“It’s a Living!”

Reader, what are your honest thoughts about automation?

I just got back from buying bread at a local mini-market. All three self-service check-outs were vacant but a woman waited patiently with her shopping behind another customer at the one staffed counter.

As I scanned my items and paid for them, I overheard the woman as she reached the counter say something about self-service machines “putting people out of work.”

This is something I’ve heard many times, as doubtless have you. The thought probably even crossed your mind when you saw your first self-service check-out.

There might be a valid case that these machines and other concessions to automation reduce the potential for important human interaction, but the “putting people out of work” thing surely DOES NOT COMPUTE.

Think about it. You’re saying that labour-saving (and, in this case, queue-busting) solutions should be resisted in favour of people doing work that does not in reality need to be done.

It makes me think of animals being used as household appliances on The Flintstones. Some cement is mixed in the beak of a pelican and he says to camera, “It’s a living!”

Intelligent lifeforms doing what machines can do automatically!

Serving lines of impatient customers in a supermarket–take it from me–certainly felt futile before these machines came along a few years ago; now, since the machines exist, it really is futile.

If we need to create work for people (and we don’t), how about creating work that is useful (in that robots can’t do it yet) or serves to hold back the ecopocalypse, or is pleasant to do, or is at least a little more meaningful than breaking rocks?

OR should we pay intelligent humans with the same internal hardware as Leonardo da Vinci a minimum wage to stand in the corner in case someone needs a convenient hatstand?

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Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at wringham.co.uk

10 Responses to ““It’s a Living!””

  1. tom says:

    We seem to be at a stage in our evolution where we are half accepting of automation invading our lives, and sometimes unnerved or annoyed by the lifeless screens barking orders at us. Even though few actually have conversations with, say, cashiers, the possibility remains. With an automatic checkout machine there is no chance of it responding if we were to ask it how its day has been going.

    I suppose when people express dismay at another job lost to a machine, perhaps what they are really getting at is that feeling of helpless angst when it comes to the elimination of human interaction, in whatever form that could be, even though, for the most part, we humans seem to keep our heads down and mouths shut, in urban centres at least.

    But it’s also possible that some people are genuinely afraid of jobs being lost, putting some in a precarious financial situation.

    I agree though: most results of job creation are absolute garbage.

  2. Briony says:

    Not sure I agree with you on this one.  Rejecting the self-service checkout is a vote for a human-scale world.  Big corporations want the autobots, small concerns will be unable to afford them.

    The Man wants autobot employees because they are consistant, don’t need holidays and sick days, don’t have hangovers or grumpy days.  In effect, their customers are working the machinery for them, instead of employees.  We are paying for the privilege of handing over our money.  We are slaves, tied to the company store. 

    And as for “it’s a living”…  It may not be the job of *your* dreams, but it is not undignified.  The most disagreeable aspect was the attitude of some customers who treated us as subhumans not worthy of basic politeness or acknowledgement.  Your piece shows a little of this contempt.  Otherwise I enjoyed my shop-working days – definitely more tolerable than office-working, despite the perceived lower status.  The day was varied and there were plenty of people to watch.  At the end of the day I walked away without bringing a mental load or contamination with me – I was not expected to be reachable outside of working hours, I did not work outside of my shift, I did not give the job a moment’s attention once out of the door.  If more jobs were so constrained, they would not be so damaging.   Work itself is not evil, only when it is out of proportion.  Even the “factory of the future” with only a dog and one man, needed the man to feed the dog.  The point, surely, is to minimise the time you need to spend feeding the dog by reducing outgoings and commitments, rather than shooting the mutt. 

  3. This discussion raised an interesting point for me. Work still does indeed have dignity (depending on the job and the beholder, I suppose). And yet it feels like the dignity of work is an obstacle to getting rid of Jobs altogether and replacing them with Basic Income + deciding what to do with your own time.

    People’s psychological desire to work at a job would need to be more widely dispensed with before enough people can be convinvced that their lives are better spent in a mixture of idleness and self-directed activity.

    I feel that would be a tricky period to navigate.

  4. Hi Martin. Absolutely. Check out the Williams/Srnicek manifesto. “demand full automation” and “demand UBI” are in there, but so is “destroy the work ethic.” I think this is what you’re describing. Destroying the work ethic (or at least softening it or redefining it to be about genuine usefulness/meaning instead of graft) is a cultural change. Since hearing about Williams/Srnicek, I’ve figured that’s where things like New Escapologist and the Idler fit into the transformative effort (if indeed anywhere and if indeed this effort exists outside the imaginations of Escapologists).

  5. I enjoyed my shop-working days – definitely more tolerable than office-working, despite the perceived lower status.

    Well, that we can agree on for sure. I’d take shop over office any day now. And no status judgment from me, I assure you: I’m putting serious thought into becoming a street sweeper. Part time, obvs. 😀

    You raise some great points though, Briony, especially concerning human interaction.

    I do wonder if the motivation for the machines’ existence matters. You’re right that it comes from Capitalist Overlords who want efficiency and to outsource (crowdsource?) labour from customers in tiny bits. But imagine if we lived in a non-Capitalist world and the supermarket existed out of a genuine desire to feed people/distribute essential goods. I think (and I could be wrong) we’d still arrive at self check-out systems to maximise efficiency. I don’t know for sure, of course: that’s why I started the post with a question for the readership (and sincere thanks for taking the question seriously), it’s fun to spitball (nice expression, that, isn’t it?).

  6. Yes, Tom, the elimination of human interaction is the real issue, isn’t it? When we went from local shops (i.e. fishmonger, grocer, etc.) to supermarkets, this was a big step away from human scale. The machines are just dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s really. Maybe it will come full circle (I’ve got a big piece coming up in the Idler about this and I already regret being overly-provocative about welcoming “the death of the high street” despite tempering the stance) and the inhumanity of the supermarket experience will stimulate a new generation of human scale shops again and the meaningful work that would come with them. Here’s hoping.

  7. Briony says:

    You mentioned the Mark Boyle book (The Way Home) a while back – and I read it and enjoyed it. Sideways to that and to your blog post is another recent read “Better Off” by Eric Brende. While I am not an Amish-wannabe by any means, I found he captured some of my feelings about work much more eloquently than I can botch together myself. You might find it an interesting read.

  8. Eric Brende. Looks good. I’d not heard of that one and I will grab a copy. Thanks Briony. Glad you enjoyed The Way Home too. I found it to be nicely written and about some important issues yet with that all-important lightness of touch; hope you found the same.

  9. VIctor says:

    One of the joys of the automated checkout is how much you can get through it without paying for.

    Since you are required to do work for which someone was previously employed, it is reasonable to take some remuneration. I call this the self-checkout tax.

    Waitrose is easiest. We are all friends here, and well-to-do people don’t like to be mistrusted, so the check outs are not set up to weigh each item as you place it in the bagging area. It’s simple enough to ‘accidentally’ put three packets of ravioli in your bag but only scan two.

    Other supermarkets pose more subtle challenges but there are many easy pickings. Pastries and bread rolls, for example, all weigh pretty much the same, so in Lidl your bag with two rolls, an almond croissant and a Portuguese custard tart can be put through as 4 rolls.

    Fruit and veg sold by weight requires additional labour on your part, and you can’t be expected to be proficient. If you press the potatoes button when buying avocados, who can blame you?

    It’s also very easy to cause a distraction by placing an already heavy bag in the bagging area, which it doesn’t like, or making lots of mistakes which require attention to reset the check out. The already harassed operatives are unlikely to search through your bagged groceries. And because your savings are lightening you mood, you’ll be a more cheerful, friendly and grateful customer.

  10. New Escapologist does NOT condone shoplifting! It is, however, objectively clever and cool.

    The thought occurs that conversations about the new shoplifting opportunities would have happened in boardrooms back when automation was first proposed. They’d have weighed the cost of losing, say, 10% of stock to machine-assisted shoplifting against savings incurred by not rehiring, say, 50% of shop workers on their leaving and come to the conclusion that the net gain is in the black. You just know these conversations took place. The five-finger-discounter is perhaps just a part of that glorious and entirely foreseen arrangement.

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