I detest inefficiency. I value speed and trimming down wastes of time, especially in the mundane things. But I have witnessed efficiency operate at the expense of dignity, and now I am reconsidering the costs, the dangers, of efficiency.
Airports are the contradicting faces of efficiency. Long lines to check passengers – probably ninety-nine percent of which who are normal, boring individuals with a couple pairs of underwear and too many electronic devices in their bag, and with no know-how nor care about how to make a or sneak a bomb or hijack a 200 person plane – who have to suffer through the tedious security process to then sit and wait some more, until the plane (which may be delayed) is ready to board, then there is more sitting and waiting. Yet passenger flights and airports also capitalize on efficiency: packing passengers as closely together as possible, nesting equipment to fit in compact spaces, workflows to land a plane, refill it, to take off again in as minimal time as possible.
In contrast, of the modes of public transit, subway systems I find to be some of the most efficient. They are on rails and not impacted by wheeled traffic. They arrive, open their doors briefly, automated announcements are made, the doors close; if you’re too slow, tough luck.
The airport I was at the other day had one of those subway transits between gate sections. I slipped on as the automated voice loudly warned the doors were closing. There was an old woman wanting to catch the subway transit; she was by herself and only a couple of feet from the sliding doors. The act of walking was great effort and her stability was poor. She had begun to cross the threshold of the subway transit and then the doors started to close. Knowing her own capacity and frailty, the old woman backed up, but not before nearly being bumped by the doors in a way that threatened to fall her. The doors opened again, a slow reaction to the impediment of the old woman in its way. The doors stayed open a while, seemingly accepting of more passengers, and the old woman attempted again to enter, but once again the doors began to close on her, while the angry automated voice informed everyone on and off the transit, “YOU ARE DELAYING DEPARTURE; MOVE AWAY FROM THE DOORS.” The old woman gave up, clearly overwhelmed. I was so angry and indignant at this cruel, cold, efficient system that I defied the automated voice and placed my body in the way of the door and beckoned the woman to come on in. The doors tried closing on me, the voice yelled at me three times, which was unnecessary because I was very aware that I was the humane asshole delaying everyone. The old woman got on safely, but looked at no one.
The doors closed and we were immediately moving. I looked around. No one met my gaze, which is typical in the stranger filled rush, but one man did not avert his eyes in time, and in the process of looking away from me, he pursed his lips together to make one of those faces of generalized disappointment. I don’t know if it was disappointment in my delaying everyone a minute longer (though I was uncharacteristically probably running the most late out of everyone and almost missed my flight); if it was, I think that was only part of it, because his expression communicated an acknowledgement of the disappointment of the situation existing at all.
I do not know if I embarrassed the poor old woman worse by ensuring she made it safely onto the transit rather than letting her catch the next one. Any way the situation would have played out would have yielded a loss of dignity to that old woman and anyone in a similar position. The message of these efficient systems are that if you are not capable of keeping pace, then there is no place for you, literally. I have often wondered when I get old or if I were to get injured, how would that change my daily physical living? This experience answered that question: there is no place for people like that in this society; they are unwanted.
If we have no place for those parts of our community, those parts of ourselves, then we are losing ourselves. We are dangerously accepting efficiency at the expense of dignity.