A machine is no ersatz for real, human engagement. A virtual reality is never better than the real thing. A recent visit to Paris reminded me of these truths.
Amazon is said to have destroyed the brick-and-mortar bookstore business. Yet, somehow small bookstores in Paris survive despite the presence of Amazon France. None of the Paris bookstores have nearly the floor space of an average Barnes & Noble in the United States, yet they seem to thrive nonetheless. Rather than attempting to compete with machine efficiency, the Paris booksellers focus on human relationships and tactile experiences—an area in which no AI can match them.
When I’m in Paris, I buy books. I love Paris bookstores’ shop window seductive displays of books with provocative titles, well-known authors, and evocative cover art, entreating passers-by to come in. It was a newly released title by Belgian author, Amélie Nothomb, in the window of a corner bookstore in the Latin Quarter that drew me in one Saturday afternoon.
The shop was full of customers with at least three staff on hand to serve them, like a luxury hotel. One of the staff noticed me searching for the book and then offered to help. When I told her what I wanted, she did not point me in the direction of the book, but rather, she got up and plucked a copy off a display table and handed it to me. She then asked if I was looking for anything else, and I was—a book on the life of war photographer, Gerda Taro. She knew the book and told me they had sold out of their entire stock. However, she recommended another book about Taro, pulled it off the shelf, and handed it to me. I ended up buying that one instead.
Noting my interest in photography, the same staff person pulled a beautifully bound photo book of American photographer, Morris Wright, from the shelf behind her. I felt the texture of the cloth cover of the book and thumbed through its smooth pages of gorgeous monochrome prints. She explained the photographs are currently on exhibit in the Paris museum and thought I might be interested. She noted the address of the museum for me. As I write this while sitting in a Paris café, I am not sure I will be able to see the exhibit. However, I did buy the book.
I perused a few more titles clustered together with Japan as their theme. I picked up a collection of vignettes set in Tokyo and an extraordinary book of Hiroshige Hokusai woodblock prints, bound Japanese style in a single long fold-out. French publishing houses do have a flair for the exotic. I decided to buy these as well. I had walked into the bookstore looking to buy a novel featured in the window, and walked out with over one-hundred euros in books—and thrilled about it!
I could have bought all these titles on Amazon France, even the one that was out of stock and had them delivered to my hotel. A search for the book on Taro I had wanted yielded Amazon’s recommendations, including the book on Taro I had bought that the staff recommended, was buried in the depths of at least two dozen others. Yet, these recommendations are merely an amalgamation of other people’s buying habits. What could those possibly have to do with me? Amazon did not propose the Morris Wright book. Only a human can be so discerning. The Amazon listing for the book of Hiroshige prints was pedestrian, doing no justice to the book. Whereas it was the haptic experience of folding the book that made the decision to buy an easy one.
During my last visit to a bookstore in the United States, I was greeted with deserted floors of shelves. The adjoining chain coffee shop had more staff on hand ready to serve than the bookstore itself. The bookstore had a single lonely kiosk-terminal among the shelves so customers can search for titles in stock themselves, without indication of where in the store the title is located. When I tracked down a staff person to help locate a title in the store, we both discovered together that the “in-stock” listing on the terminal was in fact an error.
Brick-and-mortar retail does not have to be that way. My experience in Paris reminded me of that. Yet, too often I find we try to compete with machines by becoming more machine-like ourselves. Some of us seem to have lost our confidence in human intelligence. Why bother, when a machine can do so much better—stalking us through our internet browsing patterns and up-selling us products based on machine learning, or worse—deciding who among us is worthy of a job promotion, worthy of an investment in personal development, and who is appropriate to hire as an employee.
Cowed by the machine, too often we resort to abdicating decision-making to it. Abdicate human judgment to a machine often enough, and like a muscle that goes unexercised, judgment as well atrophies. With so much focus on the promise of artificial intelligence, our employees often forget how to use their own real intelligence.Don’t be persuaded that technology augments our reality. It does nothing of the sort. Rather, it is an age of diminished reality in which we live, if you allow it to be so. Click To Tweet
In Japan, I routinely see clusters of people coalescing together in public spaces, loitering in creepy silence each engrossed in his or her smartphone playing Pokémon Go, without even noticing or acknowledging those around them despite apparently sharing the same passion for the game.
In Paris, I saw people wandering the streets of the Marais with their heads down gazing into their smartphones, as if being led by the nose, while negotiating the narrow streets oblivious to the 17th century buildings around them.
In this age of big data and augmented reality, it will be human relationships and tactile experiences that will be of most value. Where is your business investing its energy?