All I wanted was coffee and half an hour of WiFi. What I got was another little reminder of the automated world evolving around us.
Not that we asked for it.
The other day I had just enough time between events to open my laptop and punch out some needed work. I swung into a fast-food place and walked to the counter.
Did you want to order something, the nice young person asked.
That seemed like a really, really dumb question, but I figured what the heck and said, “Uh, yes, please.”
“You can’t do that here,” she said.
Let me be clear. This young person — probably of high school age, probably in her first job, probably as befuddled by older people slow on the uptake as older people are by a world in flux — was exceedingly pleasant, earnest and helpful.
“You have to go to that kiosk a few feet behind you, sir.” She stepped around to help. “Here’s the screen. Touch the screen.”
“You said coffee?” “Yes, ma’am.” “OK, here’s coffee.” Up came a whole screen of different sizes and varieties of drinks.
Then a screen with every permutation of coffee/decaf/espresso/iced/hot/with/without cream/sugar/Splenda/that pink stuff. You get the idea.
She chatted, tapped the screen and walked me through it. I got the clear impression this was a one-time tutorial. The kiosk spit out a piece of paper. It said coffee, small, black, $1.08.
“Where do I actually get the coffee? And pay?”
“Oh, at the counter,” she said.
It didn’t really seem as if we were saving time, but the theory is plain enough. Offload more work to the consumer. Make them figure out how to tell the kiosk to hold the pickles. Humans mess that up anyway.
Consumer taps a screen, consumer swipes a card, consumer ducks as a robot flings a Big Mac and a Coke. Company saves 34 seconds worth of payroll.
They have us trained, folks. This is just the next step.
The credit union is doing the same thing. You step inside the shiny new office near my house and the first thing you see is not a person but a couple of really fancy ATMs. You can get to an actual helpful person, but it’s not the first option.
Much has changed in the world since I had my first job — high school age, earnest and helpful — making and serving Big Macs. We should acknowledge that most of that change is good, but it all comes with a cost.
This hasn’t changed: Every company worth its salt says something like, “People are our most valuable asset,” and every last one of them wants to wring every human out of the system as soon as practicable.
The old-fashioned vending machine is the highest form of capitalism. There’s a one-time capital expenditure. The human cost is minimal, stocking products with a shelf life of infinity.
The consumer — what a lovely euphemism for “human not yet separated from his money” — inserts the money, punches the buttons and futilely punches the machine when a bag of chips can’t quite let go.
The machine in theory can generate profit 24/7, and human interaction is nil. But it’s a cold vision. Is that what we want? Do we have much choice?