the chance to smile at one another, to make another person’s existence seem any worthier. When you step up to the MRT staff and give him a smile after he tops up your card, you could very well be making his day that much more meaningful. Similarly, at our airport, the toilets have this electronic survey where you tap a number to show how satisfied you are. But forget about that, it would be so much more genuine for you to say a sincere ‘thank you’ to the toilet aunty. I mean, think about it: would she appreciate the monthly stats the management presents to her or a stranger’s heartfelt words? It’s a no brainer, really.

I’m not saying we don’t have the gratitude or kindness within us to brighten a stranger’s day; I’m just upset that these silly machines are here to make it so much harder to do so. They’re frighteningly efficient, yet cold and heartless contraptions that will eventually turn us cold as well. So here’s the deal, the next time you have a choice, please choose the person, not the machine. Speak politely to the delivery service, smile at your customs officer and make small talk with your neighbourhood librarian. Who knows? You may make their day that much better and you’ll feel better about yourself afterwards. It may take longer, your friends may hate you for wasting time, and you may miss your next train or may even get your order wrong.

But it’s worth it, because these little flaws are what make us human.

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