THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
It is an underlying question for the ages: “Is technology good or bad?” The answer is a resounding “yes” to both. So, the question we should be asking is: “Are we controlling technology or is it controlling us?”
I just listened to a podcast from Dr. Sanjay Gupta, whom I think we all know of, as he wrestled with the impact that technology has on his own three daughters and society as a whole. It was enlightening even though much of what he pointed to is well-known. Many of us are quickly lured away from the statistical data about the impact of technology because it is so integrated into our lives already. Questioning its use would be like telling a chef that salt should be removed from the kitchen – we all know that salt is not very good for our health, but – “come on” we can’t get by without it. So, I thought from what I know, and what I have experienced, I would take a hard look at the good, the bad, and the ugly (the theme song from the movie is playing in my head).
Okay, there are a litany of reasons why we should embrace technology in all that we do: it provides a anytime, everywhere communication network for the people we know and care for; it is a lifeline to information that we may need to access in the moment to solve problems; it simplifies some processes in the kitchen, and it allows cooks, chefs, servers, and managers to link with valuable data such as customer profiles, operational analytics, ordering, inventories, costing, etc. Technology can help restaurants monitor processes in the front and back of the house such as internal temperature probes in roasts, steam injection at certain times in the baking of artisan breads, exact temperature monitoring in sous vide cooking, management of our scheduled appointments and deadlines, and tracking scheduling and employee requests in a process that in the past was always cumbersome. Equipment in the kitchen like combi-ovens, sous vide circulators, and cook/chill for large scale operations have made us more efficient and consistent. We have embraced all of this and more and would likely agree that these uses of technology have made our lives better at some level. In all cases, we remain in control of the technology that serves as an effective tool.
What Dr. Gupta’s podcast pointed to is a growing concern over the long-term impact of technology as a substitute for a human beings’ natural instincts and needs. We are social animals who, for the most part, thrive on physical interaction. Like most living things, the desire to connect, communicate, and follow others has been apparent since the beginning of time. We want and need to be part of something larger: a family, group of friends, team at work, organization, club, or movement and the ability to speak and touch others in those environments is essential to the relationships we seek. Being social and relying on social media are two entirely different things. In fact, the term “social media” is a misuse of the intended definition. Social media can be and oftentimes is, an excuse for not interacting in a physical way. So, the definition of family, friends, team, and belongingness may no longer apply. How dangerous is this? Well, Gupta’s podcast points to the dangers that we probably already know but tend to push aside because it’s too difficult to face. Technology, in this case, is socially isolating. Now, I will avoid attempting to explain the human consequences of this both mentally and emotionally, but let’s look at how this new means of communication through social media can affect everything we do, including our culture in the restaurant business.
- When we speak face-to-face with another person and express our feelings or opinions, we are most often inclined to be guarded in what we express. We inherently know that HOW we present these opinions and feelings can be misconstrued. Mild disagreement can come across as anger in social media, our opinions can come across as closed minded without physical connection, and seemingly harmless thoughts can be viewed as bullying or hateful when in the form of a text, tweet, or Facebook post.
- In the kitchen or dining room, when team members are allowed to stay attached to their active cellphones, those impersonal connections that take place while they are working can disrupt their focus, upset, or anger them, and alter their ability to perform. Our restaurant teams thrive on common purpose and positive support, so it is easy to see how the misuse of this technology can change the entire experience of working or dining.
- We all have personal opinions and beliefs, some are founded in family tradition, levels of education, heritage, or previous work experiences. Some of those beliefs are backed with fact and real understanding and some are fabricated without sufficient proof to back them up. They are our opinions and beliefs, and we are entitled to them. But when we physically interact around those beliefs, one-on-one, there is an important opportunity to discuss and debate and maybe even compromise if we are willing to keep an open mind. Technology allows us to express our beliefs and opinions without real debate, without facts to back them up, and find an audience who will agree with us and pass on our thoughts whether valid or not. This can be a reinforcement of ill-founded beliefs and the petri dish for anger, hate, and mistrust. Technology, in this case, can be a platform for negative, divisive behavior which can create a wedge among team members in the restaurant or any other organization.
I was talking with an industry friend the other day, a person who has always been on the cutting edge of creativity and future thinking, about the ongoing labor challenge in the restaurant business (and many other industries as well). The conversation evolved into the likely solution of more technology and even Artificial Intelligence in restaurant operations. Everything from robotic servers to full sous vide operations where the “cooks” only needed to re-therm products that came from a central commissary, cut open the bag, and slide the finished item onto a plate. We have already replaced counter staff in quick service restaurants, cashiers with self-checkout kiosks in grocery stores, and grab and go concepts where a guest never need interact with an employee – so why not continue on this path? We can’t find any staff, so we have no choice. Right?
My gut was tied in a knot, and I felt cold beads of sweat forming on my forehead.
“Wait a minute! This is not what the restaurant business is about! What happens to the concept of ‘hospitality’ that pulled us into the business to begin with. What happens to the passion of cooking, the creativity, and the tradition that drives people to think about a career in the kitchen? Are we going to push all of this to the wayside? If so, what are we left with?”
Some may say that this is science fiction and an exaggeration. It will never happen. Well, I have missed the National Restaurant Show in Chicago for the last handful of years, but it is my understanding that this type of technology is grabbing more and more floor space each year at this event that defines our future as an industry. Are we quickly slipping into a world where we no longer control the technology – where it begins to control us? Remember, science fiction tends to quite accurately predict where we will end up.
Technology is not to blame. Our quest to create and expand the ability to think, to understand, and live with the benefits from that will never be thwarted. The question remains: How will we learn to live with this technology? Will we learn to control it or will it control us. In the case of the restaurant business: is our tradition of hospitality and culinary expression worth sacrificing for the advantages of technology? According to various studies, the average American adult checks their phone over 100 times per day (I plead guilty, myself) and the average teenager invest nearly 8-hours in “screen time” every day. This is no longer an anomaly; this is a way of life that is part of our culture. To them, technology just is. They have grown up with it and have little experience to compare it to something else. Technology can’t be ignored, but it can be controlled.
The Addiction Center and the Mayo Clinic recognize excessive reliance on cell phones and other forms of “screen time” use as a behavioral addiction.
“According to several studies, over time, the devoted use of smartphones can alter and negatively impact an individual much like gambling.”
This can lead to sleep disorders, lower levels of concentration, creativity blocks, anxiety, lower levels of cognition, stress, insecurity, loneliness, isolation, and anger. All of these can impact your restaurant’s ability to thrive and your team’s ability to coalesce.
In PART 2, I will offer some personal thoughts on how we, as restaurant professionals, might better learn to not just adapt, but remain in control.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta – Technology and Social Media:
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Be in Control
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
(Over 800 articles about the business and people of food)
CAFÉ Talks Podcast
More than 70 interviews with the most influential people in food
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