Wednesday morning, I had a truly astonishing experience. I sat in a coffee house surrounded by more than a dozen people of various ages and nationalities, and — get this! — not one of them was using an electronic device. I didn’t see a single laptop or iPad, and while one woman did pull out her smartphone to give it a casual glance, she soon put it away. Everyone was talking to one another.
“And that’s why we live in Seville,” I said to Rich, as he returned from the counter with café con leche.
We’d been back in Seville less than a week, and as so often happens during reentry, I was struck by the tremendous pleasure everyone here seems to find in the simple act of going out to breakfast. That particular morning was icy cold, the temperature just above freezing, and everyone came in at a rush, exclaiming about the weather and exchanging a bit of banter with the barmen as orders were placed and hot coffee dispensed. At the old marble-topped tables, people shed coats and settled in, enjoying the steamy warmth of the café, waiting for the barman’s shout, barely audible over the hubbub of talk and laughter, that would alert them when their food was ready.
“So I’ve been reading about this new chain of fully automated fast-food restaurants in San Francisco and New York,” I told Rich, as he tucked into hot toast topped with slivers of ham and a generous drizzle of olive oil. “You order and pay via iPad, then collect your order from a glass cubby, all without ever interacting with — in fact, without ever seeing — another human being. People are calling it the future of dining.”
He shuddered. “God, I hope not.”
The chain, Eatsa, is actually a pretty good idea. The menu is simple, bowls of quinoa covered with various toppings, offering an inexpensive ($6.95), fresh, vegetarian meal in cities where even a cheese sandwich and a Coke can, with tip, cost you $25. But it’s hard not to view fully automated dining as one more way machines are taking over human functions, eliminating not only jobs but the small interactions that make us feel connected with our community. Let’s face it, you can’t exchange banter about the weather with an iPad.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge fan of technology. I love the snappy give-and-take of social media and the ease of online research when I’m writing. I can’t wait until driverless cars become affordable. And it’s hard to argue against factories using machines for the most difficult, dangerous, repetitive tasks. But where is all this automation heading?
“47% of All Jobs Will Be Automated by 2034 and ‘No Government Is Prepared,’ Says Economist,” proclaimed a headline in HuffPost Tech UK. The Economist, drawing heavily on a 2013 Oxford Martin School study, predicts that automation will make nearly half of all human jobs obsolete in the very near future, and that this will unleash a “tsunami of social change.” Yikes! What might that look like?
But let’s not get carried away here. Before we start massing for an attack on Skynet, let’s take a look back at other predictions made by people who were absolutely, positively certain they knew about the shape of things to come.
“The telephone has too many flaws to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” Western Union President William Orton, 1876
“The cinema is little more than a fad.” Charlie Chaplin, 1916
“Atomic energy might be as good as our present-day explosives, but it is very unlikely to produce anything more dangerous.” Winston Churchill, 1939
“Television won’t last; it’s a flash in the pan.” Radio pioneer Mary Somerville, 1948
“Rock and roll will be gone by June.” Variety Magazine, 1955
“Online shopping is feasible but will flop.” Time Magazine, 1968
“There is no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, 2007
Nobody can ever be sure where the world is headed; these days, the most anyone can say with certainty is that we live in very interesting times. For now, I am sustaining myself by clinging to the small pleasures. Like a warm café on a brisk winter morning, where a smiling Spaniard is waiting at the espresso machine, ready to remark that it’s so cold out, the politicians have their hands in their own pockets. Whatever happens, I hope and pray that some jobs will always be done by humans, and that we can continue to count on our local baristas for fresh coffee, old jokes, and worldly wisdom to start the day off right.
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1/27/2017 04:48:42 pm
The Automat in NYC was a pre-electronic version of this, with some human interaction (to get nickles or hot food). For sandwiches, coffee or dessert, one just inserted the correct number of nickles by the cubby containing what you wanted to eat and the door would pop open. It was a place for those with little to do to sit and congregate over breakfast or lunch at little cost. Frequented it often in teen years when quantity overrode quality.
1/28/2017 09:55:46 am
Milt, those Horn & Hardart automats were amazing. I never had the chance to visit any of the old NYC classics, with all the fancy wood and glass, and "nickle throwers" sitting in booths to provide coins for the machines. But I do remember buying a sandwich once at a mid-century modern version, very sleek with chrome. They were great when, as you say, it was a matter of quantity rather than quality. And now Eatsa is re-introducing the idea. A great example of everything old being new again!
1/27/2017 04:52:55 pm
Another comment on the future,
1/28/2017 09:59:56 am
Boy, if I had a nickel for every time I heard that one back in the nineties! I remember telling people I'd never switch from a camera to an iPhone, and now I use nothing but my iPhone — and I'm getting far better results. So you never know. Still, I will make a point of giving Enrique a hard time about this next time I see him!
1/27/2017 05:34:11 pm
Oh, I needed this! Badly. I may just bookmark it and read it every morning for my day's mantra . . .I need to be reminded of those cafes and tavernas where life is real, the enjoyment felt and the human race still functioning. (I've begun to wonder this week if any of that was possible. . .might I add I am back in the U.S. and not my Greek village. That probably says it all.)
1/28/2017 10:02:51 am
I've been needing this too, Jackie! I've been away from Seville far more than usual in the past year, and it's such a joy to sink back into a world where coffee is a social event, not just fuel for the day's battles. Good luck in the US, and remember that Europe has been here a long, long time and is just waiting for your return.
1/27/2017 05:41:13 pm
Move over, I'm joining you for breakfast in Seville!
1/28/2017 10:03:26 am
Any time, Karen!
1/27/2017 06:50:07 pm
Couldn't agree more with your comments...great analysis...so rare to see people looking at faces instead of their phones!!
1/28/2017 10:05:46 am
It's great to be back, Carol. Seville cherishes the old ways, and that feels mighty comforting in these uncertain times.
1/27/2017 08:15:09 pm
What a picture! Makes me want to head to Seville for coffee. :)
1/28/2017 10:14:42 am
Thanks, Shéa. You should consider heading to Seville one of these days; it would make a great setting for one of your paranormal romances. There are endless myths, legends, and ghost stories around here, and no one is writing about them. And as if that wasn't enough, there are plenty of great coffee houses!
1/27/2017 09:20:46 pm
Post-apocalypse there will be a vast Silence of the Lambs on Twitter and Facebook and the herd will not know whom to follow.
1/28/2017 10:17:11 am
Brian, the Cinema Cafe is one of the few places in California I never saw a cell phone come out! I loved the fact it was so small that within five minutes of sitting down at the counter, Rich and I were talking with everyone in the place. Definitely my kind of coffee house, and you are lucky to have it in your neighborhood!
Denise San Antonio Zeman
1/28/2017 11:49:37 pm
Love this, Karen! It reflects the theme of a book I just started reading today called "Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age" by Sherry Turkle. According to the Washington Post, "Face-to-face dialogue builds empathy, friendship and creativity: it's the cornerstone of democracy and good for the bottom line. Based on five years of research and interviews in homes, schools, and the workplace, Turkle argues that the time is right to reclaim conversation." It sounds as though you've done that in Seville. I will let you know if she delivers on her promise in this book.
1/29/2017 09:33:40 am
Denise, Reclaiming Conversation looks like an amazing book, and one we should all consider reading. As one reviewer put it, "Smartphones are the new sugar and fat: They are so potent they can undo us if we don’t limit them. Sherry Turkle introduces a lifesaving principle..." Let me know what you think of the book once you've read it.
1/30/2017 06:43:02 pm
It is interesting to me that my grandsons (4 of them) are interested in having face to face conversations with me. They do not live in the city where I do but they stop by whenever they have a chance and they are quite chatty.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
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