Category Archives: Technology

Man versus machine

I went to the super market yesterday to pick up a couple of items on the way to meet a friend. Since I was in a rush, I wanted to check out as quickly as possible. When I got to the check out area, I saw that there was a line of 3 or 4 people queuing up next to the self check-out machines. Ugh, there’s Sunday at the supermarket for you. But wait. Immediately next to the lane of self check-out machines, there was another lane with a human cashier. And nobody waiting in that lane. (Except for the customer the cashier was serving at that very moment.)

And there’s me: confused. Not wishing to violate the queuing etiquette that is a cultural hallmark of developed nations, and not wanting to incite the wrath of the Sunday shopper, I politely asked the woman in the front of the line if she was waiting for the self check-out machines or the cashier. When she said the self check-out machines, I of course immediately proceeded to the cashier and was checked out by a friendly human being after approximately 30 seconds wait time.

What on earth just happened there? Am I missing something? I thought the whole point of self check-out machines was to speed up the check-out process. Doing the check out yourself – using those inevitably ill-designed machines (“Please remove item from the bagging area! Please remove item from the bagging area!”) – is an annoyance you have to endure if you don’t want to wait in line for the ease of having another person do the check-out for you. But here people were queuing to avoid contact with human beings. I don’t understand.

I had a conversation with my friend the other day who recommended his bank to me; when I told him that I would call them to open an account, he laughed and said, “Why don’t you just do it online?” Apparently in the ten-plus years that I have been gone from the US, American consumer society has evolved to the point that nearly all consumer purchases can be done online or by machine, and that has become the default.

I have nothing against automation or e-commerce; I do loads of shopping online, and if the internet or a machine can more efficiently or effectively serve me than a human, then I’m all for it. But I feel like things have become over-automated and over-engineered to the point of being nonsensical. When it requires MORE time and effort to do it the “high tech” way, what is the point?

I tried to call a restaurant the other day to make a reservation, and the woman who answered the phone said she was too busy to take my reservation (for real?!); she referred me to Open Table. I was at a friend’s place with a group of friends and we decided to order food for delivery; my friend spent about 20 minutes tapping away on her iPhone to enter our order. Apparently you don’t call Domino’s for pizza anymore; you order online for home delivery. When I was growing up, we’d just pick up the phone and call. Imagine that.

Even taxis, one of the most human-oriented services, have become automated. Rather than walking onto the street and hailing a cab, you use this service called “Uber.” OK, I get it that sometimes it’s tough to find a cab, especially in a big city on a Saturday night. But I have literally seen people standing in the bitter cold, on the side of the road, leaning into the window of a taxi and asking, “Are you the Uber I ordered?” And when the taxi driver said no, I hopped straight in. And I didn’t even have to take off my gloves to use my iPhone.


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