Column Road

A little less conversation

Sir, you have an unexpected item in your bagging area

By Helena Hanson

I have always had this romanticised visualisation of ordinary life in the past, maybe in our grandparent’s golden days. I imagine little, glass grocery stores with fresh vegetables and juicy fruits lying in baskets by shop door ways. I can see a radish-faced, turnip-shaped green grocer, who wears a brown waistcoat and has a straw boater hat, who is on a first name basis with all his customers.

I imagine a butcher’s shop, with fresh cuts of meat laid out in excess, with a hammy-looking, porky man stood behind the counter. He will ask, “how are the children?” and give you a little bit of his leftovers every week to give to your dog because he’s always loved animals really.

I imagine a little lady that worked in the bakery, she would be round and doughy, with a warm smile and fluffy white hair. She would always give the children some fresh, free gingerbread and would always be empty and stockless by three o’clock.

I could sit for hours inventing, and imagining an era when you said “hello” to your neighbours and knew the names of your local shopkeepers. Alas, we live in a world is removing social contact and extinguishing local community through the manifestation of everyday technology. Sweet, little, old Mrs Goggins has been replaced with an automated, robotic, self-service check out.

As self-service checkouts and internet shopping are on the increase, it is the small things that I miss the most. Buying a book and the cashier telling you “I loved reading this one!” or buying a shirt and being told “That’s lovely! I bought one myself just yesterday!” You know they are lying, but it’s nice all the same.

That said, I know so many people that would prefer to avoid social interaction with staff when they are out shopping. But, what would become of our lives if there was no cashiers, no shop assistants, no taxi drivers, no waiting staff, no hotel staff, and no travel workers? I can’t imagine a future where all of our shopping, travelling, dining, commuting is done without any interaction with another human. Communication as we know it would be lost, and when that happens, everything would begin to unravel. Community, civility, character, everything that makes us human.

Our futures are already bleak! As students, we know full well our job prospects are little more fruitful than the Lidl checkout, and we are ok with it, but please don’t take that from us too! If, after three years’ worth of university education and 40 grand worth of debt, we are only qualified to become a checkout assistant, please don’t give this job to a computer instead.

If you have been living under a rock for the past 10 years, an automated checkout machine is essentially a piece of technology that gets really pissed off at you, for reasons beyond your control. There is a typical man vs machine showdown that will take place every time you attempt to make use of it, and it usually goes something like this:

You will always immediately upset the machine by putting your handbag down in the ‘bagging area’ (there’s literally nowhere else to put it) and it will get very distressed and immediately snitch on you to a member of human staff. Said member of staff, will slump over to you, usually frustrated and bad-mannered, having spent six hours listening to a Spem in alium taking place featuring fifteen checkout machines screaming in unison about bagging areas. She will give you the death stare, scan her special, magic card, and slump off again muttering profanities under her breath.

You will attempt to continue to service-yourself but alas, more complications will undoubtedly arise. You will soon realise that if you have a light item, perhaps a packet of chewing gum or a sachet of flavouring, which the machine will not be able to comprehend. So then, you will be forced, in the most dramatic and exaggerated fashion possible, to slam your item into the bagging area. This will happen a few times, until you find a product so minuscule, that the robot will simply not register it in the bagging area, despite your energetic throwing. Again, you will have no choice but to re-summon slumpy Sarah who will scan her magic card again and say something infuriating like “you need to properly put it in the bag”, as if you have not just been slam-dunking that Paprika sachet into the bag for twenty five minutes.

Then, after you have been huffed at again, you will, no doubt, throw something in to the bag, with afore mentioned gusto, which you haven’t quite scanned properly. Shit. Well, then all hell will break loose as the machine will begin screaming “unexpected item in the bagging area!!!!”, which is polite, computer speak for “THIS WOMAN IS STEALING SOMEBODY DO SOMETHING!!!” and you will start to get all hot and sweaty which will make matters worse, and also make you look guilty, and then slumpy Sarah will return, her eyes rolling so vigorously they might actually fall out and then at this point it is usually ok to just start crying.

Just when you think things literally cannot get any worse, you will notice that all those deals and offers you made use of during your shop have not registered on the till and you are now paying an extra thirty pounds for things you didn’t want and need and then just as you scrabble around for your payment card, wondering what you could have possibly done in a past life to deserve all of this, the robot will deduct the excess charge, and you just know that it is laughing at you.

If only that was all. Alas, there is a whole family tree of humanity-destroying technology on the way to squash our current humanoid harmony. There’s the checkout’s twin, the self check-in machine at the airport, and the retro grandparents, the vending machine and the coffee machine, and not to mention the huge, bulking cousin internet and cousin smartphone. And now, the birth of the most grotesque relative yet, the self-driving vehicle.

What is our obsession with robot-ising our future? I want to buy my shopping at a local green grocers and I am want to chat to the checkout-staff about my two-for-one cucumbers. I don’t want to stop chatting to taxi drivers about their shift that night and I am not prepared to sacrifice my conversations with restaurant staff about their recommendations. I want to be told I am pretty in real life, and not just on Instagram pictures, and I want REAL kisses not just xxx. Human interaction is beautiful and brilliant and exciting, and I just can’t bear to imagine a world without it.

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