Staying Human In Today's Electronic Age

IN an upscale suburb of Minneapolis, teachers who need a substitute must make their request in a thoroughly modern way. Instead of speaking to a real person -- the quaint old-fashioned approach -- they wend their way through a labyrinth of computerized choices on the telephone. (''If you are recording an absence for tomorrow, press 1.'')

The program, called the Substitute Management System, collects all the necessary information: the dates a teacher will be out, the reason for the absence, and any special instructions. After five or 10 minutes of punching in codes and numbers, a teacher receives a job number -- verification that he or she has indeed ''spoken'' to the computer.

Then another computer calls potential substitutes, who must respond by saying, ''Yes, I accept,'' or ''No, I don't accept.'' The entire matchmaking process is done electronically -- no person-to-person conversation required. Let your fingers do the talking.

One teacher who describes the computerized request system as ''intimidating at first'' admits that it's ''pretty ingenious.'' But, she adds, ''I still miss the human touch.''

The human touch is becoming an outmoded option in more and more enterprises. In Chicago, the First National Bank hopes to force customers to communicate with automated teller machines instead of bank personnel. Beginning June 1, anyone who dares to bother a real teller will be fined -- er, charged -- $3 per visit.

Leo Mullin, president of the bank, calls this fee for human contact ''the wave of the future.'' Yet the penalty is ironic. It was only a few years ago, after all, that banks began imposing fees for using ATMs, pointing out that the equipment costs money to install and maintain.

Other ironies abound as businesses abandon person-to-person contact in favor of modem-to-modem connections. Companies that are only too happy to let their customers rely on faceless interaction with a computer may still insist that their employees log plenty of ''face time'' in the office. Although advanced electronics have made the office portable and global, enabling employees to work any time, anywhere, a suspicion remains that telecommuters might not really be working. So much for measuring productivity rather than proximity to the boss.

Still, anyone wanting reassurance that personal connections still count somewhere in corporate America need only look at the business travelers filling planes. There's no substitute for face-to-face encounters when clients live far away, executives insist, as they rack up frequent-flyer points for yet another out-of-town business meeting, compliments of the expense account. Conduct long-distance business by teleconference or e-mail? Rarely.

But this exception aside, the obsession with technology probably means the business world is not likely to get more personal any time soon. Could robots invade the classroom someday, making teachers -- including those computer-hired substitutes -- obsolete? (History test of the future: ''Did the Civil War end in 1863? If yes, press 3. If no, press 4.'') And might even bank tellers be replaced by latter-day versions of HAL, the talking computer?

Probably not. But even without scenarios like these, how much goodwill is lost as frustrated customers deal with computers or listen to automated phone options that don't fit their need?

As if to warn Americans that the current state of high-tech is only a warm-up for even more dramatic changes to come, the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass., this week launched a project called Things That Think. Its purpose is to design computer intelligence into inanimate objects -- toasters, chairs, doorknobs, and jewelry. One possible innovation is a necklace that can judge the merits of a potential suitor across a dance floor.

The good news is that even these inventions have their limits. If a date passes the computerized jewelry test, there's still no electronic substitute for strolling hand-in-hand or dancing cheek-to-cheek. Which just might make a persuasive reminder to everyone that some things simply can't be delegated.

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