Friday, May 24, 2024

The moving story of woman versus machine

At 3 p.m. on June 30, my phone rang. Driving east on Highway 401 from Burlington to Cornwall, Ontario, Canada, and now somewhere west of Kingston, I was on a five-and-a-half-hour ride in the middle of a heat wave to pick up a U-Haul van, leave my own car in the parking lot overnight, and continue another hour to Montreal to help my son get through every Quebec renter’s nightmare; Quebec Moving Day. Deciding in May that you are moving on July 1 means you have a better chance of getting a seat on a Mars mission than renting a U-Haul within Quebec borders. And so, as many mothers do, I offered to help.

“Ms. Stewart?” a woman asked when I answered. “It’s U-Haul. Could you arrive earlier than six? We normally leave at five.”

“Six o’clock is no problem!” I remembered the U-Haul booking agent chirping cheerfully on the other end of the phone when I called a month earlier. This woman in Cornwall did not chirp cheerfully. She sounded like she wanted to strangle the booking agent for agreeing to 6 p.m. on a Friday. I checked the GPS.

“5:20?” I asked, mentally canceling my second bathroom break.

She paused. “Ok,” she said. “We’ll wait.”

She called again just before 5 p.m. and told me she was heading home anyway. “I’ll send you the link to our app. Your van is in the lot, and your keys are in the lockbox. The app will walk you through the steps. It’s super easy.”

None of this was comforting, but I had no choice, and with that, the human U-Haul agent wiped her hands of responsibility and handed me over to the transformative possibilities of artificial intelligence.

“Automation does not need to be the enemy,” John F. Kennedy once said. I quieted my fears, blew past the rest stop, and sped toward Cornwall. When I pulled in, I found myself at the edge of a parking lot better sized for a regional airport than a low-rise strip mall and Food Basics. Just as I wondered where I would find the van, I spotted one parked next to a set of lock boxes fixed outside the now-closed U-Haul office.

“My van!” I thought as I parked and opened the link. While I waited for the app to download, I noticed another car parked in front of the U-Haul office and a large man standing by the driver’s door hovering over his phone. “Another customer?” I wondered. “Where is his van?”

Telus, it turns out, does not have great coverage in Cornwall. The download moved slowly, and a faint internal voice of concern whispered, “What if this doesn’t work?”

The app opened, prompting me to, “Start Your Reservation.” I clicked and, following the prompts, entered my name, address, and credit card, all information I had provided at the time of booking – but no matter, it would only take a moment. I fumbled around in my purse, not surprised that the app’s four-point font was totally illegible to a 53-year-old woman who needs glasses to read a cereal box.

The next screen requested that I take a photo of the front of my driver’s licence. Pushing my body as far back into the driver’s seat as possible to prevent shadows, I laid the licence on my pant leg and snapped a photo.

“Upload,” cued the app, and I complied. “Processing,” the app confirmed. While I waited, I watched the man by the car wander toward where I was parked. He was staring at his phone, now held high above his head.

I directed my attention back to the app.

“Photo accepted.” If spoken, the words would have purred. Super easy is right. Until.

“Please take a photo of the back of your driver’s licence,” the app requested politely. I flipped the licence over, pushed into the seat, and snapped another photo. Upload. Wait. The man was now doing circles around a light pole. His phone was pointed skyward. He squinted into the sun.

I looked back at the app.

“Photo rejected,” the app snapped. Good to… hang on, what? Rejected?! The app followed it up with an encouraging, “Please try again.”

I looked down at my pant leg. The sun was creeping through the car window and casting a glare on the licence. Maybe the passenger seat would be better. I laid the licence down, leaned over and tried again. Upload. Wait.

“Photo rejected. Please try again.”

The car was hot. I started the engine, opened the fans, and rolled down the window, only to hear the wandering man cry, “It’s better over here!”

He was calling back to a woman waiting in the car. He was past the pole, standing in the empty spot in front of my car. He lowered the phone as he shouted to her, “The service kicks in the further I am from the building!”

Right then, the implications of another guy on the U-Haul app, trying to pick up a van, sunk in. One van was parked next to the door, not two. Urgency set in. I had to be smarter.

Thinking the tan of my faux-leather seat might be messing with colour contrast, I snatched up the licence and balanced it on the black centre console, making sure to avoid the sun’s glare. I raised my phone to take the picture.

But the app had closed the photo screen and reverted to the home screen. I stared in disbelief at “Start Your Reservation.” I punched the button, imagining Wandering Man smelling my frustration and smirking.

Next, next, next. The app forced me to click through the information I had entered before returning to the photo screen. I raised my phone. I said a prayer to Jesus. I clicked the shutter. Upload. I waited, moving from the Lord’s Prayer to the Alcoholics Anonymous Serenity Prayer and, finally, a Deepak Chopra Sanskrit mantra for good measure.

“Photo accepted,” the app announced. Was that a touch of pride in its glowing Helvetica font?

I exhaled a sigh of relief and checked the clock. 5:40. Not terrible. Next.

“Now let’s confirm your identity,” the app quipped, like I should have known this was coming.

“Please provide one of the following,” and I read through the list.

“Passport.” Why would any Canadian do a six-hour road trip with a passport in tow? Next.

“Current Licensing Agreement.” What license? What agreement? Never mind. Move on.

“Two Alternate Contacts To Confirm Your Identity.” That one I could do.

I tried to guess who would be by their phone. Maybe I could call them first and make sure they were available. I switched to the phone keypad and then went back to the app. The screen was black. Tapping it did nothing. Punching it violently with my index finger while cursing did nothing. I closed the app, and opened again. There, shining up from the screen like an evil clown: “Start Reservation.”

Next, next, next, next – past the screens of information already provided. I entered my boyfriend’s name, wagering that a man with an iPhone and an Apple watch would not miss a call no matter what he was doing. I did not know his phone number. I call “Brock”, not a phone number. At this moment, my brain whispered, “Colleen, you are in automation hell,” and I started my battle with the machine, a concentrating warrior determined to beat Wandering Man to the van door.

Switch to the phone to get the contact info. Back to the app. Black screen. Close app. Open app. Next, next, next, next. Enter phone number. Submit. 5:47 p.m.

“Enter Alternate Contact #2.”

Okay, my son. He is waiting for me. He will be near his phone. Enter information. Submit. 5:48 p.m.

“Will either of them answer? Why would they answer a number they do not recognize?”

Switch to Messages. Text both. Boyfriend answers, “Why?” Ignore existential question about AI that would take 1,200-plus words to explain, and retype the logical request of, “Please answer your phone, and tell whoever is there that I am me.”

Back to the app. Black screen. Close app. Open app. Next, next, next, next. 5:49 p.m.

Wandering Man is now back at his car, leaning on the driver’s door, looking totally relaxed while he watches his phone. I curse his casual, satisfied lean.

 “Processing contacts,” The app runs a colourful progress bar of hope to the end.

“Alternate Contact #2 Rejected,” the app frowns disapprovingly.

Just then, my boyfriend texts, “Done.” My son texts, “When are they going to call? I’ve been watching my phone. Nothing.”

I follow the app’s cues to go back to Alternate Contact #2 and I enter my son’s information again. Submit.

“Alternate Contact #2 has been rejected. Please enter another contact.” Is it scolding me? It’s okay. Colleen, focus. You got this.

I am now sweating. It is closing on six o’clock. The Telus bars start to disappear. I remember Wandering Man’s direction about finding good service, and jump out of my car to circle the pole.

My father, I think frantically. He’ll be home! I enter his name but blank on the phone number. That’s okay. I’m trained now. I’m a pro.

Back to Messages. Text Dad. Switch to the phone app. Get number. Back to the U-Haul app. Black screen. Close app. Open app. Next, next, next, next. Enter phone number. Submit.

My dad texts, “Done” just as the app announces, “Alternate Contacts Accepted.” I am jubilant as it practically sings, “Find your van.”

Yes, find my van. I am one with the machine. I am ready for anything.

“Match the number on the screen to the number found here,” and the app shows a helpful illustration of a van’s front bumper.

Except Wandering Man is now peering at said bumper. He taps his phone and then shouts a series of four letters to the woman who is standing by the lock boxes. She unlocks one of the boxes and pulls out a key. I rush toward him.

“Sir! Sir!” I call to him, and he squints at me.

I smile, trying only once to look cool and casual under my sweat and worry. Then I lose all control and screech at him, “I don’t have my van!! I think that’s my van!!”

“I don’t think so …” he starts, but doesn’t finish because I rush to the bumper and check the number. No match. I clench my phone, cursing the heavens for creating the person who developed the “super easy” U-Haul app, replacing the human who would have had me on my way 10 minutes after arrival. Kennedy lied! They all lied!

I look up at Wandering Man. There is pity and a bit of fear in his eyes as he slowly backs away, lifts himself into the driver’s seat, and closes the door. I look at the app, my enemy.

I have hit some button. I have let emotion hijack my fingertips. I am no longer one with the machine. “I need more training!” my brain whimpers as the screen whirrs me to a new circle of hell.

Under the hot Cornwall sun, almost an hour after arrival, having no van, no keys, and no hope, I read the app’s final message delivered with the sinister sneer of one who has defeated me.

“Your rental has started. Drive safe! Please return the van by 6pm on July 1, 2023.”

 Several phone calls to a 1-800 number, a desperate corralling of another U-Haul customer who was returning his van, and another hour later, Colleen finally drove off the Cornwall parking lot in her rental van. The meaning of this moment struck her as she entered Montreal’s city limits – automation is not replacing workers by doing their jobs; it is replacing workers so we will. Colleen will never book a U-Haul again … for after 5 p.m.

Colleen Stewart
Colleen Stewart
Colleen Stewart is a Carleton University journalism grad who avoided real work by travelling to 53 countries and writing about her adventures. In 2012, she founded Perfect Pitch Consulting to help businesses across North America tell better stories about what they do and why. In 2020, she published her first book, The Story Compass. Every few months, Colleen gets the itch, and that means escaping real work to travel and find some adventures to write about.
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