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Why artificial intelligence isn’t

Hello. You’ve started reading the automated editorial in this week’s Marion County Record.Please read carefully as our options have changed.

Press 1 to demonstrate your intelligence by skipping to Pat Wick’s “Another Day in the Country.” Press 2 to demonstrate the reverse by reading one isolated sentence of the editorial then posting on anti-social media how it is yet more evidence of the writer’s negativity and hatred of his hometown. Press 3 if you cannot find a number to press and are willing to go ahead and read the editorial because you have nothing better to do.

That’s the type of introduction all of us hear far too often these days. Remember when businesses used to have receptionists who could help direct our calls? They’re as long gone as the helpful people, mainly women, who used to say “Number, please” when you picked up your phone.

I don’t know about you, but I miss operators. When I was 8 years old, I was allowed to stay up until midnight one Sept. 30 to listen as the last operator on duty at Marion’s switchboard was replaced by an annoying electronic tone — a combination of two notes that typically don’t occur together in music.

The increasingly lengthy computerized messages that have replaced operators and receptionists at most companies often seem to stand in the way of whatever any of us want to accomplish.

Several systems of “press 1 for this, 2 for that” did a masterful job of forcing me into involuntary servitude over the past few weeks while I was trying to refill a prescription.

Physicians seem to want pharmacies to call them to renew prescriptions, but the pharmacy that my insurance insists I use seems to want things the other way around. The result was battling computers, each telling the other to be the first to call.

After finally getting someone to relent, I waited patiently for my pills to arrive in the mail — only to find that I was down to my last one. When I checked the website of my pharmacy, it said no prescriptions were pending.

Another round of “press 1 for this, 2 for that” ensued before I finally was able to reach a human there. After supplying an entire wallet full of identification numbers, I was told to call back in three hours. The pharmacy’s computer was down.

I waited and tried again. Three hours later, it still was down.

What wasn’t down, fortunately, was a nurse at St. Luke Medical Clinic, who told me she’d had the same experience and probably could get me a short-term prescription through Lanning Pharmacy. Even before she called back to say it had gone through, I’d picked up the drugs from Lanning’s and paid the whopping price for 60 pills that all these computers apparently were unwilling to let go of by going outside normal channels.

I was so embarrassed to have pulled out a credit card to pay that I put it away and produced cash instead, getting 8 cents back from the single $1 bill I handed over.

Hours of effort, spanning multiple days, by me, by a helpful nurse, and even by someone in Malaysia (or wherever) who eventually answered the mega-corporation online pharmacy’s phone all boiled down to handing over 92 cents, which I happily would have done in the first place —not just because the local service was better but also because it was local.

Granted, 92 cents remaining in the local economy isn’t going to turn us all into a Warren Buffett or a Bill Gates or a Mark Zuckerberg or a Jeff Bezos, some of whom make a lot more than 92 cents off us with their own mega-corporations.

But it’s a reminder, next time you hear from someone who just can’t imagine moving to a little town where you can’t get fresh sushi at 2 a.m., that for every disadvantage we have in comparison to the hustle-bustle of big businesses in big cities, there’s also an advantage of being able to rely on real people who take care of other real people they know because they all live in the same small town.

Bigger often isn’t better. That’s as true for waistlines as it is for communities. Next time any of us feels a temptation to grouse about whether we have enough dining options, whether our power goes out too often, or whether our government employees seem to spend too much of our money on things they don’t really need, we also need to keep in mind the good things about small communities — how a city crew will promptly remove a tree limb brushing against a power line, or how a nurse and a pharmacy will take care of someone caught in “press 1 for this, 2 for that” hell.

A year or so ago, when I would pick up a very particular type of coffee that my mother liked at Carlsons’ Grocery, I started counting the boxes on the store’s shelf. I soon realized I was the only one buying that brand. I checked the other night, now that my mother has been gone for several months. The store no longer stocks that brand. And, of course, it shouldn’t. But the fact that it did is yet another of those small-town perks we often overlook.

I could go on and on with examples. That’s part of the reason I personally decided to come home to my hometown in my working retirement. What all of us need to realize is that we must start encouraging others — along with young families— to see the silver lining, not the cloud, and to take justifiable pride in living in a place where “press 1 for this, 2 for that” still hasn’t managed to make our lives as dehumanized as those of the computerized voices telling us what to do.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Feb. 14, 2024

 

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