I stood in line at the CVS store on Fulton Street one morning and witnessed a classic battle of man versus machine.
The man was deranged, probably homeless, and the machine was a self-serve cash register speaking in a female android voice. I couldn’t see what the guy was trying to purchase but the sale obviously wasn’t going well.
“Please swipe your Extra Care card,” the register said with mechanized warmth.
“Mind your own business!” the man shouted at the inanimate object. “I wasn’t talking to you!”
I’ve gotten annoyed with these registers myself but I’ve never tried arguing with one. I usually just fume under the “Help is On The Way Sign” until one of the staffers comes over and wipes the register’s memory clean.
It was kind of funny watching someone engage in this pointless confrontation. The machines can’t hear us, but sometimes you just have to resort to insanity in order to prove your humanity. Being pointless is the whole point.
I had resisted using these cash registers when they first starting cropping up because I was certain I’d foul up the transaction somehow and have to fight off a store full of cranky customers. I told myself that I deserved to be waited on by a fellow human, not some calculator with delusions of grandeur.
But then I realized I could get out of the place faster if I did it myself and so I gleefully swiped my goodies over the screen. Doing anything faster is every hyperactive New Yorker’s idea of paradise and we’ll gladly give up brief encounters with other people if it means we’ll be own our way a few seconds sooner.
You just have to pray you don’t get behind some troglodyte who doesn’t know how a bar code works.
“Welcome,” the machines always say as an opener, “please choose your language.”
Of course I know the thing wants to know which language you speak so it can adjust itself accordingly, but I like to pretend that if I pressed one of the other buttons besides the one reading “English” I would immediately be able to speak Russian, Spanish or Chinese. Hmm, I feel like speaking Swahili today…
In the mornings when it’s crowded the competing voices can turn into a bizarre chorus as the registers blather away.
I interviewed a retail stock analyst years ago about the future of consumer electronics and at some very strange point in our conversation he got on this theme that we were all becoming part machine because of our growing dependence on devices.
“We’re becoming cyborgs,” he said ominously. “I know you think I’m crazy, but it’s true.”
I confess that at the time I did think he was weirding out on me but now I believe he was on to something. I remember banking in the days before ATMs, making calls on pay phones, and looking up information in an encyclopedia.
Every new device comes into our lives as a novelty and rapidly becomes indispensable before turning obsolete at the speed of what-the-hell?
And while I may laugh at the homeless guy for yelling at the cash register, I’ve done plenty of shouting at automated operators as I fruitlessly press button after button in hopes of speaking with a human being.
After berating the register, the homeless man stormed out of the store and stood on the corner shouting at some woman down the block who had caught his eye.
“Hey, mamma, where’d you get that fine coat?”
It was a little unnerving watching the guy quickly shift from a colorful character to a spooky stalker and I’m sure every woman in the building was hoping he would disappear very soon.
He held his ground and shouted into the wind for a few more seconds before melting into the city's morning commotion.