I stand in the supermarket holding a package of spaghetti, gorgonzola cheese, cucumbers, and a cup of cream.
A decision is to be made.
A fully empty self-checkout counter. Next to it was a young guy at the register.
I pick the young guy. A few seconds later, he enthusiastically weighed the cucumbers and proceeded to throw them in my basket.
"Feeling energetic today?"
"Every day. But it's more fun with eggs."
"Or beer bottles."
The conversation concludes, and the usual phrases for wishing each other a nice day follow.
It's raining. Still, that hasn't kept the small neighborhood market sellers from showing up. In the small space near the bus stop, you can find eggs, honey, the best fish in town, and a veggie & fruit stand. While my coat is slowly soaking, I weigh the different pear options, ultimately going with the German pears the seller recommends.
Small jokes about the bad weather follow - and that we're not made of sugar.
Back home. Saying hi to the neighbors walking through the door as I arrive.
I start contemplating all the small human interactions I have on a nearly daily basis. The ones with complete strangers like the cashiers and delivery guys once again dropping my neighbor's parcels at mine because I live on the first floor.
My mum is a master at chatting with cashiers. When I was a kid, I did not always find that cool. It'd be embarrassing at times.
Now, I must say, she was onto something.
With the rise of contactless and self-checkouts, you wonder, is it worth it?
Do we really have to eliminate the human out of things as much as possible?
Sure, I, too, don't always feel talkative. And in those moments, a small hi, thanks, goodbye -does the job. Small talk can be awkward, and some might even welcome not having to deal with other people anymore.
One must wonder, though, isn't that sad? It feels convenient. But what does it say about our view of the world that we don't want to engage with others anymore, not even just for 2 minutes, as we purchase the groceries we need to survive?
The pandemic accelerated this move to contactless, in payments and beyond.
Isn't it the small chats with the bakers, baristas, check-out queens, and kings that humanize what otherwise is just a transaction?
We're interconnected with the world, and each interaction with someone that we did not "curate" is a great reminder of that. It's a reminder that other people exist. That not everyone is just a crypto bro tweeting manifestos or engagement farming.
We need these reminders.
In a world where we're alienated from the production and creation of 90% of the things we rely on to survive. From the clothes we wear to the food we eat, chances are, we've never seen the process, and it might not even happen anywhere close to where we live.
We might spend most of our time pushing bytes, but at the end of the day, we all have physical bodies located in a community.
Small interactions between humans are the glue of communities and, even beyond that, contribute to well-being.
You can have millions of followers and still feel lonely.
We live in what Noreena Hertz calls a lonely century.
We're connected online, but offline, we feel lost.
Even a small interaction with a stranger helps to establish a sense of community and connection with the outer world. You can even make friends in queues.
Self-checkouts might seem like an efficient way to handle grocery purchases. But they aren't even speeding things up. They just make you feel like you're faster because you're more involved in the process, a phenomenon called wait-warping.
At the same time, they worsen an already ongoing crisis of loneliness and lack of community sense.
Even in the library here, they've replaced the process of borrowing and returning books fully with machines. That's sad.
When I was a kid, the library still had humans for that. And when we forgot the library card, we'd still take the books home since they'd know us and simply respond, "Ah, you're part of the Oba family; I'll put it on your family card."
It might just be that what seems like low-stakes transactions come with high stakes for our humanity.
How can you feel empathy for someone different if you never interact with someone out of your bubble?
I read that a Dutch supermarket introduced slow checkout lanes for the people who enjoy chatting to a cashier and aren't in a rush.
The e/acc people might not want to introduce that in their towns, but you can still actively choose the real person over the machine.
You won't lose much by doing so. But you could gain a lot.
Life is rich.
Get over the little awkwardness and have some small talk with your local grocery shop staff.
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