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The Machines Are Winning

Commuters riding the rails out of the Westport Station in Saugatuck are soon to be at the complete mercy of their automated overlords. Signage went up yesterday announcing the impending closure of the ticket booths.

But will it ultimately even matter? Will anyone notice?

I've been riding the rails for about a month now as the result of a series of events that have left me with the monikers "Crash" and, through my own self-deprecation, "Calamity Cole." While the convenience of a car and, for at least the last week, the blessed luxury of air-conditioning are deeply missed, the experience has actually been somewhat enjoyable. If for nothing else, commuting on the train daily has made me feel more like an actual New Englander and less like the Texas transplant I am.

Seeing the signs up in the station made me a little sad. The same sort of sadness I get when I go to a store and see the self checkouts. The similar sensation isn't really surprising, since the reason Westport's station is one of a handful closing the ticket windows is because the automated ticket machines do the job just as well from a management perspective. In their view, perhaps even better. Machines don't get sick, require benefits or show up late. The state needs to save money, and in the long run the machines cost less than people.

I'm a geek. When a new computer part arrives in the mail, my girlfriend knows she has lost the battle for the evening. But even I must wonder if we aren't doing ourselves a disservice by handing over what are honestly some of our most basic jobs entirely to computers. What will the modern John Henry do now that the machine has finally won? You tried to warn us, James Cameron, but it turns out Skynet wasn't a military supercomputer at all, just a batch of scanners and money takers that slowly took jobs away from people without a ton of other options.

The signs paint July 7 as the final day for the ticket windows. As I ducked inside the building to get out of the rain the two gentlemen inside were gathering their things to get on the southbound Metro-North. I walked up to read the sign, noticing the ticket windows were already closed for the day. If I wanted a pass to ride, I would have to go to the automated teller out on the platform in the deluge that was soaking everything in sight.

The machines give tickets just fine, but they can't comment on schedules or delays. They can't tell you which track your train is actually on. The little computerized tellers simply take your destination and your money and spit out the tickets. Arguably that is all the tellers do, though somewhat more elegantly. At least there is a face and a sense of, well, humanity.

That sense of sadness doesn't last as long as, idealistically, I wish it would. I need a ticket and the machines are outside. The station building is completely empty; devoid of riders or employees. So I head outside realizing that in the last month, I have never actually bought a ticket from a living and breathing teller. Just like the grocery store, I always take the automated option.

As my train pulls out of the station to take me back to New Haven, I can't help but feel conflicted. Another piece of that human touch is going to go away completely, and no one will even notice. With my electronically dispensed ticket I am the cause. At least as a reporter I can take solace that no machine will never take my job. Right?

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