Guest post: In defence of self-service checkouts

My post earlier this week on the rising menace of supermarket self-service checkouts generated a lot of interest, and lots of comments on the blog, and on twitter agreeing with my position.

Then I got a tweet from my friend Danny Webster saying he ‘pretty strongly disagree[d]’ with me. Not being afraid of a little healthy debate, I invited him to write a response, and here it is:

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There was a time when a group of agitated workers frustrated at novel practises and the introduction of machines that jeopardised their jobs and led to inferior quality products took action.

Two hundred years ago the Luddites demanded that their masters remove the new frames from their premises. If they did not comply the Luddites returned at night equipped with sledge hammers and smashed the machines to pieces.

Such was the damage done, and the threat to the stability of society that in 1812 parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act which specifically imposed the death penalty on frame breaking.

Jennie’s treatise against the effect of mechanisation on employment and community, in particular the rise of self checkout machines, emerges from a radical stream with centuries of history – although I’ll grant she did not advocate such destructive direct action.

Throughout the twentieth century high hopes were held that technology would lead to a life of leisure. The time saved by washing machines, microwaves, and vacuum cleaners would give us more time to enjoy life, relax and spend time with people. The speed of travel, the automation of daily practises and the instant communication that are now part of daily life has not delivered on this utopian dream. We are busier than ever and we have time that is saved simply to spend on the litany of other time saving activities we would never have previously contemplated.

Convenience does not create community, that is clear, but nor do I think the reverse is true, I don’t think that convenience and the mechanisation of processes necessarily hampers it. Ironically the chief victim in the rise of supermarket mini-mes on every street corner is your average local convenience store. The convenience of one age become the redundant appendage of the next.

I head straight for the self checkout option when ever it is available, I know that some shops’ systems work better than others; Morrisons is temperamental but gains bonus points for offering cash back. And after reading Jennie’s post I had to think long and hard about whether my default behaviour was anything more than choosing to avoid human contact. Maybe there are still places where you can wander into the corner shop and ask Mrs Higgins for a pint of milk, a loaf of bread and a can of Brasso. But for most of us the only picture this summons is of asking for fork handles and getting four candles. I recognise the people in my local shop, but they do not know me. While I may desire community in all its forms and attempt to build it even in the most transient of places the presence of self checkout counters is irrelevant. It can be built in their presence and avoided in their absence.

Last week I was away alone in a small town about halfway between Florence and Sienna. I wandered into the local supermarket, collected my goods and headed for the checkout. I don’t speak any Italian and I weighed my options before choosing the familiarity of a self-checkout rather than staffed line barricaded by the language divide. To my utter glee I saw the little flags in the corner which ushered me into the English language interface and guided me through my purchase.

I’m sure when cash machines were first introduced there was an outcry at the harm it was doing to local bank branches, but I certainly don’t think twice before inserting my card.

There are legitimate concerns, however, about the removal of personal contact in the operation of daily life and in many places a shift away from automation is already occurring – banks trumpeting their opening hours and staffed counter service, for example. When I needed to close down a bank account recently I wrestled for several hours over phone and internet services and resolved the matter in minutes the next day by walking up to the counter. A real person was far more convenient than a machine.

And that’s a balance that needs to be found. Machines think in processes: if something is out of step, if the item hasn’t been placed in the bagging area, if the Nectar card has not been swiped, it cannot cope. People are better problem solvers than machines, but machines can help them solve those problems better and faster.

Mechanisation is not bad, the removal of people from things done more efficiently by machines is in many cases inevitable. But of course we still need people. We can interact with each other regardless of the means that stand between us. We can be friendly to the telephone banking assistant even when he or she locks us out of our account. We can make the self-checkout supervisor’s day by our friendly countenance. And the machines will get better, they will be upgraded and replaced, and when we think they’re how we like it, something new will take their place…

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I think Danny makes some great points, and I might respond to them in a few days, but for now it’s over to you – what do you think?

Danny tweets as @danny_webster and blogs at brokencameras.com

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