Vent Your Spleen: Self-Service Checkouts

We’ve all been there; you pop into your local ‘mini’ supermarket for the essentials; milk, bread, teabags and, in my case, fruit pastilles. Having collected your vital items, you head off to pay for them and take them home. But then, disaster! There’s a queue for the checkout and it seems that the next fifty seconds of your life will be spent staring back at the side of someone’s head and, however lovely the back of that someone’s head is, you really would rather be at home.

The heroic cashier is straining every sinew in his or her’s forearms to pack those items from the conveyor belt past the machine that makes those irritating ‘beeping’ noises to reassure you (or annoy you, as the case may be)  that you have in fact bought these items to the safety of the carrier bags. Yet there’s that queue and you’re famished, you’re tired, and you need the loo. But then, from the corner of your eye it appears. A gleaming shrine of speed and efficiency. It’s a self-service check-out machine. Hurrah! Just a quick scan of your items and then you’re away.

Now you may think that these machines appear to be our friends, helping hands in times when only urgency will do. But think again! That hollow aluminium box is a cruel device that has helped to put someone out of a job, because that diabolical devil could be a person, a lovely, friendly person with a gleaming smile and a charming voice and a pleasant, gentile manner. This automaton used to be a person. Not literally, but it has replaced the warming greetings of a shop assistant. Now sure, shop assistants have been described (mostly by my friend, Richard) as ‘grumpy witches from Beeston’  and as difficult to talk to as a chimpanzee (maybe even more difficult) but that just makes it more refreshing when your customer assistant has Zooey Deschanel eyes or a Kate Middleton smile and wishes you ‘a good day’ and to ‘come again’.

The voice of these contraptions is a mocking, sardonic one, like that friend you meet who knows that you got a 2:2 and not a 2:1 but asks you anyway. The voice seems to take extreme pleasure in the fact that you have somehow failed to place your item in the ‘baggage area’ – a tiny rectangle the size of a dinner mat for goodness sake, the bag is definitely there, just let me take my shopping!!! How about that cheeky pop asking whether you have swiped (or not swiped) your nectar card, ‘Have you swiped your nectar card’ the Cruela de Vile esque voice asks.

Perhaps I’m getting too pent up and over-excited about this. Or am I? I mean it’s not as if whenever I see one of these self-service machines beckoning me to ‘START’ I fill with unbridled rage, unrelenting anger and unqualified fury. It’s not as if I’m like that. These metallic monstrosities signal another step along the way to ‘I,Robot’! A terrible film, a terrible future, and perhaps a terrible reality.

In a world where friendships are made ‘official’ through electronic assistance, where we communicate via shortened ‘words’ of one syllable rather than using the whole plethora of available verbal tools in the English lexicon to convey our feelings and movies with computer generated creatures makes more money than something like ‘The Artist’, a film that displays a virtual smorgasbord of human talent, the use of electronic appliances to help us to shop is a sad, but inevitable, wrong. Soon people will be able to get married via webcam…

So I ask you, implore you, beseech you to think; next time you’re in a queue or keen to get home and watch TV, just wait! Take your time! It’ll be well worth it. Imagine the banter. The well wishes of that shop assistant. Do not embrace the cold and unfriendly glare of those diabolical devil machines and embrace humanity. The smile of that grateful cashier who realises that you’ve chosen them over a machine will carry you home. Otherwise we face the imminent prospect of Arnold Schwarzenegger style Terminators. And I’ll be leading the resistance.

Laurence Jennings

This is an extended, web-only Vent Your Spleen.

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One Comment
  • I Love Chocolates
    5 March 2012 at 22:48
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    The advantage of the self-checkout machine is that it doesn’t judge me when I buy piles of junk food, multi-buy crisps, huge bags of sweets or just a kilogram of Dairy Milk. No more buying salad and vegetables just to ‘even out’ what’s on the checkout belt and avoid meeting the gaze of the checkout assistant as she sees what a fatty I am.

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