Friday, April 12, 2013

Machine Age

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.

Warning, Warning...

“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.


Bijoux said...

Well, if I'm turning into a cyborg, it is a cognitively disabled one! I always have trouble with the self serve registers. Either it won't accept my 'preferred customer' card, or I can't find the money slot. I wrote a post once about having all sorts of trouble, while a store employee just stood there and watched me struggle, probably to make sure I didn't steal a package of Kool aid I was purchasing. Annoying!

Rob K said...

It sounds like that store employee was drinking the Kool Aid, Bijoux.

I wonder sometimes if our dependence upon machines has harmed our ability to relate to other humans. You clearly had a problem, but this person did nothing to help. It's quite disturbing.

Ron said...

"I had resisted using these cash registers when they first starting cropping up...."

OMG, I was the same way, Rob, I kid you not! I resisted using those damn self-serve cash registers for the longest time. But, I finally broke down and started using them because, like you shared, it seemed faster than using the cashier. Plus, I think the cashiers purposely GO SLOWER so that you HAVE to use the machines. My thing is, why do they even hire cashiers?!? I mean, what do they even do besides stand there and use those cards to wipe the register's memory clean?

Do you know what at freaks me out the most about those CVS self-serve cash registers? The VOICE of the woman who speaks, "PLEASE SWIPE YOU EXTRA CARE CARD." OMG, she has the creepiest voice! And she's so LOUD. Everyone in the entire store can hear what your TOTAL is.

I often wonder if we're going to eventually no longer need people to do things because of self-serve machines that are popping up everywhere, and therefore, jobs will be lost.

Awesome post, buddy! Have a super weekend!

Rob K said...

Hey, Ron, what's happening! So you fought the machines, too, huh? I'm not surprised. We think alike on so many things.

Excellent point on the jobs issue. Between technology and outsourcing I wonder what's going to happen to us.

Thanks for stopping by, buddy! Have a great weekend!