Waiting for my QR order, I hunger for the nourishment of human interaction

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The food was delicious – an exotic take on French toast, a reworking of the bacon and egg roll, a fried chicken burger genuinely finger-lickin’ good. The dining experience, however, was soulless. Or, more accurately, largely human-less. You know the drill. Rather than being presented with a menu, a staff member pointed us towards a disc embedded in the table with the now familiar chequerboard of black and white squares.

QR code menus remove the need to speak to an actual human being.Credit: Bloomberg

Rather than verbally giving our order, we had to tick boxes on an online menu. Once our personal data had been harvested, and a pre-emptive tip solicited, our food was delivered not long afterwards, rich in flavour but lacking the nourishment of human interaction.

Cheap fast food joints already offer us the representation of food. I worry that cafes and even good restaurants are going down the same path, offering us the representation of a dine-in experience. Such is virtual life in the post-COVID world of QR codes, Zoom, LinkedIn and Slack.

Social distancing continues to be a problem even as we have moved beyond the worst days of the pandemic, and noticeable is the mounting sense of nostalgia for the time when interactions happened face to face rather than in boxes on a screen.

Recently, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd penned a requiem for the newsroom, a column bemoaning how the work-from-home culture posed a threat to our very tradecraft. Along with the sight of reporters throwing tantrums, and sometimes their typewriters, Dowd missed the “incredible camaraderie and panache” of producing a daily newspaper, and was mystified that so many 20-something colleagues preferred to WFH. As someone whose first job was at a British tabloid – sat opposite a chain-smoking industrial correspondent, whose daily emissions were almost on a par with the dwindling numbers of industries left for him to cover – I found myself nodding in agreement. From watching and listening did I learn.

The forthcoming AI revolution has been likened to the industrial revolution and digital revolution happening simultaneously.Credit:

More than 20 years after Harvard academic Robert D. Putnam published his seminal study, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, with its warning about the threat posed to civil society by individualism and atomisation, a follow-up, Working Alone, could easily be penned on the shift away from the community of the workplace.

Our lack of human interaction is only part of the problem. More worrying is the disappearance of human involvement altogether. Artificial intelligence could replace the equivalent of 300 million full-time jobs, according to a new report from Goldman Sachs, and a quarter of the work tasks currently performed by humans in the US and Europe.

While also creating new jobs and driving productivity gains, generative AI could do to the white-collar sector what automation has done to blue-collar jobs since the early 1970s. The forthcoming AI revolution has been likened to the industrial revolution and digital revolution happening simultaneously. This time, the knowledge workers of the so-called “laptop class” are likely to find themselves in the firing line, both figuratively and literally.

Already we have witnessed the political consequences of a revolt against robots, not that we described it in these terms at the time. It happened in 2016, and it ended with Donald Trump in the White House. Though the New York billionaire told working-class voters in the “rust belt” that Mexican immigrants and lousy trade deals with China had hollowed out their once thriving communities, the reality was that automation killed off the vast majority of manufacturing jobs. One study found that only 13 per cent of job losses could be attributed to the negative effects of global trade. In the post-industrial wastelands that became the seedbed for Trump’s candidacy, the rest had been taken by machines.

His slogan Make America Great Again also relied on the kind of “things-aren’t-as-good-as-they-used-to-be” nostalgia that is already being woven into the narrative about the soullessness of the online world and the threat posed by AI.

I am not suggesting that knowledge workers are about to hurl down their MacBook Airs and rampage through the streets of Surry Hills brandishing Trump banners. My point is simpler: that though there may well be monetary benefits in replacing humans with robots and computers, there is always a heavy societal and political price to pay. Moreover, as the rise of Trump demonstrated, those whose livelihoods are threatened by machines normally scapegoat humans – often the most vulnerable, such as new immigrants.

These days, in between contending with QR codes in hipster eateries, I find myself looking back wistfully on the days when I thought the phrase “lived experience” was a tautology – of course experience has to be lived. With the rise of ChatGPT, however, I have come to realise lived experience is one of the few things keeping humankind in the game.

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