Thoughts on the role of people and machines in then-current workplaces

Columnist Celestine Sibley wrote this for the combined The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution of Sept. 6, 1971.

At the grocery store I needed change to make a telephone call. The woman in the office waved me toward the checker, who took my quarter and put it on the cash register and not only went on ringing up a cart full of groceries for the main in front of her but engaged ina leisurely chat with him about the weather, their respective illnesses and what was good for supper.

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Celestine Sibley Constitution Writer. 1957.Photo: Charles Pugh / File

Credit: Charles Pugh

Celestine Sibley Constitution Writer. 1957.Photo: Charles Pugh / File
caption arrowCaption
Celestine Sibley Constitution Writer. 1957.Photo: Charles Pugh / File

Credit: Charles Pugh

Credit: Charles Pugh

The next day I drove to the telephone company drive-in window to pay my bill. In line ahead of me a woman had parked, gotten out of her car and leaned against the window chatting amiably with the cashier. While I waited, a man drove up behind me, blocking me so I could neither move forward nor back out. Finally I deposited my check in a slot in the building and asked the man behind me to check up so I could quit the scene.

On the way to town I fumed to my daughter over the slow-moving, time-wasting pace of people in stores and offices in our little town.

“They act like there’s all the time in the world!” I cried.

“Well, wasn’t that why you moved here?” she asked reasonably.

Of course it wasn’t, I said. Nobody moves anywhere to spend time waiting in lines. You move to the country or to a small town to have time and leisure and quiet for other things, to sit under a tree, to read a book, to take a walk. You’d be crazy to like waiting in lines.

But I don’t know. The more you read of population growth -- one square foot for earth person on earth 600 years from now -- the more inclined you are to be patient with some of the present institutions. A few years ago there was a man back of the counter at the grocery store to take your order and search for the merchandise you wanted and set it before you, probably chatting all the time. Now we have that human contact down to a young woman in a smock, working at almost machine-like precision at the cash register. Within a few years she may not be there. They will have evolved a slot machine to replace her.

The telephone company line is not as sociable as the old system of going into the office to pay your bill. There was a time not so many years ago when one person in a small town ran the telephone switchboard and collected payments from the customers when the board wasn’t busy. Now there’s a face back of a a window but it is a living, speaking face and for that we must be grateful. We lost Myrt on the switchboard and the time is probably near when the face over the counter or back of the plate glass will be replaced by a machine.

It might speed things up. You won’t have to fume and race your motor and think of the time you’re losing but, but oh how terrible to lose touch completely with human beings when you move about on dull and essential errands. We’ve lost railroad conductors and floorwalkers and shoe shine boys and doctors who make house calls. The butcher, if there is one, hides back of a swinging door and leaves you all alone with your cellophaned hamburger. Maids and cooks and yardmen are almost unheard of and soda fountains and soda perks are few and far between.

Where people exist in jobs, even slow and talky people, maybe we’d all better enjoy them. Tomorrow they may be gone, leaving us all alone with a machine.

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