Restaurants supply physical nourishment, but their ultimate contribution to life is spiritual. From the bonds forged with dining partners to the camaraderie shared with fellow patrons to the banter exchanged with staff, dining out is a social, aesthetic experience. But QR codes are ruining it. More than a superficial nuisance, they are a sign of cultural decline.

Before Covid, a restaurant-goer would first encounter a host before being greeted at the table by a waiter. While restaurants are micro-economies unto themselves, the waiter serves as the primary representative. He interprets the menu, offers personal insight, captures the diners’ attention, and brings the experience to life. In today’s digital system, however, diners are directed to train their smartphone cameras on a link to a digital menu and make selections via the web.

This exacerbates our regrettable retreat from social life. Already battered by two years of masking, the practice of manners and of ordinary social interaction has been degraded further. For the shy child, the chance to interact maturely with an unknown adult is lost. For the laptop-class adult, a chance to interact with someone from outside of that bubble disappears. And the intercession of the smartphone itself into the dining ritual is destructive. Ordering each course requires the diner to redirect his attention to the mobile device. The QR service system all but guarantees that the phone will remain at a patron’s fingertips throughout the meal.

This omnipresence makes the system pernicious. The deleterious effects of smartphones on our ability to focus on what matters are well-known. In 2018, University of Texas researchers found that the mere presence of a smartphone on our persons reduces our cognitive abilities, such as the capacity to sustain conversation. In 2016, Andrew Sullivan wrote for New York that the “new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness.” More than a decade ago, Nicholas Carr explained in The Shallows that widespread connectivity acts on our brains and heightens our cravings for the novelty and dopamine hits that the smartphone offers. With each aversion of our eyes from our companions and toward the device, we signal that our minds are elsewhere, seduced by the allure of someone’s approval somewhere else. By accepting the QR system as a new normal, we subject ourselves to the transformative effects of our technologies; we sacrifice intimacy and make ourselves and our companions lonelier.

QR codes may also raise data-security concerns. Data collection on our food choices will leave some people justifiably unnerved. It may seem farfetched to tie QR service to authoritarianism, but provincial governments in China are already using similar consumer data to nudge behaviors in their preferred direction. In Guangdong, people are docked or credited with price adjustment at local restaurants and retailers for their transit choices, all via digital platforms. In light of this practice, coercive pressure on food choices hardly seems implausible.

What is driving the proliferation of the QR service system? Restaurateurs cite public-health concerns (though Covid doesn’t spread meaningfully on surfaces) and sustainability (though restaurant menus barely contribute to global waste). The genuine reason is labor costs, which have risen sharply following stimulus spending and the lifting of pandemic restrictions. Amid crippling inflation, restaurants have identified labor as an area for savings. But as a replacement for the full restaurant experience, the QR system subordinates profound human needs to commercial expediency.

Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images


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