As the taxi industry tries to adapt, it’s apparent that that impersonal technology in the form of apps has become indispensable in the COVID-19 era. (Courtesy photo)

I Drive SF: Until the robots take over

Pandemic leads to more automation, loss of human interaction

These days, nothing feels safe anymore. Sharing public spaces, breathing the same air with strangers or even extending a robust handshake are all fear-inducing activities. Last week, I was saying goodbye to a friend and we hit that awkward moment when, in olden days, we would have gone in for a bro hug. But in coronavirus times, you have to find some other way to express affection. You either bump elbows or make a gesture with your arm from a distance.

You just can’t trust anyone anymore. Not even friends and family. While this loss of physical contact is disheartening, it seems to only be the beginning. As contactless transactions become the norm, automation is quickly taking over our lives and ushering in a new disconnect. And in the process, we’re losing the human experience.

I’ve always been resistant to the entire concept of artificial intelligence. Besides my inclination to avoid anything that advertises itself as “artificial,” most of the science fiction books that had major influences on me all warned of an AI takeover. It became second nature to fear a robot uprising.

It may seem silly to worry about super intelligent robots taking over the world, but we’re already seeing the economic impact of automated services and the loss of human interaction. Just look at the taxi industry.

A major impetus to drive a taxi was my desire for authenticity. After having done the Uber/Lyft thing for 11 months, I wanted a more personal experience. I wanted to interact with the people of San Francisco on a deeper, more profound level. And driving a taxi provided that. So much more than the automated experience of Uber and Lyft.

I’ve never felt more connected to a place than while driving a taxi in The City.

Now that any exposure to another human is rife with potential illness, it seems the only way to drive for hire is to embrace the business model of ride hailing.

In order to salvage the taxi industry and provide service to essential workers, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has been installing numerous safety protocols in taxis, from shields between the front and back seats, to providing personal protective equipment to drivers and requiring sanitation between fares. According to other drivers, business seems to be rebounding. Especially with Muni limiting routes and the greater risk of being exposed to the virus while squeezed together in enclosed spaces like buses or subways.

Still, being confined with other people feels too risky. I really don’t want to get sick.

Because of COVID-19, fear is allowing automation to take over.

Whatever you need can be delivered to your house or arranged for curbside pick up. Ordering takeout from restaurants often requires an app. But I hate apps. They’re impersonal and devoid of that human touch.

Yet, so many places encourage the use of apps or online portals. Arranging to get my car serviced a week ago involved making an appointment through the garage’s website. When I rented a U-Haul last month, it was all done through an app. And since I have a beat-up iPhone, all of these processes were extremely cumbersome.

About six months ago, I was walking out the back door of my apartment building and, somehow, my phone flew out of my hand and landed on the concrete. While the case and screen were mostly unscathed, many functions within the phone mysteriously stopped working. At the time, I laughed about it. Because this meant my phone was becoming dumber. I’ve often joked that if it weren’t for driving a taxi, where certain apps are necessary to perform the job, I’d just as soon downgrade to a flip phone.

But now, with the prevalence of contactless transactions increasing, a smartphone is an essential requirement.

As technology continues to dominate our day to day, I’m now at a crossroads. Part of me wants to find a bunker or small plot of land somewhere in the middle of nowhere and hide out from the pending doomsday scenario. But I’m also inclined to get a new iPhone, keep wearing a mask while maintaining six feet and just embrace the changing world.

Either way, it’s a sacrifice. At least until the robots take over.

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. A veteran zine publisher, he is the author of the novel “A Masque of Infamy.” His long-running Behind the Wheel zine series was recently collected into a paperback Omnibus, available through all book marketplaces or from his blog, idrivesf.com. His column appears every other week in the Thursday Examiner. He is a guest opinion columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner.

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