January 2024 Vol. 79 No. 1

Editor's Log

In Search of Human Contact

by Robert Carpenter, Editor-in-Chief

As it does every year, the much anticipated and enjoyed holiday season has come and gone, all too soon for my taste. As always, one hopes the true Christmas spirit outweighed the feeding frenzy of shopping greed. 

To be clear, my wife definitely manages our Christmas shopping. But on those rare occasions where we physically went shopping or actually sat down at a restaurant, it was interesting to see how various employees of different businesses handle customer service (I’ve been known to be a cantankerous customer). 

I’m happy to report that most of our human interaction with retail business employees was positive. Maybe it’s because I’m really showing my age, so people were simply respecting their elders and my gray hair. But I did notice that it is getting to be more of a struggle for people to deal with cash – counting change seemed to be a challenge for many, unfortunately. Especially for younger employees, it’s much easier for them to run a credit card as there is no math involved. And the number of places only accepting plastic is definitely growing. Not a good customer service trend in my book. 

More and more big-box stores are putting the onus on customers to scan their own goods and pay with credit cards, thus eliminating the need for checkers. I’ve personally never experienced check-out lines actually moving faster and I’m still trying to figure out what happened to all the supposed savings as the result of stores reducing employees. 

While I agree with the old adage that change is inevitable, I also firmly believe that not all change is good. With the advent of automated systems and websites, it seems that far too many companies are rapidly casting aside customer service for bottom line savings and convenience. Just like social media, we’re taking direct interaction out of the human equation. 

Ever try, recently, to look up a company’s phone number on a website? All too often, it’s purposefully omitted. The businesses want you to submit your query as part of a digital form. Queries deemed worthy will be answered – probably by email. That saves business personnel from the apparently tedious task of answering phones.  

As I surf the web for information from time to time, I’ve increasingly discovered that many websites don’t even include some kind of a direct contact number – and that includes such giants as AT&T. Time is money and it seems that answering telephone queries is now considered a waste of time. 

Further, try to find an email of a particular person on a website or try to look up a particular staff member – it has become almost impossible. Anonymity, in lieu of personal contact, is rapidly becoming the norm, rather than the exception. Companies and utilities in the underground infrastructure realm are too often guilty of these practices, as well. 

I reviewed multiple reports about how Millennials, Generation Z and now Generation Alpha, are struggling with interpersonal relationships, such as how to answer basic questions or simply stumble through basic conversations. The younger they are, the less comfortable people are with human interaction. I also witness these trends every day. 

Which begs the question: what has happened to the human condition? As AI (artificial intelligence) assumes a larger role in our society, I see human interaction continuing to become detached and remote. AI has already brought tremendous change and we’re just getting started. You know that when governments are actively figuring out how to control, direct, embrace (and even make money) out of AI; it is a worldwide tsunami from which there is no turning back. 

Like most in the post-COVID era, I work from my home office. I do have a number of Teams or Zoom meetings. To me, the concept is to maximize direct interaction to accommodate offsite communications. Yet, how many virtual meetings have you joined recently where participants never turn on their video and stay muted unless asked a direct question, effectively never participating in the meeting. Part of essential communications comes from listening to extemporaneous comments, hearing voice inflections, seeing facial expressions – all elements of essential, thorough and comprehensive communications. 

On the bright side, in the underground infrastructure industry, people still have to ultimately – and then actively – work together. In this issue, we have project stories that clearly show how effective communications between owners, engineers, vendors and contractors resolved problems and unseen challenges to provide impressive solutions. Face-to-face conversations and phone calls, in tandem with modern technologies, worked wonders in allowing all parties to reach constructive conclusions. 

It wasn’t that long ago that social media arrived. Facebook and soon Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn literally blew up our social and business interactions. It was only briefly before that when texting was overwhelming our society. Now, AI has entered the playing field. These platforms have vested tremendous power into the hands of few. Human privacy will never be the same. But these radical changes are not the problem per se. It’s the cumulative dissolution of human interaction that I see as the biggest loss. 

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