Have You Served Your Technology Today?

Self checkout

I am one of technology's lackeys, as are you. Whether you want to acknowledge it or not we all squander great swaths of life jumping at the commands of inanimate objects.

Don’t believe me? Two words: self-checkout.

It’s called various things - U-Scan at my grocery store – but by any name self-checkout is the retail industry’s ubiquitous tool for getting more work out of those damned lazy customers of theirs. You’re familiar with the concept: we, the paying customer, under the supervision of a computer, scan and pay for our purchases while trying our darndest to avoid asking the store's flesh-and-blood employee to intervene with the computer on our behalf. Throw in an off-hand insult - the computer actually prints a store employee’s name on the receipt as “Your Cashier” – and you’ve nailed the essence of self-checkout.

You'll recognize ”your cashier”, stationed at the front of the U-Scan area like a prison guard overseeing the yard, by her nametag, the magazine in front of her face, and the paycheck she gets at the end of the week. As if oblivious to the imminent danger of losing that income to a few lines of code her general deportment screams, "The computer has a told you what you must do in short, declarative commands. If you are unable to follow simple instructions, you may approach, you idiot!"

You'll recognize a paying customer—let's say a 70-year-old paying customer—by her pleading glances in the direction of the oblivious “cashier”. Her brittle bones will be bending under the 20-lb. bag of dog food she rolls, drags, and pushes this way and that in an effort to scan the barcode, thus enabling U-Scan to tell her in the pleasant, synthetic voice and distant demeanor common among programmable machines how much of her fixed income she must insert in the proper receptacle.

And she better be quick about it. After all, U-Scan’s got a business to run!

You must perform to U-Scan's exacting expectations for speed and accuracy lest you test the computer's patience to such an extent that it instructs you to "Wait for the Cashier". Ouch! You feel indignity’s sting as the computer surrenders to your ineptitude. "I can't work with this one anymore,” it insinuates. “Mobilize the other human to help it!"

U-Scan's interest goes well beyond performance-related issues, however. It's equally concerned with your—how to put this delicately—integrity.

After you've scanned your purchases, but before U-Scan directs you to pay and sends you on your way with a hearty, chip-felt "thank you" for a job well done, it tactfully accuses you of, at the very least, contemplating shoplifting.

U-Scan tells you to check under your cart for any items you may have "forgotten" to scan. Now, a thinly veiled accusation like that may seem unnecessary, judgmental, and perhaps even a tad bit intrusive, but we must concede what U-Scan already knows: some of our kind (homo sapiens, that is) are, indeed, prone to thievery. And though U-Scan would like to trust us, it can't be expected to know all its employees. Did I say employees? I meant customers, of course.

It's possible I'm not being entirely fair. After all, paying customers are given a choice of either submitting themselves to U-Scan or planting themselves and their six items in one of the store's two open "full-service" lines, behind a harried mother lugging two packed grocery carts. Oblivious to her screaming kids as she’ll dig through reams of coupons to chisel a few bucks off the cost of a mountain of groceries. A sleepy cashier will pick his way through that mountain…package…by…package, progressing like a sloth chipping away at K2 with a rock-hammer. You will silently mock him for his sloppy scanning technique, having been properly schooled by U-Scan.

And where is U-Scan? Oh, it’s there - just a few cash register lines away - mute but scolding you nonetheless for choosing to be a "full-service" customer. You will succumb. Deflated, like a circus-trained lion being led back to center-ring for another performance, you’ll shuffle to the smart-screen and set your basket down, where U-Scan will welcome you and put you back to work.

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