It's Time to Put Automated Services On `Hold'

SATURDAY morning in the suburbs, and the list of errands is long:

8:30 a.m. - Do banking. The bank won't open for another half hour, but no problem. Who needs tellers when there's a money machine in the lobby? Insert ATM card, punch in a few numbers, and voila! Cash appears, funds are transferred, and VISA bill is paid, all without conversationwith another person.

8:40 a.m. - Get gas. Pull up to self-serve pump, unscrew gas cap, flip lever on pump, insert nozzle, fill tank. Replace cap, then walk to cashier's booth to pay. Total conversation with teenage attendant: ``Thank you.'' ``You're welcome.''

8:50 a.m. - Stop for breakfast. Order Danish and beverage at counter of upscale cafe. Wait for food, then carry it to table, cafeteria-style. Even so, remember to leave tip, because waitress will clear dishes. Minimal conversation.

9:30 a.m. - Buy stamps. Notice long line of customers in post office, so head for stamp machine in lobby instead. Insert $6. Press button ``B4'' for book of flower stamps. Presto! Machine delivers stamps and 20 cents change. But no contact with anyone.

And so it goes in an increasingly do-it-yourself society. If a modern-day Rip Van Winkle were to wake up after a 20-year nap, dust himself off, and wander into the nearest town, what would he make of this clerkless society, this shift from the quaint old question, ``May I help you?'' to the brisk new imperative, ``Serve yourself,'' which reduces social interaction to a minimum? Increasingly, interfacing is an activity more often done by computers than people. Service with a smile has become service in a while - maybe.

Some forms of self-service are liberating, of course. To anyone with a full-time job, ATMs may rank as one of the best inventions of the 20th century, making round-the-clock banking possible. Ditto for stamp machines, available even when the post office is closed, and mail-order catalogs.

But a downside can exist as well. Self-service may be efficient, but it adds to the isolation and abstraction of an already fast-paced, impersonal society. In small but cumulative ways, exchanging pleasantries with bank tellers, store clerks, waiters, and gas-station attendants can become part of the glue that helps bind a community and give people a sense of connection.

That connection may become even more tenuous as other self-service innovations appear. Already a few grocery chains have introduced self-service checkout. Known as Automated Checkout Machines, or ACMs, these systems require shoppers to run their own groceries through a price scanner before bagging them.

The customer might once have been king, but today he or she is increasingly a humble servant as well.

Perhaps the ultimate form of self-service exists outside the world of commerce. In Wisconsin, Roman Catholic bishops recently issued an eight-page document to parishioners called ``Making Do With Less: Sunday Worship Without a Priest.'' Lamenting the growing shortage of priests, the paper spells out procedures for conducting worship services without them.

For further automated inspiration, consult your phone book. Sandwiched between Dial-a-Pizza and Dial-a-Repair are no less than three Dial-a-Prayer services in the Boston directory.

However important and worthy the recorded message, the phone call that gets you a voice but not a human being represents the ultimate frustration. And when the recorded voice invites the caller to press 1 for one bit of desired information and 2 for another purpose and so on - without offering the option you're interested in - the disadvantages of impersonal, robotic services become all too apparent.

At that point, what caller would not give anything for a rude, real-live operator's voice on the other end? Enough of this brave new wired world. Along with suspicious tellers and pump jockeys wielding dirty squeegies, bring back Lily Tomlin's Ernestine - and not, please, as an answering machine.

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