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Why self checkout stinks

Essentially there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who will use the automated checkout at the grocery store and those who will not.

You’re either one who embraces the dehumanizing, sterile, uncaring bar code system or a person who delights in human interaction with a teenage cashier more interested in what the bag boy is texting than in figuring out if that thing in your cart is a plum or an over-ripe radish.

We who refuse to scan our own bar codes do so for personal reasons, one being that we hold an aversion, distrust, resentment or simple hatred of creeping technology. Admittedly this may stem from the fact we can’t successfully navigate the automated checkout matrix: “Please re-scan item.”

Automated systems debuted in 1992 in New York, and they are not simple machines. The CheckRobot model produced by IBM is one example of the technology behind these products. It features “self-learning software.”

The machines were programmed to bluff shoppers into typing information directly into their index whenever machines encounter a new bar code. When you scan an item the software has never seen before, the machine is smart enough to act like it can’t read the bar code information, and so it asks the customer to identify the product and the price and then adds that information to its memory. Of course, shoppers could add any price they wanted at that point, if they happen to be first with a new item. But that rarely happens, Wikipedia reports, because of shopper fear that the technology somehow already knows more than we do, and if we try to cheat it, we’ll be caught.

It’s more than just the beastly machines being smart, getting smarter, and still not working that enrages. It’s the whole concept. A snooty machine gives you commands to satisfy it and then tells you to bag your own groceries. That’s insulting. And it’s not only Luddites (those opposed to change) who resist the cold metallic presence of customer code scanners. A website that tracks what people hate about one particular national retailer records “Stupid self check-out lines” with 531 votes. Top complaint was how the store treats its workers (1,933 votes), but we bet store employees flooded that poll.

Economists are indecisive concerning the effect of replacing human clerks with soul-less machines. Apparently for every clerk position lost, scanners generate new jobs elsewhere––presumably repair positions for when some of us finally get fed up and resort to violence in the self-checkout lane. Currently 1 in 10 Americans work in retail in some facet, but a shift is already underway toward a lot of behind-the-scenes automation in warehouses and shipping sure to kill off more jobs but to create new ones as well.

Wikipedia projects 430,000 self checkout units will be in use by 2014. That’s 430,000 more machines that we can enter information into and 430,000 fewer opportunities to hear a human voice say “Have a good day” – even if only uttered through rote training.

In social terms, the shift from people to technology is well underway. At a rapid rate, we are replacing those people we used to interact with: gas station attendants; ticket agents; bookstore owners. Simultaneously we turn in droves to websites devoted solely to inane electronic banter among users termed “friends.” It’s a crazy world; anything can happen.

And while we find fewer opportunities to make awkward stabs at conversation with real people, our potential to read the dinner plans of someone we vaguely know is growing exponentially. Google is angling to move into the Facebook market this year. On-line its all about social interaction. In the real world its all about self checkout.

Surly, rushed, tired or fed-up, we’ll still take a human at the end of the checkout line any day.


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