Digital Natives: The Last Face-to-Face Generation?

Jun 04, 2015

Last week, I made the trek to my Verizon Wireless store to upgrade to the iPhone 6. Usually I just do this online. I'll place an order and have my new toy delivered in two business days, successfully avoiding any one-on-one communication with an actual person. This time, though, I had a few questions I needed answered about my bill, and we all know what calling a large company such as Verizon is like.

While it is certainly more effort to do things like this in person, I'm glad I did. I ended up upgrading my phone and plan, and walking away with a few fun extras (including an iPad Mini 3) for just a couple more bucks, something that would have never happened if I'd stayed home and ordered my phone online. Sometimes it's more rewarding to have a one-on-one interaction with another human being than it is to click through a promotion-laden website. It's too bad that in the future we may not have a choice.

See, even though I spent my entire visit to Verizon talking to an associate, he spent the whole time on a tablet, looking up my account, having me sign new paperwork with my finger, and finally checking me out with a quick swipe of my credit card. When I asked for a copy of my bill, he tapped his tablet a few times and said, "I just emailed it to you."

At that moment I realized, the days of shaking hands and signing paperwork with a pen are over, and businesses may actually prefer it that way. It's clear that mobile devices have taken over our social lives and careers. According to Pew Research, 64% of American adults now own a smartphone of some kind, up from 35% in the spring of 2011. Our shopping habits are next to go totally mobile.

The morning after I bought my phone, I heard a story on NPR that reinforced this theory. It focused on how a tablet called the Ziosk is now replacing servers in certain restaurants across the United States, including Chili's, Applebee's, Olive Garden, and Pizzeria Uno. According to the manager of a Pizzeria Unos who was interviewed for the NPR story, the technology they have been using is creating quite the uptick in revenue. "The result of the Ziosks has been remarkable. Customers spend around 10 minutes less at a table, and they spend more money. Dessert sales go up by around 30 percent."

While I think this is a good way to utilize mobile technology, when I was talking to a friend who is a restaurant manager in Boston, she said, "Soon we'll all be robots." She was being facetious, of course, but I couldn't help but wonder if this trend of replacing human beings with newer technology like tablets continues to grow, will we ever have a one-on-one conversation with a stranger again?

I'm being dramatic, I know. Large brands like Apple have been using tablets in-store for years at this point, but that always made sense to me. For Apple, using an iPad in its stores is basically just good marketing. But as mobile use filters into other industries, I start to worry.

What amplifies this worry? Reading statistics about Millenials and their mobile use. For example, according to Pew Research, 58% of teens have or have access to a tablet computer right now, and 73% have access to a smartphone. Only 30% of teens have a basic phone, while just 12% of teens 13-17 say they have no cell phone of any type. In addition, 15% of Americans ages 18-29 are heavily dependent on a smartphone for online access. And lastly, 92% of teens report going online daily -including 24% who say they go online "almost constantly."

Just seeing these numbers makes me think that yes, one day we will all be interacting with robots (or at least technology) more than other humans. But then I remember what's so interesting about Millenials--the generation that relies heavily on mobile technology is also responsible for the resurgence of brick and mortar businesses like small bookshops. They are unpredictable when it comes to technology (see my column from last month).

When you take a closer look at Ziosk, it's not so scary. There is a strict balance sought between technology and human interaction. Customers can only order appetizers, desserts, and drink refills on it, and can use it to check out. For the rest, you need a server. This seems like a great compromise to me, and a model that many industries can refer to going forward. Sure, it is essential to streamline business interactions, but not so much that we take away our customers' ability to have a human connection with us. As the mobile-driven Millenials become the biggest consumer group, it's important to find the harmony between humanity and technology. We've done pretty well so far, and there is no reason this can't continue to be true in the future.