Modern Times

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(Host) Commentator David Moats thinks that the frustrating situation commonly known as “Catch twenty-two” is alive and well in computerized retailing.

(Moats) Remember the Charlie Chaplin movie where Charlie is driven mad by the mindless repetitive work of the assembly line? It was called “Modern Times.” It presented in cinematic form one of the prevailing critiques of modern society: that modern industry was dehumanizing, that industrial work alienated workers from themselves, that by incorporating workers as a part of the industrial machine, it turned them into machines.

Where in the vast industrial scheme was there room for creative, thinking, loving people, who thrive by human interaction and constructive endeavor? The answer was no place.

Now industrialization is creeping into our everyday lives. Even a simple action, like the purchase of a spool of thread, has become enmeshed in a complex web of a computerized retail industry that turns store employees into functionaries who have no real relation to customers, who are controlled by the demands of the computer and the rules of their rigid corporations.

An example. A friend bought a phone card at one of our big box stores. When you buy a phone card, the checkout clerk is supposed to swipe it through a machine to activate it. The clerk apparently did not do so, so when the phone card didn’t work, my friend took it back.

“This card hasn’t been activated,” the manager said.
She said, “I know. That’s why I brought it back.”
“Do you have your receipt?” he said.
“No,” she said.
“Sorry,” he said.
“You might have stolen it.”
“I didn’t steal it.”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“Can’t you just activate it?”
“We can’t do that.”
“The clerk didn’t swipe it when I bought it.”
“That’s impossible.”
“The computer prompted her to swipe it.”
“But it’s not activated.”
“You know,” my friend said, reaching the end of her rope, “This is why people hate shopping here.”
“You don’t have to shop here,” he said.

There it is. My friend doesn’t have to shop there. She is nothing to them. She is a mere individual. As long as they have the numbers on their side, they don’t need to consider the individual.

The dominance of electronic processes, which turn clerks and customers into mere cogs, represents the latest version of Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” It is justified in the name of efficiency, of course. But compare that kind of transaction with the kind you have when you buy a spool of thread, or even a phone card, at a small store in Vermont.

The store may have it or it may not. But the people in the store will talk to you about it, and they can figure out how to get it, maybe.

It’s not quite as efficient. It may be less modern. But it’s a way to stay human and to keep from wandering off in a daze, wrenches flailing, like poor ol’ Charlie Chaplin.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald, and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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