By Erin Moyer || Senior Editor
On Friday, I ate dinner at the Uno Pizzeria in Union Station in Washington, D.C. More crucially, though, I ate dinner with the future. And no, it was not invited. Let me explain.
My waitress told me her name was Diva, and I resisted the urge to quote Beyoncé lyrics back to her. She probably got that all the time. As she led me to my table, she brought something besides a menu with her. It looked like the sort of cheap, off-brand tablet you pretend to be excited about unwrapping on Christmas. Diva placed it on my table as though it were a vase of flowers. I stared at the thing. Was I getting it because I was alone? Did I seem as though I needed a dining companion?, I wondered. I was more than content to drink wine all by my lonesome, thank you. Surely a woman named Diva, who I am presuming to be a very boss-ass, independent lady, would have my back here.
“Ah, yes, that.” I said, as though I were accustomed to a small, blinking screen serving as a centerpiece. “And uh, what is it?”
“Oh!” Diva raised her perfectly-arched eyebrows in surprise and dare I say it, judgment. “You haven’t seen this?”
“I…” C’mon, Diva, what the hell?! “No, um, I guess I’ve never seen it.” Sorry I don’t hang out in Uno more, I guess.
Diva, now my guide in entering this brave new world, walked me through it. “It” was a Ziosk. A Ziosk is a small, chintzily-made tablet that seems to contain and control your entire dining experience: want to place your order? Touch here. Refill your drinks? Here. Pay out your tab? Eye the dessert menu? Call your server, possibly to help you use this damned thing? All over here.
But the “fun” doesn’t end there. The Ziosk also includes apps, and not just the ones you eat. For a charge of $1.99, I was told, I could play unlimited games for the duration of my meal. Perhaps for some, this is but a small price to pay to avoid your loved ones. If I provided Uno with my email, my Ziosk reported, I could join their E-Club and stay up-to-date with all of their latest news. (What exclusive happenings Uno could really have going on are beyond me, but that’s beside the point.) As I sat, politely considering my new dinner-mate, the screen advertised itself to me: Want to play Plants versus Zombies? Say, what do most calico cats have in common? Learn more fun factoids in Trivia! Look at our newsletter! Look at it! (And most calico cats are female, in case you were wondering.)
Diva must have just given me one of these, I thought. Surely this is something singleton dinner guests are given out of pity. But no, I realized in looking around: every single table had one of these gadgets. And my other Uno compatriots were eagerly, deftly, using theirs. We were high up in a historic, beautiful train station, literally looking down at people running to catch their trains. Are you not entertained?, I thought to myself. Is playing MarbleMouth really what’s rounding out this experience for you? I began to wonder, as so many have before me: can this really be a thing?
According to its website, yes. Ziosk is very much a thing. Ziosk systems host 50,000,000 customers a month. A month! That’s a sixth of our country’s population. That’s about half the number of Americans who voted in the 2012 presidential election. What’s more, this iPad wannabe, aside from breaking into restaurant chain-giants like Uno and Chili’s, has also cut contracts with Olive Garden and Red Robin. Your ravioli and burgers will soon come to you as fresh out of the microwave as is humanly possible. How darkly funny it is that generations of research and innovation have all culminated in this mundanity, this screen that flashes trivia about cats and bullies the obese into ordering more fries.
The logic behind adorning your restaurant’s table with Ziosk is easy enough to follow: think of the convenience! The extra drinks we’ll sell! The waitresses we’ll be able to fire! Customers accustomed to instant gratification (so, most of them) will love it. It seems like the next logical step in streamlining an already overly-processed meal, no?
Indeed, the Ziosk system seems to market itself based on our hyperactive sense of want. With Ziosk, its website assures us, you’ll now be able to “get your appetizer order to the kitchen ASAP,” “order another round as soon as your drink is empty,” and “order dessert when the craving strikes.” With language like that, it’s as though the concept of “dinner” is something wily you must tackle or else. Quick quick quick, order your appetizer! Are you drunk yet? No? More wine, and step on it! Oh wait, no, I need chocolate NOW!
I hope it goes without saying that the above was a joke. The point of going out to dinner really isn’t to eat as though you left your car running. We should try and savor those meals and (tablet-less) memories. Besides, does Ziosk’s game here not seem excessive to anyone else? What sort of spoiled monsters is it trying to create? In a country of fantastically overweight people, surely no one needs to get their appetizer into the kitchen “ASAP,” right? The normal amount of time— you know, the one that involves polite human contact before your mozzarella sticks arrive— would probably take only 10 additional minutes. Can you really not wait 10 minutes for your fried cheese? Should we really be given the power to order dessert immediately when “the craving strikes?” Science has finally, truly, gone too far.
The Ziosk really couldn’t be called “art,” and it’s my sincerest hope that no one finds it “entertaining,” either. Yet an article about it belongs in this section, because this is about technology and culture at large. And technology at large is, of course, only growing impossibly larger. Ziosk is only one worrying encapsulation of it all: we are integrating technology so seamlessly into our day-to-day existence, and most of us aren’t even stopping to consider it.
But the more I think about it, the more I realize that the Ziosk, in all its table-top glory, is nothing new. After all, how different is the Ziosk from giving your kid a Gameboy in a restaurant so he’ll “behave?” How different is it from my family and I watching Wheel of Fortune as we eat dinner? To now have a little device permanently joining us at the dinner table, primed and ready to take our order, play some games, invite us to join the E-Club, is only a natural next step. This is where technology is taking us. Or perhaps more accurately, this is where we have taken ourselves.
To me, the most chilling— though not altogether different— thing about this increasingly tech-centric world is an ongoing trend in elder care called Paro. Featured in all from Aziz Ansari’s show Master of None to Sherry Turkle’s book All Alone, Paro is a plush, animatronic baby seal programmed to, essentially, pretend it cares for you. The more you stroke Paro, talk to Paro, interact with Paro, the more it will make happy, cooing noises. On the flipside, if you leave Paro be, it will whine. It will cry plaintively. You, suddenly consumed with guilt, will scoop it up in mingling worry and joy that it apparently missed you. Paro makes you think it needs you, and that’s what makes it so great for elder care: senior citizens have a little thing that, by all appearances, loves them. (As opposed to, you know, having a family that once did that sort of thing.)
Ansari’s show featured a fuzzy Paro in an equally fuzzy light: one of Ansari’s friends on the show inherits one, grows to love it, but gives it to a lonely, older man in his apartment building. The camera looks on tenderly as the old man hugs Paro, and, I’m assuming, feels himself less alone in this world. Turkle, however, is far less sanguine about elder care’s favorite robot. Maybe Paro is sincerely comforting and maybe it’s not, but how well it may work isn’t the point. The ethics behind creating a Paro in the first place are, as Turkle argues, what should truly unsettle you. Instead of going out of our way to invent companions for old people, why can’t we fill that role ourselves?
The same question applies to devices like Ziosk, and to all devices in general: instead of building something specifically to entertain us at dinner, why don’t we do that ourselves? Why don’t we leave that to our friends, our family, the sad people rushing by to catch their trains? Our increasing preference for technology is coming at a dramatic human cost. When we turn to things like Ziosk, we put ourselves out of business. We’re setting dangerous trends and worrying precedents. We need to look critically and pragmatically at the ways we’re using technology now. Just because we can now order dessert right “when the craving strikes,” maybe it’s all not a good idea.
I know I probably sound silly in saying all of this. We’re so embedded in technology, trying to pull ourselves back now seems unlikely. We may as well get used to it. Maybe my grandkids will read this article and marvel at how far behind we were, naively ambivalent and quaintly typing our worries into a keyboard. So cute! Maybe they’ll pity their sweet ol’ gran who never lived to see LightSabers that also sing to you, or teleportation that simultaneously cures cancer and shrinks your pores.
Or as seems more likely, maybe my grandkids won’t read this at all. Maybe their microseconds-long attention spans will dart their eyes away from this impatiently, too eager to get on with the next post, the next app, the next big thing, to stay stuck on what once was. The singularity is dawning, and we are just sitting in Uno Pizzerias awaiting it passively. Well, waiting for it plus our Kickin’ Spinach Crab Dip. Didn’t I plug that in a while ago? Hey, do you guys want to play Plants versus Zombies, maybe? Or just re-up on Skinny Mango Margaritas? I’ll swipe my credit card, and we’ll see what the Ziosk shows us.
Senior Erin Moyer is the Senior Editor. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.