I went to see a movie, and instead I saw the future

Written by Signal vs. Noise / Original link on Jan. 12, 2020

A few days ago my wife and I went to see Uncut Gems at a Regal theater in Chicago.

We booked our ticket online, reserved our seats, showed up 15 minutes ahead of time, and settled in.

After the coil of previews, and jaunty, animated ads for sugary snacks, the movie started.

About 20 minutes in, a loud, irritating buzzing started coming from one corner of the theater. No one was sure what to make of it. Was it part of the movie? We all just let it go.

But it didn’t stop. Something was wrong with the audio. It was dark, so you couldn’t see, but you could sense people wondering what happens now. Was someone from the theater company going to come in? Did they even know? Is there anyone up in the booth watching? Did we have to get someone?

We sent a search party. A few people stood up and walked out to go get help. The empty hallways were cavernous, no one in sight.

Eventually someone found someone from the staff to report the issue. Then they came back into the theater to settle in and keep watching the movie.

No one from the theater came into the theater to explain what was going on. The sound continued for about 10 more minutes until the screen abruptly went black. Nothingness. At least the sound was gone.

Again, no one from the theater company came in to say what was going on. We were all on our own.

The nervous, respectfully quiet giggle chatter started. Now what?

A few minutes later, the movie started again. From the beginning. No warning. Were they going to jump forward to right before they cut it off? Or were we going to have to watch the same 25 minutes again?

No one from the theater company appeared, no one said anything. The cost of the ticket apparently doesn’t include being in the loop.

Eventually people started walking out. My wife and I included.

As we walked out into the bright hallway, we squinted and noticed a small congregation of people way at the end of the hall. It felt like finally spotting land after having been at sea for awhile

We walked up. There were about eight of us, and two of them. They worked here. We asked what was going on, they didn’t know. They didn’t know how to fix the sound, there was no technical staff on duty, and all they could think of was to restart that movie to see if that fixed it.

We asked if they were planning on telling the people in the theater what was going on. It never occurred to them. They dealt with movies, they didn’t deal with people.

We asked for a refund. They pointed us to the box office. We went there and asked for a refund. The guy told us no problem, but he didn’t have the power to do that. So he called for a manager. The call echoed. Everyone looked around.

Finally a manager came over. We asked for a refund, he said he could do that. We told him we purchased the tickets through Fandango, which complicated things. Dozens of people lined up behind us. The refund process took a few minutes.

Never a sorry from anyone. Never even an acknowledgment that what happened wasn’t supposed to happen. Not even a comforting “gosh, that’s never happened before” lie. It was all purely transactional. From the tickets themselves, to the problem at hand, to the refund process. Humanity nowhere.

We left feeling sorry for the whole thing. The people who worked at the theater weren’t trained to know how to deal with the problem. They probably weren’t empowered to do anything about it anyway. The technical staff apparently doesn’t work on the premises. The guy at the box office wanted to help, but wasn’t granted the power to do anything. And the manager, who was last in the line of misery, to have to manually, and slowly, process dozens of refunds on his own. No smiles entered the picture.

This is the future, I’m afraid. A future that plans on everything going right so no one has to think about what happens when things go wrong. Because computers don’t make mistakes. An automated future where no one actually knows how things work. A future where people are so far removed from the process that they stand around powerless, unable to take the reigns. A future where people don’t remember how to help one another in person. A future where corporations are so obsessed with efficiency, that it doesn’t make sense to staff a theater with technical help because things only go wrong sometimes. A future with a friendlier past.

I even imagine an executive somewhere looking down on the situation saying “That was well handled. Something went wrong, people told us, someone tried to restart it, it didn’t work. People got their refunds. What’s the problem?” If you don’t know, you’ll never know.

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