Thursday, June 1, 2017

Machines with Screens

Machines and I don’t get along. I have never done them any bad, but they have never liked me. Whenever we meet, they treat me like an idiot. That happened again last week when I had to make a trip into the Big Smoke.

Going to the Big Smoke is stressful, so I decided I might lessen the strain by taking the train. Avoid the craziness of Highway 400, and the alleged city ‘expressways’ that are clogged arteries into that heart of madness called Toronto.

Go Train service now reaches as far north as Barrie so I decided to get a ticket there, hop on and ride relaxed.

I arrived at the Barrie waterfront station early one morning but could not find anyone to sell me a ticket. I wandered about looking and found a sign with a pointing arrow and the word ‘Tickets.’ I followed the arrow, then came face to face with . . . a machine. Apparently ticket machines have replaced humans at some GO stations.

I panicked. Did I have any coins? Could I remember my credit card password? Would I end up wrangling with the machine as the train pulled away without me?

I approached the machine cautiously. You can’t let them sense your nervousness. If they do, it can be bad. Very bad.

The machine seemed friendly enough. Big numbers with instructions. You spoke to it by tapping its screen, which was reasonably readable. Not like some parking meters that in the slightest bit of sunlight, you have to squat and bob your head up, down and sideways to see what they are asking you.

I tapped the GO’s screen and pushed my credit card in and out with mounting frustration as cancellation slips piled up around my feet. I began making faces at the thing, and shouted not-so-nice words.

“Do you need help?” came a voice from an open door of the train on the other side of the fence.

It was one of the train operators and he jumped onto the platform and came through a gate to either help me or restrain me. Turns out it was to help.

He obviously had never bought a ticket because he read the instructions slowly and tapped the screen cautiously. Then he paused.

“Oh, there’s a key punch board over here,” he said with surprise.

And, there it was, partly hidden away. After working with the screen you had to move over and tap the keys to enter your credit card information.

On board, I settled into my seat. There were nine other passengers in my section and I thought it would be nice to chat with someone. When I looked around, I saw all nine faces buried in cell phone screens.

Apparently the only way I could chat with any of them was to get their online addresses. With no one to chat with I sat back to think, which can be dangerous.

We live in a society that deals more with screens than people. We do banking with screens, shop through screens, buy tickets on screens. We even order our hamburgers and fries at MacDonald’s on screens.

I wonder about the jobs the machines with screens have eliminated. The GO train ticket seller might have been a single mom working a couple hours a day to help make ends meet. Or, an old guy whose pension was cut by a corporate CEO obsessed with building a better bottom line. Or, a lonely person seeking social contact with people through part-time work.

It is only the beginning. Already there are driverless cars, delivery drones, and Artificial Intelligence could bring even more. The future is more screens and fewer face-to-face dealings with humans.

I can imagine myself walking in the woods, brushing my arm against a plant, then noticing a rash rising on my skin. I photograph it with my cell phone and message the image to an online site.

The words Poison Ivy then flash across my phone screen. Seconds later a prescription appears. I go into town, find a kiosk and feed it the prescription code and my health card. A tube of poison ivy salve drops into the kiosk’s dispenser.

That’s the future, eh?


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