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Self-service is often presented as the best of all buying options because it allows individuals to get the exact product they want quickly without interference from others. But by making purchases “easier,” is the buying experience truly enriched?…

self-serviceSelf-service is often presented as the best of all buying options because it allows individuals to get the exact product they want quickly without interference from others. This increasingly means interfacing with some kind of efficient machine. People think that by making purchases “easier,” the buying experience is enriched.

However, there is another side to self-service that actually impoverishes commerce and culture. Self-service is not all it appears to be.

Of course, this is not to say that all transactions must involve service. It is part of the flexibility of a truly balanced economy that allows a great variety in working out transactions. It is the mania for self-service that needs to be examined. When self-service dominates an economy, it destroys important and rich relationships, complicates and burdens people’s lives and proves harmful to the development of a culture.

Commerce as Relationships

Commerce is based on more than just transactions. It has always relied upon organic relationships. From time immemorial, people in communities have traded daily with each other and in the process come to know their neighbors and build relationships of trust. Consumers could exchange pleasantries with the merchant and fellow shoppers. These seemingly minor exchanges help knit communities together. They tend to produce what some sociologists call social capital.

Indeed, the word commerce itself has two main meanings. One is that of social intercourse involving the interchange of ideas, opinions and sentiments. The other definition is that of the buying and selling of commodities. The two meanings obviously are intertwined since buying and selling are so much a part of everyday life. Relationships act as a lubricating mechanism inside economy that helps things move smoothly and make transactions memorable and interesting. These relationships have an immense value that is not immediately quantifiable.

Self-Service Can Harm Relationships

But now, in the name of efficiency and savings, the modern mania for self-service tends to destroy social relationships by pushing everyone toward isolated self-sufficiency. There is the notion that social intercourse is unnecessary to commerce. It is more efficient to eliminate the costly human element.

Thus, by paying at the pump, a person can travel all day without directly talking to a single person. They can avoid personal contact by buying online.  Customers think they are controlling their purchases but they are actually only controlling the predetermined products put before them through the electronic devices and processes provided for them. Everything is actually controlled by the producer including the consumer. Supermarkets without cashiers, for example, end up controlling consumers by turning them into unofficial employees of the store without hours or wages.

Self-Service Is Not Easier

A second argument for self-service claims that it is easier than full service. However, that is not necessarily true. Physically it is much easier for someone else to help or do something for the buyer. The seller usually is better qualified to help, and a person might also save time by looking for help and service from others. The real reason some people prefer self-service is not ease but rather a desire not to deal with people.

The self-service mentality is characterized by individualism with an aversion to human contact. Human contact takes effort since it involves adjusting to the personality of the person serving. A machine is much easier to deal with since one does not have to adjust to it. The machine always does things exactly the same way, every time. Even when machines can be very difficult to use due to special situations or when they malfunction, the self-service person prefers complex machine problems to complex personal contact. In fact, the self-service person often tends to treat people roughly as if they were machines.

Psychologically, the individualist finds it difficult to ask help from another because to do so implicitly recognizes one’s dependency, which all individualists abhor.

Self-service also saves people from the embarrassment of being served, which many see as a demeaning task for the person serving. To avoid the awkward situation of appearing in some way superior, the individualist prefers to exert more effort using self-service.

Thus, while service is often physically easier and more personal, self-service is psychologically simpler since it relies only on self. However, self-reliant individuals soon find themselves overburdened with an enormous number of small tasks that end up taking a lot of time and effort.

Self-Service Harms Culture

There is a final and much more detrimental aspect to the self-service mania that is more cultural than economic. When self-service dominates, the vital human feedback and commentary that is part of “commerce” (in the social sense) is lost. In a self-service economy, customer choices occur in private and unknown acts that are reduced to cold impersonal statistics and market research defined in categories controlled by the producer.

Human relationships linked to transactions generally help form a distinct culture with products that express the tastes and preferences of a locality and people. Informal exchanges about products help producers perceive ways to improve their products.

In a real economy that expresses the authentic culture of a people, there needs to be communication between producer and consumer. Contrary to modern industrial patterns, the general principle should be that demand should influence production much more than production determines demand.

Producers and Consumers Become “Co-Creators”

This can only happen if available materials are constantly adjusted to the tastes of those inside a culture. In a truly organic and human economy, producer and consumer should become the “co-creators” of goods. For example, a farmer could constantly adjust the crops he plants to suit both his soil and opinions of his customers. A local cuisine develops when chefs constantly adjust their dishes and native ingredients to reflect what local people like.

When this is done in a context of Christian perfections and virtue, it leads to a passion for excellence that results in products that are truly sublime. Production becomes a distilling process where the people experience the spiritual joy of seeing the product of their joint creativity with the materials at hand. When this is done with families over a period of generations, a culture becomes “known” for its distinctive products, services or cuisine.

The Isolation of Individuals

That is the tragedy of an economy dominated by self-service. It facilitates the fragmenting of society into millions of atomized individuals during one of man’s most important social acts—the buying and selling of goods and services. It ironically facilitates mass society since all these atomized individuals are serviced by the same goods and services controlled by mass media and mass production.

So people increasingly go about their lives alone, buying things by self-service or online, listening to their own digital feeds without connection to a community. They are, in the words of Sherry Turkle, “alone together,” part of the lonely crowd. This fragmenting is a step toward social breakdown and lack of civic involvement in society.

Human relationships should not be sacrificed on the altar of efficiency. Commerce would be so much richer if we retain the interchange of ideas, opinions and sentiments. Without this human element, the soul of the economy and culture fades away.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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5 replies to this post
  1. An excellent piece. One day it occurred to me that the reason I was attracted to self-serve was because it appealed to my introverted tendency to isolate myself from others. So I stopped, and have even learned to chat with checkout personnel like a normal person. It’s fun. Plus they need the jobs. Self-serve pretends to give us what we want, but really it just makes things cheaper for the owners.

  2. Several thoughts:

    In my local department store, they recently instituted four self-service check-outs supervised by one cashier. It is, of course, a move for cost-reduction (saving the company three cashiers). It is relatively easy and quick to process through the new section, but most of the customers I have seen will shun the area, preferring to wait in a long line than use the machines. Ours is a relatively small town, and most of the customers know most of the cashiers by name. And prefer to deal with people they know than a flatscreen.

    In a smaller, non-department store where I used to shop, they person at the counter got to know my habits, and would often recommend a new item based on knowledge of me. Online attempts to do this with an algorithm spectacularly fail.

    In a study done back in the ’50’s, baby chimps were given real mothers to nurse them, robots covered with fur, and metallic robots. The babies which had the naked robots, if surviving, were noted for having many personality disorders, depression, belligerence, and frenzied self-loathing (as exemplified by their behaviors). The ones with the faux-fur mamas did better. Of course, those raised with interaction from another living being did best.

    I have often, and only semi-jokingly, declared that if America wants to better its economy, it should send all the MBAs to a desert isle with no phone, no lights, no motor cars, no radio, etc. (But here I reveal my prejudice, as I am convinced the bottom-line-Charlies are what destroyed my favorite tinker-toy parts place — Radio Shack.)

  3. The popularity of Cold Mountain and the Harry Potter series may support this essay. Since I read little of the first, because it insufferably unpleasant, and only a few pages of the first book in the second, because the writer was so ham-fisted, I won’t go under oath. Contempt seems to characterize the first, and solipsism the second.

  4. All very true. In particular, regarding relationships between customers and companies, the loss of any positive feeling towards the seller reminds me of a scene in an old B&W movie where the character says, “I’ll drop you like a hot potato.” The “bottom-line Charlies” have difficulty with the less tangible human factors like company loyality. Both the buyer and the seller suffer in many ways under such conditions.

  5. THOMAS JEFFERSON for the prosecution; “From 1793 to 1797 I remained closely at home. saw none but those who came here, and at length became very much sensible of the ill effect it had on my own mind….I felt enough of the effect of withdrawing from the world then, to see that it left an antisocial and misanthropic state of mind, which severely punished him who gives in to it. And it will a lesson I never shall forget as to myself.

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