Posted: August 6, 2010 in Consumerism, Corporatism, Idle Nonsense, Manners, Tacky

Against the tiny voice of conscience telling me not to, I started to use the self-checkout lanes at the grocery store. These cost-saving and efficiency services join an already well-established and growing trend toward self-service that probably began when gas stations (used to be called service stations) stopped employing anyone to pump gas and banks replaced tellers with ATMs. The number of machine interfaces used every day in the service industry continues to grow, as do disincentives fees to talk to an actual person. Some self-service options appear to be neutral or even beneficial, such as the automated check-in lanes at the airport that enable low-maintenance travelers to avoid unnecessary lines. But that tiny voice keeps buzzing in the back of my brain.

A cost-benefit analysis ought to accompany consideration of every new technology and workflow that appears in the marketplace. However, in a culture easily duped led by the latest gee-whiz gadgetry, what actually exists is more like an if-you-build-it-they-will-come assurance that subscribers will be lined up outside the door, around the block, and halfway to the next state line for days on end in anticipation of the release of each new version of the Apple iPhone or some similar device.

The automatic embrace of technology is a deep question, as it turns out. Techno-Utopians seem to fall in love with every new offering while more sober questioning by cultural conservatives goes mostly unheeded. That questioning typically involves a sense of creeping loss of humanity as we orient more of our daily lives to interactions not with each other but with machines, essentially bypassing the social realm, failing to adopt everyday manners or patience, and worst of all, settling for a stunted sense of empathy, which drives (or fails to drive) compassion and forgiveness.

Machines never require forgiveness; they merely execute our commands. So if the grocery store self-service lane fails to recognize our inputs (or is engineered to be difficult to trick, leading to situations where it locks up to prevent fraudulent transactions), there is no reason for restraint on the part of the user, whose self-service checkout lane rage rises quickly. Such fast-trigger anger is commonplace among self-service devices, as with social media, perhaps because without another human directly involved in the transaction (or the other human so thoroughly mediated by technology as to be a mere avatar), users lose their normal social inhibitions and vent too easily.

  1. Jennie says:

    I never use the self-service lanes. Those simple, human interactions are part of the experience of shopping. I don’t feel so comfortable with a machine checking me out of the store.

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