Is there any phrase that strikes terror into the heart and chills the soul as much as ‘self-service check out’? In a scenario not dissimilar to the Ebola virus or the Black Plague, self-service supermarket check outs were sprung upon us unawares. It seemed as if almost overnight the lovely lads and lasses in Sainsburys Southampton Row were ejected from their tills and forced into a new job description – part prefect and part whipper-in – whereby it was their duty to force unsuspecting shoppers to undergo the sheer hell that is self-service tills.
Whereas once we’d pass the time of day with a human being as our groceries were scanned and bagged, now we are frogmarched towards machines by dead-eyed assistants who get terribly cross when educated people like you and I stage a revolution in miniature and refuse to scan our own shopping. Why the aversion? Well let’s start with the automated voice that sounds faux-cheerful but is underlined by an edge of threat and castigation if you’re too slow. One needs the arms of an octopus to manage scanning, bagging and pressing various buttons and God forbid you use your own bag and it contains more than a feather because that means you’re disqualified and need human assistance thus defeating the object entirely.
If like 99% of adult Londoners your shopping includes a bottle of booze then human intervention is also necessary. Should you also need cigarettes – now hidden behind the counter like the Cheapside Hoard – then this operation also requires a cheesed-off assistant to do the runaround to deliver the fags and authorise the machine to allow you to buy said entirely legal item. Then we turn to the items without a barcode. You need six years of studying crop rotation at Kew Gardens to be able to navigate the sub species of fruit and vegetables. When one finally gives up because the automated voice is castigating you again for being tardy you need a stiff gin or a Xanax to calm down.
Just when you think the torture is over, the machine – who sounds an awful lot like a passive aggressive ex-friend of mine - starts asking you for loyalty cards and how you’d like to pay. What you’d actually like to do is whip out a machete and smash the naffing machine to smithereens or sue Sainsburys for dereliction of duty. In the year (and it feels like a decade) since self-service check-out machines were introduced I have never, ever managed to complete a shop without cursing at the machine, bitch-slapping it in frustration and having to do a ‘phone a friend’ with one of the assistants for help.
Fortunately, Waitrose on Chancery Lane does not bully shoppers into using the infernal machines and they happen to employ lovely people who entirely sympathise when you complain about the bank of machines speaking in tongues, malfunctioning and winking malevolently at shoppers in a ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ fashion. I wonder if employment laws are about to change and the supermarkets are trying to dodge the bullet of minimal wages or pension schemes or some such. Whatever the reason, I think it is our duty people of England to rage against the machines and refuse to be fobbed-off with scanning our own shopping.
I do feel as if we’re living in the nightmare that Fritz Lang depicted in the 1927 film Metropolis. We don’t like it, we don’t want it but some evil genius is pushing us towards a world where human interaction is denied. This has been happening on the telephone for aeons now. Even smart restaurants in London answer the phone with automated messages urging us to press one or press two. And God forbid a human picks up the phone when you ring the bank or a utilities company.
What bothers me most of all is that we’ve all been conditioned to communicate via email or text message rather than picking up the telephone. I always love nothing more than phoning a friend, lighting a cigarette, taking off an earring and yattering for an hour. I do believe we also did business rather effectively ringing our editors every week and talking our way round features ideas until one was commissioned. On a very basic level Twitter is a substitute for having people to talk to. Let’s face it, the inflections in the human voice have taken centuries to develop. We know whether someone is being benign or being a bitch by how they say something. Not on Twitter, email or by text we don’t.
My major rage against machines is that they isolate and dehumanise people. I for one don’t know how life would be without my daily chitty-chatty with the locals in Bloomsbury at the camp Graeco-Roman swimming pool, the newsagent, the Cordon Bleu Cafe and Gail at ‘My Beautiful Launderette’. I hope that Londoners rise up as one and fight the self-service check-outs as stridently as Dr Who does the Daleks. The supermarkets seem to employ twice as many people to manage the infernal machines than they did on check-outs and for the mental health of the capital alone it would do us all a favour to go back to good old fashioned service.