I hate self-checkouts. To me they are unjust and an indignity. I’m putting someone out of work, and I’m doing free unpaid labour for the store as salt in the wound for my purchase. They remove me from the small pleasures of human interaction, and make me part of a machine. Self checkout one of those indicators that reminds me how much the world has changed and how I happened to get dragged along for the ride. I was cashing out my purchase at the grocery store the other day and scanning my items, contemplating the cold matrix of lasers that cornered those UPC’s in their cross hairs, and thinking about what it means to be human. The people who thought up self checkout have no clue, neither do they care, but I do.
I have for example, many moons ago worked as the grocery packing boy, a position that hardly exists anymore in the overall dearth of customer service out there. At one point it was considered to be a standard courtesy when you bought groceries, to have someone bag them, and more than that, to load them into your car. Most of the cashiers who worked in the grocery stores were old - mothers and even grandmothers working for spare cash, or to round out the family budget, punching those long lines of groceries through. Eight hours on your feet, dealing head on with customers of all persuasions, and an endless avalanche or random items coming your way. All had to be checked through.
This work required a very particular kind of skill, and it brought to the fore all that a human being is capable of: coordination, memory, stamina, and good humour. An aging cashier, punching out those groceries manually on an old fashioned cash register, knew the price of every item by memory as they sailed under her watchful eye. She had to. Before UPC’s became the norm, looking for the price would mean having to pick up each and every item to find the manually applied sticker, and there simply was no time for this. Hence, her weekly homework was to scan the new flyer and learn the sale prices. Why? Because you couldn’t spare the trouble to stop, back up, and negate a wrong price. It took too much time to make an error, and doing so would only make your own life difficult. So each cashier learned the flyer by rote and tried to be accurate. This kind of work was thankless, but doing it quickly and efficiently was a point of pride. The woman punching those groceries through was only a cashier, but she was a good cashier. Her whole mind and body was put to the test, as a kind of machine set against the odds.
Man against machine is not a new theme. There is for example, the enduring legend of John Henry, the man who drove rail spikes, and went head to head against a steam driven machine that did the same kind of work harder, faster, and without tiring or breaking down.
I have worked on the railway as a summer job in my teens. Building track required you to put your back into it, and it helped if you were strong or of great stature. There were some rare breeds who lived to drive rail. It was in their blood. This kind of guy seemed to live on red meat, cigarettes and copious amounts of alcohol, no sleep, and a steely sense of competition. They roamed like gypsies, arriving on overnight trains to areas where the track building was up against deadlines. And they were the ones to get it done - grimy, sweaty, and bursting with muscle. They prided themselves in their work, and you got the hell out of the way while they showed off and put themselves to the test. I have for example, seen the setup: Someone would start a row of spikes and one of these gladiators would move done the line hammer in hand, striking each spike home with a single ringing blow. They were a sight to behold. They were the human machine at its best.
The story of John Henry of course, is an elegy, a lament, and a tragedy. It’s ultimately the story of man matched against machine and losing. That seems to be the expectation and the trajectory. We will be taken over by machines, and they will run us. It seems unjust, and no one really knows WHY that has to be, but it seems to be the way things are headed whether we like it or not. The self checkout counters are just a harbinger of this trend. We don’t like them, but we acquiesce. We suck it up and scan our own groceries through, barely registering that the world has indeed changed.
Nowadays we have AI and we don’t quite know where that will go. In many cases it will replace human beings and algorithms are being put in place that will make AI interact with you in a seemingly emotive way. The software is made to give the appearance of personality. You will be dealing with a machine, but you will be treating it like a human being. You will object on one hand, and on the other hand you’ll be asking Google or Alexa what the weather will be like tomorrow.
Man against machine may seem like a stacked battle, and we would do well to remember that a human being is a particular kind of machine, set in a physical frame, but possessing emotions, a spirit, and a personality. There are no two of us alike. We live to see our own rise and fall, and learn to make sense of it.
There seems to be always, something new that will come up up against mankind and redefine the lay of the land. It used to be that a UPC (universal product code) summed up an item. Its binary calculation told a machine coldly and efficiently what an item was, where it stood as inventory, and how much it cost. Up that game a bit, and you have QR codes. QR stands for “quick response” – basically a barcode on steroids. When you scan a QR code on your phone now, it takes you to a new destination, a website that will tell you all kinds of information catalogued from the code you just scanned. I don’t like QR codes but I find myself in our paperless world, having to use them to access things like concert tickets. If you want to live in the world now, you have to put up with the idea of scanning and getting scanned.
That’s right. It’s only a matter of time before the scans will be incorporated with your corporeal flesh. There are retinal scanners to confirm identity. Facial recognition software that will pick out a face in a crowd, useful in say, criminology as the modern version of a police lineup. To be scanned will be useful no doubt, but make no mistake, to be scanned will categorize you, dehumanize you, and keep you in line. It’s something to contemplate, coming up against your new masters.
But for today, I look at the red matrix of beams that speed through my purchase, as efficiently as possible. They give me no pleasure, and my soul does not rejoice to have to use them. It is good in times like these, to remember that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. A human being is the kind of machine that can play a Beethoven concerto with grace, feeling and precision. The kind of machine that can execute a perfect olympic dive under pressure before a watching world. The kind of machine that can change a diaper, wipe a tear, or hold a child’s hand.
It’s a different kind of machine to be sure. It possesses a soul and a purpose. It can look forward and backward, and contemplate meaning. It can get tired, and it can be refreshed. And as surely as there is artificial intelligence out there, cold and undiscerning, there is a gentle overarching intelligence that made human beings the particular way they are, rejoiced, and saw that it was good.