On my screen my photos look balanced and crisp and my children have clear green eyes or blue with all of the tricks I learned in Photoshop watching over my brother’s shoulder years ago. But my edits have an enemy. It’s the machine at the one hour photo.

Awhile back, I lingered at the counter and pulled my photos from the sleeve to find my kids’ eyes looking hollow and dark. When the kind, service-oriented tech started looking things over, he found that the machine, our modern replacement for the dark room, had taken over and “auto-corrected” the tone and balance and contrast. Fail.

Last week, I sent over four or five photos to use for our wigwam party. I unchecked auto-correct on my order, but even that had failed before, so I raced to the phone to call and give them a heads up about my order. By “raced to the phone,” I mean I changed a dirty diaper and washed my hands and got the kids a drink and answered a text about what time the party was and THEN called the photo department to ask them to manually turn off the auto-correct function on their end.

“I’ve already printed those,” the woman’s voice was as approachable as the cold floor on a Monday morning. I paused for a moment. I could picture this lady. She was the one who sighed when I waited for help and made her have to get up from her stool to come to the counter. She was the one that gave me a little lecture for using my initials on my account instead of my full name. She was the one who fussed about me taking the time to check my wallet for a coupon.

“It’s just that I edited my photos a particular way and….”

“I’ve already printed those,” she repeated, not budging.

“Well, can I talk to someone else then?” I asked, trying to decide whether I could rightly expect the store to help me out or if it was my responsibility to pay double to get the prints I really wanted. If that machine would only stay out of my business…. I kept quiet while I waited for her answer.

She let out her signature sigh, razzing her lips like the sound of a leaky balloon hurtling across the room. “Well, you definitely won’t be getting them in the hour,” she said, “You’ll have to wait on me to finish all of these other orders.” It would complicate my schedule for running errands before the party, but I guessed I couldn’t really ask for any special treatment beyond what she was doing already.

There was more mumbling as she clicked the mouse and keyboard. “It’s your responsibility to call us on time,” she lectured. I thought of all of the tasks that had vied for my attention delaying my call for that important five minutes. I wish I were faster, more focused. I started getting a bit dejected and then defensive, kind of like I do when the pediatrician’s office scolds me for mix-ups on appointments.

“Next time you should call before you submit the order,” the tech kept going, poking around at my weakness. I crumble when I’m scolded. I had held it together for a few minutes, but her continued brashness, mixed with stress from an already-tight schedule, had its way. Sometimes I cry in conflict, but this time I got bold (and saved the tears for after the phone call). I let loose and told her how I felt about her putting my nose in my supposed mess-up and how her harsh tone wasn’t the way to make a customer feel good about doing business there. “Sorry,” she said, but her snippy tone betrayed the word.

A few minutes later, she called to say my order was ready, that she’d been able to squeeze it in after all. When I walked into the store and saw her looming behind the register, I felt small. I felt small partly because of her weighty personality, but also because I was ashamed of myself for the way I’d reacted to it. Things felt different when we were facing each other and as I got the guts to look her in the eye and say, “Thank you, Emery. Thanks for doing that for me,” I saw she was bashful too. “I’m sorry,” she said, slumping. And I knew she meant it this time.

It was easy to get tangled up in conflict on account of the warbled cell connection and landline between us, but when we got face to face and eye to eye, empathy entered in. Whether in friendship, parenting or romance, eye contact is vital in fostering human connection. Psychology Today calls eye contact the “strongest form of nonverbal communication.” And, as the Huffington Post quotes author Daniel Sieberg, “All too often we’re like cornered animals with our eyes darting from device to human and back to device.”

“Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding,” says psychologist and M.I.T. professor, Sherry Turkle, “We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology…. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves.”

If the machine were my friend, clearly it wouldn’t be ruining my photos. And so often, the machines that supposedly connect us with our friends fail to come through for us. Even as the devices offer a dozen ways to connect, we find ourselves feeling more isolated. Screens are squandering our attention, and lessening our empathy, making for a much less hospitable world.

“I say, look up, look at one another, and let’s start the conversation,” Turkle adds.

When I look the clerk in the eye, I see her less as a way to get my way, or as a gear in the big societal machine, and more as a real person trying to work through her flaws, just as I’m working through mine, well-meaning technology aside.

Here’s a little Internet break for you. Right now, before you do anything else online….
Have a staring contest with a friend or family member.



{I’m linking up with Nester for her annual 31 Days blog get together. Don’t want to miss this series? Be sure to subscribe by entering your email in the box on the homepage sidebar. Find all posts in the series here.}

Today, I’m also writing in conjunction with friends from my real-life, in-person, face-to-face writers’ group, Plume. We’re all sharing today about a time when we looked someone in the eye and it made a difference, either to the other person or to ourselves. Enjoy more eye-to-eye posts by Amber, Charity, Kelli, Jen and Ashly. I’ll be backtracking over the next several days to fill in the days I’ve missed. My excuse? I’ve been living a less-digital life. Nice one, hmm? 😉