Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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January 4, 2014

Struggling to stay connected in modern era a generational challenge

— — Hopefully, you have received all your Christmas presents by now. Several of the major shipping companies had their problems with late delivery. Sources reported that online shopping was largely responsible for a spike in the orders within the final week before the holiday and that shippers should have anticipated the situation.

Maybe. In these perilous times of button-pushing rather than face-to-face, or even voice-to-voice (as with a telephone) encounters, anticipation is more tenuous than ever before. It is becoming much more difficult to actually talk with a human being for such previously simple tasks as paying one’s telephone or electric bill. Customer service centers are being phased out so that those of us who prefer to talk with other members of our species are required to tiptoe through a series of messages or directions before we finally get a chance to speak with someone.

Even though the population continues to increase and is now reportedly somewhere in excess of 310 million persons, many major corporations have decided not to increase their numbers of (service) employees accordingly so that it often requires many minutes to speak with a representative.

Simply hiring more representatives would do much to solve the problem but weary customers have probably figured out by now that is not going to happen with these industrial giants.

I make it a point not to use self-check-out machines or similar devices based upon the belief that someone’s job is at stake. Increasingly, companies seem to be searching for ways to decrease the number of real people and increase the number of machines at work. We seem to be continually inventing ourselves right out of jobs for the ordinary or average individual. Machines are becoming the master right before our eyes.

That may be an unavoidable trend as we plunge headlong into 2014. If we could consider recent history perhaps these trends, like some of the wording in our own Declaration of Independence, would be more self-evident.

For example, a few decades ago the front porch was a staple of family life. Parents could overlook the front yard and children played in plain sight. There was a “closeness” to the family unit. Neighbors often walked over to chat or spoke from their own porch area. Local news was exchanged between friends. Bonds were not only formed but strengthened.

From that front porch, it was a relatively short walk to the kitchen where a meal would be prepared that (with apologies to Archie and Edith Bunker) all in the family could enjoy together on most days of the week.

Then, we were refreshed — and I admit it! — when the air conditioner came along. Suddenly the front porch was too hot and we began to shut ourselves away from each other. We love — and I admit it! — our televisions and with the proliferation of sets in various rooms of our homes, we found it increasingly convenient to watch our separate programs in our own space.

As our expenses increased, we began to expect that all members of the family should have some kind of a paying job. Family time began to give way to Junior working at night and Mom having to work on weekends.

Within a few years, microwave dinners often replaced the old homemade fried chicken spread we had traditionally shared together.

Those former days of spending time talking on the phone became altered, as well. There were not nearly as many parents telling teens to get off the horn, because we had invented the cell phone so that (conveniently again) we were now able to provide different numbers and units to all members of the family. Now, we could walk through grocery stores with our heads bowed low near the little screens so that we need no longer even glance around to see the people actually in our midst.

So, as we prepare for a new year, I hope that our brilliant inventors can come up with some gadget that will help to reduce — not increase — our isolation. I appreciate the service that social media, so called, can provide.

Yet that old America we used to know, when the tweets most often came from the birds in the trees and our faces were in books with real pages, was a warm and fuzzy place that was fun to grow up in and live in.

And customer service was right across the counter.

Larry Hypes, a teacher at Tazewell High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist.


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