“All real living is meeting,” said Martin Buber. That’s the epigraph of a book I checked out yesterday (“Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up” by Norman Fischer); the irony is that the Palo Alto library where I got it seems intent on avoiding personal contact with its borrowers.
I’d been to this particular branch about a dozen times since I moved here, which says more about me than it does about the library, and always had a person assist me. But this time, the woman behind the counter said, when I brought my books up, “Well I can help you with self-checkout if you like.”
Self-checkout: A modern name for the soulless enterprise of shopping — and now even borrowing — alone. You’ve seen it in supermarkets, and if you’re like me, impatient with people who seem determined to set cans on top of eggs, you’ve taken advantage of it there, to the sound of an automaton asking, “Do you have any coupons?” The most extreme example of this phenomenon that I’ve witnessed was at an airport in Sydney, where I checked myself in, and then checked my bags for a Qantas flight to Adelaide without ever once seeing an airline employee. I trust there was someone flying the plane.
The librarian showed me how to use the machine, making sure that I scanned their barcode and not the sales code “since we’re not selling them to you,” she said. (Heaven forfend!) When I told her that I had been there many times and had never once been pointed to the machine, she gave me a pitying smile. The kind I expect from the undertaker when I hit the self-cremation button.
Aside from the financial impact (all of these jobs being eliminated in the name of efficiency, saving money for the company, or the county), the self-checkout business seems designed to make us more isolated. I can now go to the library and not speak to a single person, which many might say is the whole point. But without the brief encounters of life, what’s left?
“Thinking about Martin Buber’s wonderful statement that ‘all real living is meeting,’ we can appreciate that life is nothing but a series of encounters,” writes Fischer, “and that we are always provided, whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not, with a clear choice: Do I move into this moment of meeting, or do I shrink away from it because it may require too much of me?”
Paper or plastic, punk?