The human touch in the age of distraction


The columnist says while most banks still entertain the normal face-to-face and person-to-person enquiries, that is now becoming the rarity than the norm.

NOT so very long ago if you were to go into a bank or any office of a service provider to pay your bills, you would still be greeted after you enter the door with a smiling public relations officer or a guest relations officer, and asked as to your purpose of visit.

Today, the majority of these places have been replaced by bots or artificial intelligence (AI) and in place of humans, you as a paying customer need to go through a machine or scan, input in your details and your purpose of visit and somewhere in the building, or God forbid, a satellite away in Kuala Lumpur, the AI would ask you to wait for your number to be called.

Sometime in between the installation of ATMs and the growth of the Superhighway Internet and proliferation of smartphones and iPads and fake news and so forth, our public and private enterprises businesses have become so computerised that they have almost completely lost the human touch.

Sure, to be fair, most banks still entertain your normal face-to-face and person-to-person enquiries and would send you to a human who would be able to deal with you on a personal basis, but that is now becoming the rarity than the norm.

Then the whole process would again be fed into the system and you would have to be part of the computerised system once again, except you would have got an old-fashioned real-life person dealing with you.

The majority of us, when it comes to banking access and our own personal needs and daily transactions, have gone online and everything is dealt with on our iPads and smartphones with a keyed-in password click and flick. However there are many who still have not done so, who are still using the banking system as it was in the 1980s and the 1990s.

The human touch still exists, as shown by a surprise birthday cake for the columnist, honoured by the Anglican Bishop of Kuching Datuk Danald Jute (second right).

My late father was one such person. Although we had tried many times to teach him and to urge him to go online with his banking transactions, he had rather stubbornly refused. When he was in his mid-70s, it was relatively new and he could have easily waded into the shallow waters of early days online banking without much sweat; by the time he was in his late 80s, we knew it was too late to try anymore.

But my father had his reasons as well. When he could drive himself before his eyesight failed him, he would enjoy his regular visits to two of his favourite banks – HSBC and Hong Leong, both within quite close proximity of each other in the centre of town.

Back then, parking was not too much of a problem and he would either meet his buddies for breakfast or coffee right after.

For him, it was not a chore or something he dreaded at all. He had rather enjoyed the routine of banking, then meeting up or going to his favourite pharmacy to pick up his supplements and do other similar chores.

He told me he enjoyed his time inside the banks; all the officers and tellers knew him well, recognised him and would chit chat with him. As a senior, he would get preferred treatment and most days, his banking transactions would be a breeze.

Over the years, he made friends with many from within the banking halls; at the same time, he would frequently get to meet other relatives or former work colleagues doing their own banking transactions as well.

He must have rather enjoyed the warmth of familiarity and the constant reminders of friendship.

Towards the twilight of his life in his early 90s, Dad would still enjoy his trips to the banks, most of the time it was my brother Edric or myself who would drive him there and ensure his comfort and ease.

I am quite certain that the remaining senior staff at both HSBC and HLB who had served him so well for so long have missed seeing him since his passing last October, at age 96.

With automation and with AI nowadays being the norm at most banking halls and at virtually all our service and payment counters throughout the main cities (smaller places are still using the old-fashioned method, the better way), our service personnel have lost their magic human touch.

The humans you see still being employed are there simply to act like ‘robots’ to point you to the right booth, the right stall or to help sort out your query. You do not get that personalised service anymore.

Someone sometime last year gave this new age of ours a name – she had called it ‘The Age of Distraction.’

A gathering of believers at the St Faith’s Farmers Market, representing the ultimate ‘human touch’ among friends.

On June 27, 2022, writing in the Saturday Evening Post writer Amy E Herman said: “When we inundate our brain with too much information, it simply slows down. In an age of distraction, to become a high performer, you need to structure your life to find focus. Each time our devices send an alert, it distracts us from whatever we should be focused on.”

Our world itself has become filled with so many distractions – information moves faster, louder and brighter than ever before, and entertainment, social media and marketing have never been so prevalent.

They are all seeking our attention and our focus, and by doing so, our minds get diverted from more important work.

Today, I see children of five or six who are addicted to games on their devices – iPads or smartphones; teens and adults even more so – and it would seem that everyone is watching either TikTok clips or YouTube videos of all sorts of content, from talent shows to cooking videos to instructional and so-called news from both serious and dubious channels all vying for your attention.

Today anyone who can use the camera on his phone can produce his own video clip. This is one area where there is widespread ceaseless sharing of content between humans, but these clips are usually being produced for fun, for entertainment, some for instruction or help-manual or to show directions or offer tips of good places to eat or be entertained.

In a big way, the human touch continues via video-clips, via video calls and long-distance Facetime and suchlike. Thank God that there is still this vital human link, although it is now done via the Internet, by satellite link and is not really as ‘personalised’ as it used to be.

At least we can thank God for small mercies, that although humans might have lost their day-to-day interactions in the marketplace or in the halls of transacting business, they can still communicate with each other ‘artificially’ via telelink, and on the smartphone and via the many apps of Zoom, WhatsApp, Facetime and numerous other apps.

But at the same time, we have lost that ‘human touch’ for good — the warmth of a smile on a familiar face, the touch of a hand on the shoulder to say ‘keep well and take care’ and most of all, that humanity that shines through your eyes as they meet with the other person’s as you both rekindle your friendship, or indeed say a final goodbye.

We have reached an ‘Age of Distraction’ and are governed by ‘bots’ with super intelligence steering us towards a future where humans are just a cog in their wheels of progress and dominion, subservient to their network protocols and hardware.

May God save us all.