Singapore has become the first city to introduce driverless taxis. “It was like being driven by a ghost” said one of the first users and so we take another step in becoming invisible to one another.
I go to the supermarket and self scan my goods and so make no contact with the checkout staff. I can pay money into the bank and take it out with never a word to the cashier. I arrive at the GP surgery and confirm my arrival on the touch screen and the Receptionist is unaware of my arrival.
We are told that all these changes are for our benefit and we can rightly marvel at the technology that makes all these things possible. They reduce waiting times, are more efficient and economical, but there is another cost – they reduce human contact.
We text and email where once we might have spoken to people. People walk down the street talking on their phones rejoicing at this new-found freedom to communicate but do not even notice those walking past them. The headphones surround us in our favourite music, shutting out the human conversations taking place around us. Intentionally or unintentionally we make the people around us invisible.
Taxi drivers can be rude, checkout staff too busy talking to each other and receptionists can be unhelpful. Those walking past us can bump into us and the conversations around us can be noisy and intrusive. But they can also be helpful, chatty, caring and the smile from a stranger can warm the heart on a difficult day.
And that is the wonderful, crazy, frustrating, essential nature of human encounter. It is not always wonderful, fascinating and perfect but good, bad, indifferent encounters are part of the human experience; they are part of what makes us who we are. This is part of what it means to be human, to have relationship with one another, to be of help and service to one another, to engage with one another and talk to each other face to face – not just our chosen group but also people we may see only occasionally or even just once in a life time.
The so-called advances in technology that make all these things possible come at a very real cost – the cost of damaging the very nature of being human. They tempt me away from the possibility of human encounter, they falsely cocoon me in a world shaped by me and peopled only by those I want to meet – and in doing so they make me less of a human being.
I do not want to ride in a driverless taxi not because I fear for my safety but because I fear for my humanity. Give me a real taxi driver whoever s/he may be, however they behave, whatever their knowledge. Let me have that wonderful privilege and honour that is meeting another human being.