On a recent foray into New York City, my husband and I marveled at the number of people who have been systematically eliminated from our lives by technology. We paid for parking by inserting our credit card into a machine. On our way to the train station we let E-Z Pass charge us the toll. We bought our train tickets electronically at a kiosk, grabbed some spending money from the ATM, gained entry to the theatre with tickets purchased online, and ate dinner at an impossibly popular restaurant because online reservations had been secured weeks in advance. I suddenly realized I had never missed personal contact with the toll-takers, bank tellers, cashiers and reservationists who have followed typewriter repair people into the abyss. Shame on me.
Recently, I've read that waiters may soon suffer a similar fate. Call me old and cranky, but now I'm mad. Apparently, a growing number of eating establishments are rapidly replacing waiters with ipads. Walk into an Au Bon Pain in New York City and you can order your lunch just the way you like it, simply by clicking. The NY Times claims that 100,000 Applebees are slated to have ipads at the tables before the end of this year. According to a recent article in USA Today, restaurants on the lower end of the food chain are not the only eateries embracing this new iPad-over-people trend. Upscale steakhouses in Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco are following suit.
I love waiters. Where would the theater and film industries be without them? What other job provides the opportunity to audition all day and still make a decent living while chasing the dream? And how many great movie scenes take place in restaurants with waiters looking on? Think Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces ("I'd like a chicken salad sandwich. Hold the butter, hold the lettuce, hold the tomato, hold the mayonnaise..."), Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs explaining why he doesn't tip, Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally ("I'll have what she's having."). I don't think a tablet would react quite the same way to a faked orgasm.
I enjoy chatting with waiters. I make a habit of asking them which menu item is their favorite. Occasionally, they actually choose something that is not the most expensive dish in the place. At the few establishments where I am a regular, the waiters greet me by name and ask if I want "the usual." I know the waiters well enough to ask about how their children are faring with the flu, or how they enjoyed their week at the beach. Without waiter jobs, weeks at the beach will be beyond reach for millions. Hell, simply having food on the table will be beyond reach. It has already happened to those who have been booted out by technological progress.
How will high school kids afford the prom? How will college kids afford textbooks or pizza? How will mothers or fathers without an education provide for their children's basic needs?
There is dignity in all work. When we strip millions of people of the dignity that comes with earning a living, what have we become?
It's about time. Literally. In the research I have done on the subject, interviewee after interviewee extols the virtues of the ipad waiter with joyful cries about saving time. It seems we have lost the ability to slow down and enjoy a meal. In a Slate article hailing the advent of tablet-ordering, Annie Lowery wrote that waiting 20 minutes for her check in a fancy restaurant was a nightmare. A nightmare? Really? My nightmares usually include being chased by men with machetes, or concentration camps.
My question is this: Just because we can do really cool things with technology, does that mean we should? We have the technological capacity to blow up whole countries, but so far we have responsibly refused to press the button that would change the world. Replacing millions of people with machines will also change the world in profound ways. It is my hope that while the great technological thinkers of Silicon Valley continue to create ways to make some of our lives easier, there exists somewhere another group of great thinkers who are figuring out how to deal with the fallout, because I'm drawing a blank.