10/05/2011 04:58 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2011

A Hopeful Sign for Humanity Found at the Supermarket

I saw a blurb the other day that planted a little seed of hope in an otherwise dreary news cycle from, of all places, the business section. Amid dire predictions of global economic meltdown, there was this little article on a new trend in grocery stores. Apparently, some supermarket chains are phasing out do-it-yourself check-out machines. That caught me by surprise because I distinctly remember when my local market removed several cashier lanes and replaced them with the self-serve kind. It wasn't, in the grand scheme of things, that long ago. Reading the article I thought, "Wait, weren't these supposed to be the thing of the future?" I was pretty much resigned to scanning my own pasta and looking up the code for broccoli for the rest of my natural life.

According to a recent survey by Food Marketing Institute of Arlington, Virginia, only 16 percent of transactions at supermarkets last year were done at do-it-yourself lanes in those stores that provided customers the option. Three years ago, it was 22 percent so it's dropping. Why? There seemed to be two reasons; 1) people liked to deal with people at check out in general and, 2) people liked to deal with people if a problem arose during check out. That's what gave me hope -- when given the choice, many people, the majority in fact, still like to deal with real people instead of machines. In our age of creeping computerization, at least in the supermarket, people come out on top.

While I am awash in digital gadgets myself, I have to admit a low level of concern over all this technology and what it's doing to our ability, as people, to interact with each other. Take teenagers, for example. They don't like to talk on the phone; instead, they text. Their cyber interactions -- up to thousands of texts a month -- consist of words only, not intonation, not pitch, not even real facial expressions. Plus, these words are not even real words but strange, truncated combinations of letters and characters, a sort of digital code meant as a form of convenience and, sometimes, as a way to create distance from less savvy adults. It turns out, teens are really good at understanding technology but they're not that good yet at understanding people.

Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, then director of neuropsychology and cognitive neuroimaging at McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA, did a study a few years back that showed teenagers aren't as able to correctly identify emotions from facial expressions as adults are. That particular facility takes a few more years to really solidify and teenagers operate at a disadvantage. It reminds me of a great line I read a couple of years ago from a Wall Street Journal piece by Mark Baulein. Speaking of teenagers, he said, "The digital natives improve their adroitness at the keyboard, but when it comes to their capacity to read the behavior of others, they are all thumbs."

The only way to learn to read facial expressions, to interpret body language and pick up on subtle, non-verbal cues is to actually be around other people, more, to interact face-to-face with other people (I have seen teenagers who stand 10 feet from each other and text instead of talk). If interpersonal ability continues to degrade in teenagers due to their digital dependence, there may come a time when the high school field trip to the supermarket is not only to learn how to read labels but it's also to learn how to read people.

I hesitate to live in a world where those coming up behind me know only one definition of the word character. Yes, it does mean a symbol on a computer keyboard but that word means so much more when applied to people.

I don't know if my local market is going to do away with those self-check-out lanes any time soon but I've decided, whenever I have the choice, to choose the person instead of the machine. It's my own small form of rebellion.