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Where have all the people gone?

It's possible to get gas, buy groceries, and make a bank deposit without ever talking to a human being. What are we giving up in the name of automated efficiency? In this polarized political environment, Americans need to interact with each other now more than ever. Chitchat matters.

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I was standing in the 15-item express line at the grocery store...with 16 items in my cart. When the man behind me saw that I was over the limit, he threw me a look of disgust, and moved on to a shorter line. “No respect for the rules,” he muttered as he left.

Yahoo! I was finally talking to a stranger. It didn’t matter that the conversation was a bit disagreeable. Earlier, I had been to the bank and the gas station without ever uttering a word. Instead, I exchanged greetings with an ATM machine and a stinky gas pump.

So to restore my sanity, I drove to the library for a friendly chat with the librarian, someone my kids grew up with, someone who encouraged them to read. Finally, I would talk to a real person.

Gone!

Instead, swarms of toddlers were happily swiping their books below a computer screen for a quick and efficient check out. Automation had found its way into one of the last bastions of social interaction.

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Small talk must be on the decline. Last year the local grocery store had one automated aisle; today, there are four. Sure it’s fun to see the Gatorade bounce down the conveyor belt, but where I come from (as is the case for a lot of suburban and small-town residents), cashiers are some of the friendliest people around. Why would we want to give them up?

Critics of Facebook tell us to shun social media for more face-to-face conversations, but, unfortunately, our offline world now mimics our online world. We talk only to those who are just like us – our age group, our economic level, our friends, and our colleagues. And there’s a lot less of that conversation taking place now, too.

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