High-tech future forgets human touch

Not long ago, people could walk into a bank and speak freely with helpful tellers about a variety of banking problems. But at all branches of one local bank, that access may result in a service charge. Meanwhile, the popular notion of a classroom may soon include cameras and network connections to other classrooms hundreds of miles away.
These developments, we are told, are all about progress. But if up-and-coming technology means a total lack of human contact, we say the future can wait. We’ve seen enough.
New subscribers to First Bank checking account services can now look forward to a monthly service charge (actual amounts depend on the account chosen) if they decide to make financial transactions or account inquiries in person. The charge can be waived in some instances if subscribers use direct deposit or automated teller machines. Nevertheless, the policy seems to point toward a decreased faith in the merits of human contact.
Likewise, the introduction of interactive television, or ITV, to Minnesota will be complete in the fall, when a two-way television network starts broadcasts among 66 public colleges and universities. The program is already underway on a limited basis at the University. Teachers-turned-camera operators send their image and message to classrooms across the state and respond to questions from students via a central digital network called MNet.
Pretty neat, huh? On the surface, both ideas seem natural evolutions of life along the information superhighway. The Internet, electronic mail, the Web, dot-com this and dot-com that have all become part of the nation’s techno-vernacular. And most of these inventions are hailed as advancements that will lead to a 21st century fueled by knowledge and communication.
But with this “progress” has come a lack of attention to — and even an overt dismissal of — the worth and necessity of face-to-face communication. It’s hard to dispute the value and convenience of an ATM when you’re in a pinch for cash, but being forced to deal exclusively with keypads and personal identification numbers for potentially important transactions is a little ridiculous.
Most students and teachers know what sets some educators apart from others. A strong rapport with students and attention to their personal needs are at the top of the list. But sometimes the intuition to know when students are struggling, and the wherewithal to help them, is even more important. ITV, regardless of its admittedly impressive technology, could never offer that level of personality. Furthermore, seemingly simple details like lighting, sound and picture quality are reportedly substandard on ITV. Virtual reality this is not.
The quest for a better, more efficient way of serving customers and educating students is understandable, if not noble. But we fear that quest may be moving down the wrong path, one paved with dreamy wouldn’t-it-be-great notions of grandeur. In a world full of robots with microchips for brains, ATMs and ITV are enough. And the last time we checked, human beings were still atop the cognitive reasoning totem pole; here’s hoping it stays that way.