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The Impersonal Society

September 14th, 2013

by Walter Brasch

Some of my favorite people are the ladies at my credit union. Over the past couple of decades they put up with a lot from me, with hardly an audible sigh, although I am sure there was a lot of cheering when my wife took over balancing the checkbook a few years ago.

The Credit Union ladies know my account numbers and status better than I do, and have bailed me out of numerous problems.

Even when they’ve had a tiring day, the ladies smile, joke, and ask questions about how I and my family are doing. The only thing they get from my “small potatoes” accounts is the satisfaction they’re doing a good job and an occasional box of candy or a green plant, which doesn’t even begin to add up to the personal attention they provide to keep my financial affairs in order.

After several years of trying to convince me to use the push-button telephone, a computer, or an iPhone to log onto a central computer where a digitized voice will tell me the status on my accounts, transfer funds from one account to another, and even pay bills, they have given up.

With ATM drive-ups, direct deposit, and the phone, which has more apps than politicians’ promises, I don’t ever need to talk to a human again. The reality is I prefer to talk to a friendly voice in a rapidly increasing technologically imperfect impersonal society.

At one time, all telephone calls had to be made through a local operator who knew as much about you, your family, and the community as you did. Then, technology let us bypass a human, and do our own calling. Even directory information, once free, now costs—and a mechanical voice tells you to repeat your request because it didn’t understand. Most people, anyhow, now discard phone books and directory assistance to look up names, addresses, and phone numbers on the Internet.

Call the average business and you are greeted by a digitized voice giving you a menu. Listen to all the choices, push another button, and hear another menu. Some companies have four or five levels of menus, all so you can finally push a series of buttons and hear, “I’m sorry, I won’t be in for the next six months. If you wish to leave a message, press 1; if you wish . . . ”

We don’t go to seamstresses because we can order by menu-driven telephone from the mail order department of numerous off-shore corporations the same clothes everyone else is wearing.

From vending machines, we can buy not only candy bars and soft drinks, but insurance, aspirin and condoms—and never have to talk to anyone.

We speak into a squawk box to order fast food, which we eat in the car on the way to an aerobics class that treats us to a recorded cadence.

Although most clerks at supermarkets and department stores, many of whom are paid slightly above minimum wage and receive no benefits, make at least an attempt to be friendly, an increasing number barely make eye contact while they languidly slide items past an electronic scanner.

With the computerization of America, you can now have your iAnything talk to every other iAnything and make airline and hotel reservations, order furniture, get information from data bases instead of the library, and never talk to a human.

On newspapers, we replaced wise older proofreaders and typesetters with dispassionate computers that have a passing knowledge of grammar and no knowledge of the community. Reporters are already researching and writing stories by calling up data bases, transmitting the finished product electronically to editors who send it electronically to the press—and no one has to talk with anyone else. The era of shoe leather journalism has become as archaic as newsprint.

We have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, and no friends as neighbors.

Even the lines that sound as if we care about each other—“I know where you’re coming from,” “I understand your hurt,” and “Thank you for sharing that,” among dozens of others—are nothing but warm fuzzy codes so we can pretend we are communicating while we plan our next truncated sentence of no more than 140 characters.

About the only time we talk with each other is when we unite at sports events to shout “Kill the umpire.” Most other human-based communication seems to be flipping fingers and calling lawyers. Indeed, the Age of Communication has now become the Age of Uncommunication.


[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist and professor emeritus of mass communications. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth analysis of the effects of fracking upon public health, the environment, worker safety, and agriculture. Dr. Brasch also investigates the history of energy policies in the U.S. and the relationships between the energy companies and politicians at local, state, and federal levels. The book is available at amazon.com, http://www.greeleyandstone.com, or local bookstores.]

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