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Faux Outrage

Literally the most important blog in the universe since 2010.

Homer + Monkey Paw o' Doom

Over the last few weeks, I have inexplicably made several references to The Monkey’s Paw, a horror story published in 1902 by W.W. “W-Dot” Jacobs.  The plot — which is brilliantly depicted in season three of The Simpsons (Treehouse of Horror II) — can be summed up by the (alleged) axiom, “Be careful what you wish for.”  In the story, a magic monkey’s paw (is there any other kind?), which has the power to grant any wish, gives the pleading party precisely what they claim to desire, via horrifying means.

It’s true:  We should be careful what we wish for.

One monkey’s paw wish we’ve all been granted is the sudden and ever-increasing number of “self-checkout” stations at grocery stores, convenience stores, and ever-present (in DC, at least) soft-serve yogurt shops/shoppes.  We wished that we never again had to rely on an uncaring human behind a cash register or counter, and I can already tell that this isn’t going to end well for any of us.

A few reasons why.

See any employees?

Self-Service is Anti-Consumer: Think about it.  Stores used to provide a service — a employee hired and trained to scan and bag your purchased item — and that employee no longer exists.  They have been replaced by…you!  Of course, you probably have no idea where the barcodes are on common groceries, haven’t memorized (and don’t plan on memorizing) the PLU# for “loose carrots” (btw: 4562), and have no one to complain to when your cheese log rings up at $5.49 instead of on sale at $3.99.

But hey, congratulations on your new part-time job!  Although, I guess it’s more of an unpaid internship.  In any case, I’m sure the shareholders are appreciative of the valuable service you provide.  Keep up the good work!

Furthermore, self-scanners are not actually a convenience.  They often result in transaction times slower than those with a trained cashiers (ever witness a 84 year old woman attempt to purchase one single parsnip?), shift the burden of labor onto the consumer (away from the corporation), and are helping to create an environment where we are lulled into a new expectation that store employees are not immediately available to assist with questions/problems.

We are on our own.

So, no, self-service scanners are not provided as “a convenience to you.”  The devices are marketed well enough so that we assume Safeway is doing us a favor, but that’s not actually what is happening.  Self-checkout lanes are simply profit machines cranked up and fueled by those of us fumbling to figure out how to pay for two bagels and a bialy from the bakery.  (btw: Even though it is not technically a bagel, a bialy treated the same for the purposes of checking out.)

The future (artist rendering)

Self-Service is Anti-Labor: Since consumers — like you and I — are willing to do the work of low-skill employees, those jobs are simply disappearing.  Poof!  Whereas one employee used to be required for each cash register, the ratio now is as high as we are willing to accept (1:4?  1:6?).

There are those who will point out that eliminating positions will have some kind of trickle-down, positive impact on prices for consumers, but it seems to me that the rise of automation and burden-shifting ultimately does more harm — by keeping wages low (humans competing with machines) and eliminating jobs (humans losing to machines) — than good.  Besides, the belief that corporate savings are “passed onto the consumer” is a bit of a relic.  Unless you are a shareholder, I’d be willing to bet that you won’t see a penny of the the dime you saved on transaction costs.

I concede there is “nothing we can do” to stop our reckless hurtling towards a technocentric, robotic future (computers are already being programmed to complete even the most difficult tasks), but the least we can do is recognize the impact that increasing reliance on machines has on the folks who are required to compete with our digital overlords to-be.  (See: Matrix, The; Terminator, The)

Self-Service is Anti-Social: I once tried to go an entire day without speaking to anyone.  I went through a full day at work (pasted in front of a computer, of course) did my grocery shopping (ipod + self-checkout, of course), and headed home where I chatted with some friends (in front of a computer again, of course) before heading to bed.  It was easy.

Disturbingly easy.

It was so simple, in fact, that I’ve accidentally engaged in a few No Talking To Anyone Days since then.  Oops.  Does anyone think they could go a whole (productive) day without even making eye contact with human being?  It’d be easier than you think.  (Note: You are eliminated from this challenge if you have Aspergers or Aspergerian tendencies.)

It’s not surprising that the rise of self-checkout coincides nicely with the iPoddification of America.  Our cliche morning conversations about weather in the elevator (“It’s a nice day out there.  Too bad it’s Monday!!!!!!!”) have been replaced by an impersonal half-hearted head-nod as one person not-ironically rocks out to Rebecca Black’s Friday and the other listens to a podcast about the correct way to peel a banana.

To that end, we seem to be developing a sense that we should never “have to” talk to another person.  Self-checkout is a metaphor for what is slowly overcoming our society.  That is to say, we are spending an ever-increasing amount time up in our own heads and less time interacting with, you know, actual humans.  (This is not a unique point, but:) In an era where the Internet connects an estimated 28% of the world’s population, we are leading increasingly solitary lives.

It’s amazing what we give up in order to save a few seconds per transaction.

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Epilogue: I recognize that the screed above could have been written upon invention of the ATM, the Drive-Thru, airport check-in kiosks, or any of the other employee-replacing-computer-centric inventions.  However, self-checkout seems different to me in that it actually diminishes the quality of the service received while shifting the physical burden onto us, the consumers.  When you couple these factors with the sizable negative impact self-checkout has on our time spent interacting with other souls, I think we can draw a rather clear line between self-checkout and other inventions like the ATM.

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