We’ve all seen it: a couple, out at dinner, both of them basking in the small, personal glow of a smartphone. While this may have been me or you at some point, the way it looks from a distance is decidedly sad and lonely.
There’s been a lot of chatter about the negative impact of smartphones and technology on dining out. We no longer appreciate our meals because we’re too busy Instagramming the dishes. We no longer understand decorum because we’re too busy texting. Recently, a restaurant studied surveillance footage of its dining room in an attempt to figure out why service had become so slow. What it discovered was that it wasn’t the waitstaff or the kitchen that was holding things up, but the time customers spent on their phones that was making turning tables so difficult.
Despite all this, there’s a new trend towards apps that help in removing human interaction from the dining experience. And even though we’re increasingly turning into a bunch of morons who can’t rip ourselves away from our phones, I think these apps have it all wrong.
Square has just made it possible to order coffee from your phone so it’s ready at the coffee shop when you arrive. No need to interact with a human at all — the ordering and payment has already occurred, and all you have to do is mumble your name and the coffee gets handed over.
An app called Hail Pay launched recently in L.A., which allows you to pay your bill at a restaurant without interacting with the staff. Finish your meal, pay by app, get up and leave. You can also call the server over with this app, negating the need for the waiter to actually look for human clues that you might need him.
Search the app store and there are plenty more apps like this: bright boxes on your phone screen you can tap to order food and pay for it while sitting in a restaurant or, in some cases, before you even arrive. Apps that allow you to bypass the entire host situation and seat yourself at your table that the app has alerted you is ready. Conceivably, these, along with drone waiters, will make it so that we don't have to interact with anyone at all when eating out.
But, aside from this being sad and issues with the devolution of society and all that, I don't think this is what people actually want at all. Even those poor saps staring into their phones over a dinner date probably don't mean to be doing it. Addiction to technology aside, the reason we go out into the world to eat food is for human connection and interaction. For times when we don't want to interact, delivery.com is great. But at a restaurant or coffee shop, we're generally there because we want to get out of our solitude pods (or houses, or whatever) and be part of the world.
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Most of the apps that have done incredibly well are about connecting — not lessening connection. I'll leave it to another wonk to argue (for the zillionth time) that apps like Twitter and Snapchat and Facebook actually isolate us more than they bring us together, but the initial impulse to engage with these types of technology is because we are trying to connect and share experiences. It's a similar impulse to me deciding to go get coffee at the cafe around the corner rather than make it at home. Why would I want to lessen the interaction I have with the humans at the coffee shop once I've made that decision?
I'm sure there will be plenty of people who use Square's new feature for reasons of time and convenience, but any app that's going to do really well is likely going to work towards increasing connection, not blatantly trying to find ways to avoid interaction. Free idea: an app that allows you to virtually flirt with the girl across the restaurant whose boyfriend won't look up from his phone.