Three Reasons Why Self-Service Can Harm an Economy and Human Relationships

Child_operating_self_checkout-300x225 Three Reasons Why Self-Service Can Harm an Economy and Human Relationships

“Self-service is not all it appears to be.”

Self-service is often presented as the best of all buying options because it allows individuals to get the exact product they want quickly without interference from others. This increasingly means interfacing with some kind of efficient machine. People think that by making purchases “easier,” the buying experience is enriched.

However, there is another side to self-service that actually impoverished commerce and culture. Self-service is not all it appears to be.

RTO-mini2 Three Reasons Why Self-Service Can Harm an Economy and Human RelationshipsFree Book: Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society—Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here, and Where We Need to Go

Of course, this is not to say that all transactions must involve service. It is part of the flexibility of a truly balanced economy that allows a great variety in working out transactions. It is the mania for self-service that needs to be examined. When self-service dominates an economy, it destroys important and rich relationships, complicates and burdens people’s lives and proves harmful to the development of a culture.

Commerce as Relationships

Commerce is based on more than just transactions. It has always relied upon organic relationships. From time immemorial, people in communities have traded daily with each other and in the process come to know their neighbors and build relationships of trust. Consumers could exchange pleasantries with the merchant and fellow shoppers. These seemingly minor exchanges help knit communities together. They tend to produce what some sociologists call social capital.

Indeed, the word commerce itself has two main meanings. One is that of social intercourse involving the interchange of ideas, opinions and sentiments. The other definition is that of the buying and selling of commodities. The two meanings obviously are intertwined since buying and selling are so much a part of everyday life. Relationships act as a lubricating mechanism inside economy that helps things move smoothly and make transactions memorable and interesting. These relationships have an immense value that is not immediately quantifiable.

Self-Service Can Harm Relationships

But now, in the name of efficiency and savings, the modern mania for self-service tends to destroy social relationships by pushing everyone toward isolated self-sufficiency. There is the notion that social intercourse is unnecessary to commerce. It is more efficient to eliminate the costly human element.

What Does Saint Thomas Say About Immigration?

Thus, by paying at the pump, a person can travel all day without directly talking to a single person. They can avoid personal contact by buying online. Customers think they are controlling their purchases but they are actually only controlling the predetermined products put before them through the electronic devices and processes provided for them. Everything is actually controlled by the producer including the consumer. Supermarkets without cashiers, for example, end up controlling consumers by turning them into unofficial employees of the store without hours or wages.

Self-Service Is Not Easier

A second argument for self-service claims that it is easier than full service. However, that is not necessarily true. Physically it is much easier for someone else to help or do something for the buyer. The seller usually is better qualified to help, and a person might also save time by looking for help and service from others. The real reason some people prefer self-service is not ease but rather a desire not to deal with people.

The self-service mentality is characterized by individualism with an aversion to human contact. Human contact takes effort since it involves adjusting to the personality of the person serving. A machine is much easier to deal with since one does not have to adjust to it. The machine always does things exactly the same way, every time. Even when machines can be very difficult to use due to special situations or when they malfunction, the self-service person prefers complex machine problems to complex personal contact. In fact, the self-service person often tends to treat people roughly as if they were machines.

Psychologically, the individualist finds it difficult to ask for help from another because to do so implicitly recognizes one’s dependency, which all individualists abhor.

Self-service also saves people from the embarrassment of being served, which many see as a demeaning task for the person serving. To avoid the awkward situation of appearing in some way superior, the individualist prefers to exert more effort using self-service.

Thus, while service is often physically easier and more personal, self-service is psychologically simpler since it relies only on self. However, self-reliant individuals soon find themselves overburdened with an enormous number of small tasks that end up taking a lot of time and effort.

Self-Service Harms Culture

There is a final and much more detrimental aspect to the self-service mania that is more cultural than economic. When self-service dominates, the vital human feedback and commentary that is part of “commerce” (in the social sense) is lost. In a self-service economy, customer choices occur in private and unknown acts that are reduced to cold impersonal statistics and market research defined in categories controlled by the producer.

Human relationships linked to transactions generally help form a distinct culture with products that express the tastes and preferences of a locality and people. Informal exchanges about products help producers perceive ways to improve their products.

In a real economy that expresses the authentic culture of a people, there needs to be communication between producer and consumer. Contrary to modern industrial patterns, the general principle should be that demand should influence production much more than production determines demand.

Producers and Consumers Become “Co-Creators”

This can only happen if available materials are constantly adjusted to the tastes of those inside a culture. In a truly organic and human economy, producer and consumer should become the “co-creators” of goods. For example, a farmer could constantly adjust the crops he plants to suit both his soil and opinions of his customers. A local cuisine develops when chefs constantly adjust their dishes and native ingredients to reflect what local people like.



When this is done in a context of Christian perfections and virtue, it leads to a passion for excellence that results in products that are truly sublime. Production becomes a distilling process where the people experience the spiritual joy of seeing the product of their joint creativity with the materials at hand. When this is done with families over a period of generations, a culture becomes “known” for its distinctive products, services or cuisine.

The Isolation of Individuals

That is the tragedy of an economy dominated by self-service. It facilitates the fragmenting of society into millions of atomized individuals during one of man’s most important social acts—the buying and selling of goods and services. It ironically facilitates mass society since all these atomized individuals are serviced by the same goods and services controlled by mass media and mass production.

So people increasingly go about their lives alone, buying things by self-service or online, listening to their own digital feeds without connection to a community. They are, in the words of Sherry Turkle, “alone together,” part of the lonely crowd. This fragmenting is a step toward social breakdown and lack of civic involvement in society.

Human relationships should not be sacrificed on the altar of efficiency. Commerce would be so much richer if we retain the interchange of ideas, opinions and sentiments. Without this human element, the soul of the economy and culture fades away.

  • Cpq

    I use the self checkout lane all the time. 1. It’s quicker and I don’t have to stand in line very long if at all 2. I have plenty of interaction with staff with questions or finding something or simply chatting for a moment. 3. If I feel like I’m spending too much, I can start taking things out without bothering others. 4. At Meijer, they still scan your large items at self checkout. I only use it at the grocery store, it’s the only place it’s available in my town, and that’s the only place I want to use it.

  • Walter McKinley

    Semi-related: how often so we drive right by someone obviously having car trouble because “everyone has a cellphone today.” We’re robbing ourselves of our Christian calling to love one another.

    In general, technology separates us – it doesn’t bring us closer together.

    I’m convinced that if Jesus were walking the earth today, he would be calling disciples the old-fashioned way: with physical, personal interaction.

    • Legoge47

      Actually we are robbing ourselves of possibly getting mugged, robbed, hijacked, thank you.

  • Jeff

    This is a bunch of liberal politics ideology wrapped up in some kind of 21st century sociology philosophy theory. I grew up in farm county and if you didn’t learn to kill your own chickens for dinner instead of taking them to the town butcher, you were either afraid of work or worse, unfit to be a farmer. Your quote “The self-service mentality is characterized by individualism with an aversion to human contact” is a bunch of horse fecal. Sorry I wasted time reading this garbage. You are missing the whole point of good old entrepreneurialism and work ethic. I don’t change the oil on my vehicles myself every 5K miles or cut my own grass because I am avoiding interactions with humans, how absurd. All I can think is you grew up on somebodies trust fund, went to school to learn nonsense, and now are getting paid to spread this crap.

    • Faustina11

      I really do wish we could disagree without being disagreeable. Why the bile towards someone who is merely offering a reflection on an obvious problem of isolation in our culture? He certainly was not criticizing anyone personally.

    • Manifold

      I’d say that there’s a distinction between the self-service mentality and self-sufficient mentality. The reason you do those things yourself isn’t because it’s easier. Think of it like this: From your chicken example, instead of either killing your own chickens or taking them to the town butcher, if you held a self-service mentality you would rather simply take them to a machine outside the town butchers shop. This machine would take and weigh the chicken, and then dispense to you a comparable amount of meat. That’s more the mentality that he’s reflecting on: “I don’t particularly want to do the work myself, I’m far to busy for that, but I also don’t want to have to deal with the butcher.”

  • mister malted

    Bob is “ home-shored” .
    This means that although he works for a corporation, he sits at a
    computer in his “home office” in his house.
    When lunchtime rolls around he gets in his car. He takes the parkway and uses the ez pass
    lane to pay his toll. He stops at the
    bank to get some cash but he does this through the ATM machine. He next stops at the store, picks up a
    sandwich and beverage and goes through the self -checkout lane, likewise with a
    trip to the big box store before returning home to sit at his computer for the
    rest of the afternoon.

    Bob often wonders why he feels so alone.

  • Cheryl Biermann

    I never use self-serve lanes. The reason? These are entry level jobs that usually pay pretty well, but don’t break the bank for the stores. Imagine, one clerk can wait on hundreds of people in a few hours, it is only costing the stores a few cents on the dollar. People of all abilities need jobs, not just educated, smart people, everyone. I enjoy a friendly store. I also have already worked to find my purchases, load them and will load them again in the car. This self-serve can be such a pain for you if you have children or are an older person, let’s face it older people get worn out. Why wouldn’t you try and provide some service for a customer any way? Don’t be greedy. Profits will come, but people first. Please.

    • Michael Ezzo

      I agree with Cheryl, and I agree with Mr. Horvat’s essay. His view is absolutely not liberal; it is reactionary — a view that hearkens back to a pre-industrial, Christian-centered society, before Liberalism even existed. Liberalism was invented out of thin air by Freemasons and Enlightenment revolutionary ideologues : Voltaire, Rousseau, Montaigne,etc., who did everything in their power to “ecrasez l’infame” (“wipe out the infamous”; the “infamous” for them was the Catholic Church, which Voltaire hated so much, and this phrase was his motto with which he signed off on all his correspondence). They had some help from pre-Enlightenment heretics as well, but that’s another issue. Since Liberalism was invented by men it can be dismantled by men. Pray for the day, and support people like John H. for his efforts in bringing us there.

      • Joyce

        Are Cheryl and Michael the only one ones beside me who get it? Thanks for
        speaking up – I agree. Joyce