15 Jun

The Wawa Hoagie Machine

“Technology keeps us wired, but we’re getting disconnected” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (June 15, 2004).

I spend most of my day sitting in front of a computer typing words onto the screen in front of me – like right now. I’ve got a laptop so I can do the same thing sitting on my roof if I so desire. I’ve got a Palm Pilot too. And a cell phone.

And yet, as much as I’ve embraced these tech toys and the conveniences they bring, I still can’t get used to ordering a sandwich from a computer at Wawa!

Take a recent night for instance. 9:30 p.m. Hungry for a “Classic Italian.” Nearly empty store. I stand in front of the little sandwich computer pecking at screen after screen to create my own personalized sandwich. The teenager behind the counter just stands there looking down at the machine that will spit out my order. No eye contact is made. Not by the teenager – and not by me.

I take my receipt to the cashier, whom I greet with: “Hi. How are you doing?”

“$4.55.”

“OK, here,” I say, handing him a $10 bill.

“$5.45.”

“Thanks.”

I think it odd that this cashier speaks only in currency, but who am I to judge? I walk back to pick up my Classic beep! Italian beep! little oil beep! provolone beep! no extra meat beep! no extra cheese beep! no bacon beep! condiments on the side beep! hoagie.

“Thanks,” I say to the young man who made my sandwich. “Have a good one.”

He remains silent and I leave the Wawa disheartened.

I don’t blame the employees for their rudeness. After all, the hoagie was delicious. But I’m afraid we’re all beginning to forget how to communicate. Both literally and figuratively, we’re choosing to depersonalize society. Machines are creeping up all around us, and human contact is suffering.

It seems technology is slowly letting us live our lives on our own little islands, where the only thing of importance is our own survival, priorities, and needs. Solitude is one thing; isolation quite another. It speaks subtly of societal selfishness, whether we choose to admit it or not. The passing seconds on my watch are more important than yours. When we disengage from conversation, we don’t have to carry anything out the door other than the bag in our hands.

That Wawa sandwich computer is not alone. There’s the credit card reader at the gas station that tells me to insert and remove my card quickly, before I can say a word to anyone. There’s the automatic cashier at Acme that instructs me to place the scanned item in the baggage area, where I had just placed it. Then there’s the airline attendant telling me to get out of line because the machine will check me in.

“But I’ve got a connecting flight,” I say.

“It’ll take care of that, too,” I am told.

Granted, many of the machines popping up around us are pretty convenient. They can speed things along; they allow us access to them 24-7, and they keep the cost of a box of Cap’n Crunchberries down because there’s one less cashier earning a paycheck at the grocery store. But at what cost?

Standing in line at the post office recently, I waited 20 minutes to buy stamps. The vending machine tempted me, but I avoided it. For 10 years I’d been buying stamps from Dan, the affable Irishman behind the counter, and I certainly wasn’t going to betray that friendship now. Instead, I stood in line. Like most of those around me, I stood there silently, almost afraid to interact. Those few who were actually talking were doing so on cell phones, to friends and colleagues worlds away.

Not only is this behavior ingraining selfishness; it’s also taking away some of the joy in life. We’re missing out on those moments in line when small talk turns into something more. Perhaps it leads to a laugh, or to a friendship, a job offer or even a spouse.

If technology is to truly connect us, we must realize that it has the power to disconnect us as well. The next time I order a hoagie at Wawa, I’m going to tell that cashier that at least the Automated Teller Machine in the corner said hello to me!