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I wanted to order my breakfast from a waiter not an iPad

The Guardian logo The Guardian 18/05/2019 Rachel Cooke

customer self service order drink menu with tablet screen at cafe counter bar,seller coffee shop accept payment by mobile.digital lifestyle concept © Getty customer self service order drink menu with tablet screen at cafe counter bar,seller coffee shop accept payment by mobile.digital lifestyle concept Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Last month, in New York, I saw the future, and I didn’t like it. Let me first set the scene. Booked on an eye-scorchingly early flight, I arrived at Newark airport before dawn, feeling fiercely alone, as I often do when I travel for work: a bagatelle ball, pinging around, unseen by those I love and who love me back. The airport was quiet and I passed through security quickly. On the other side, I sent a couple of emails and bought a newspaper, and then it hit me: I was ravenous; hungry like a wolf. I wanted some breakfast. I needed some breakfast. And so I set off to find some breakfast.

Hunger in these situations isn’t straightforward. My stomach was empty, it’s true. But I also had time to kill and spare dollars in my pocket. The potential for boredom flickered away in the glare of the artificial light. I didn’t want to make conversation with anyone, but I did want to receive that particular form of ersatz kindness a waiter may offer to a person travelling on their own. “Coming right up,” they tell you in America, as if you were their best ever customer, and an order of coffee the most original and daring request ever made. In the right mood – or perhaps I mean the wrong mood – this line has the potential to reduce me to tears.

Coffee cup on table with blurred people in Restaurant shop cafe Interior seats background © Getty Coffee cup on table with blurred people in Restaurant shop cafe Interior seats background But where to go? I wandered around wearily. Not there, not there - and not there, either. (Truly, it amazes me what people are able to digest before the sun has even risen.) Then I noticed something. On every table, in every restaurant, was an iPad, attached to a rigid stand, bang smack in the middle of it. People appeared to be using these iPads to order their food. I moved off, hoping to find an iPad-free eatery – the last thing I wanted was to have to stare at a screen, let alone try to work out how to use it – but it soon became apparent that no such place existed. Defeated, I took a seat in a phoney French place – let us call it Brasserie Faux Amis, where the seats looked like leather and the muffins looked like mushroom clouds – and set about clumsily typing in my order.

My eggs were delivered by a human being, but everything else had to be communicated electronically. You want hot milk? There’s a key for that. You want a receipt? There’s a key for that, too (and don’t expect paper). I hated this, though not as much as I hated the fact that the iPad could not be moved, or even switched off. I had no companion, but had someone been sitting opposite me, I would not have been able even to see them without straining my neck; it would have been like talking over a garden fence. Next to me, a woman tried to interest her daughter in a book, but to no avail. The child wanted only to keep stabbing away at the iPad.

© Getty According to the latest Wellbeing Index, compiled by Oxford Economics and the National Centre for Social Research, a third of British adults now eat alone “most or all of the time”. Is this a good thing or bad? It’s complicated. People may, for instance, eat less when alone, and this may, in turn, be a good thing in terms of their weight. But both my gut and the reading I’ve done around this suggest the downsides are greater than the up. Eating is a social pleasure – do it alone and it can feel vastly more lonely than some other activities, with all the consequent effects on your mood. And while people may eat less, they may also eat less well (37% of us replace a meal with a snack once a week).

It’s bad enough that we’re already encouraged to eat so poorly by food manufacturers and supermarkets without major companies and institutions – an entire airport! – insisting that we also ignore our fellow men and women as we consume this stuff. I know they have their reasons: the cost of manpower, a desire to hurry people along. But it’s also inhumane. Buttering the cold toast I wanted to send back, but couldn’t (no key for that), I lifted my eyes from the iPad’s blue light and looked around me. The word dystopian is much overused, but in this case it was entirely apt – save, of course, for the fact that the scene was not imagined. I was there, and my eyes ached, and so did my heart.

MSN UK are Empowering Happiness for mental health awareness month. Find out more about our campaign and the charities working to stop people falling into crisis here.

Gallery: 30 Egg Breakfasts That May Turn You Instantly Into a Morning Person [POPSUGAR]

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