To Speak to a Human, say ‘Human’.

28 Nov

I’ve had bear in silence for many years now the absurdity of trying to tell a disembodied voice answering a company’s phone who I need to speak to or why, trusting this gadgetry to do what an employee could do more quickly and efficiently. But last week, when I picked up a book at the local library, that practice hit a new low. I was pointed in the direction of a computer, actually beside the librarian, and told to check out my items myself.

The librarian who showed me this astonishingly ridiculous new system is herself, of course, likely to lose her job to it. Here in Toronto, our mayor and mostly right-ish city council, plan to reduce library hours and get rid of librarians along with numerous other city staff, in order to save us taxpayers money. Even more alarming, I will apparently be asked to pay now for swimming at the nearby community pool.

Now this structure, while unattractive, not exactly hygienic and in design similar to nothing so much as a pre-unification, East German sports facility, was at least convenient. Its presence encouraged me to keep fit. Because I could just pick up a towel and swimsuit, and walk there in seven minutes, I often managed to insert an hour of exercise into my already busy day. Will those facilities be improved with luxuries like heating in the change rooms and showers that work for longer than 3 seconds because of it? Highly unlikely. And now that I have to pay for the same crumby facilities, am I happy about it? No.

But we now have, in Canada’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, a mayor who is actually proud of the fact that he thinks so small.

Nickel-and-diming both us downtown users of city services and the staff that provide them, is his way of putting the brakes not only on costs but on Toronto’s urban ambitions.

The police force, for example, Mayor Rob Ford’s ideological heroes in spite of the fact that they have over the years experienced increasingly lower crime rates while earning increasingly fatter paychecks, remain the one big ticket item that will not be cut.

According to a missive I received from the mayor’s office, the police are trying to trim down. They are firing all of their cleaning staff and replacing them with out-sourced minimum-wage employees from a private company for a $500,000 saving. But their pay, and even their premium pay, will be barely touched. So people earning $30 or $40,000 a year will be fired so people earning $80 to $100,000 can keep their hefty salaries — for a saving of less than a per cent overall.

The thing about urban life, or even modern life, however, is that it gets better the more it is based on neighbourhood relationships — and on other members of our society — the people around you — earning a decent living. Like the nearby presence of a handy swimming pool, chatting with a human being for a few minutes at the library is part of what makes Toronto a great place to live. Books and sport, free English classes, parks and bike trails have all been (inexpensive) perks that make people I know in other cities, from Mexico to Jakarta — envious of what we have here.

But the same policies that make life more inconvenient and kind of alienating for the average person also help the so-called 1 percent and their fabulous tax breaks become richer, while growing poverty within the 99 per cent. You have only to check out a recent NYT editorial on poverty in the U.S. — improved Census Bureau stats show that 49.1 million Americans are poor while those barely above the line form a much larger group than previously thought — to realize how the Occupy Wall Street movement is right to gather and protest.

And speaking of the OWS folk, has anyone else noticed how many occupations — even as they are in some cases evicted from public spaces in a number of cities — maintained lending libraries? The Guardian recently did a photo slideshow of some of these, and Toronto’s (now in storage, I expect) yurt was one of the libraries featured.

If the unemployed and young place such importance on books and the ideas they carry, why doesn’t a wealthy city in the midst of a super growth spurt? If real estate prices are still booming thanks to thousands of new immigrants moving to live in Toronto, why are we paring and slicing away at our infrastructure? I have a feeling the answer is already there in the skewed economic stats we are now becoming familiar with. Rich people don’t borrow books or walk their dogs in public parks. They want to concentrate on accumulation, and make random human interaction a thing of the past.


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