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13 December 2016

Had a meltdown at a self-service checkout? You’re not alone…

Judging by what I saw when I went out to buy cereal, man and machine have hit a critical level of hostility.

By Mark Watson

I have witnessed a meltdown at the supermarket. The victim was undoubtedly not the first person to go crazy by the checkouts, and – the festive period being what it was – I’d be surprised if she’s the last. But this crisis was slightly broader in scope than usual: it was less of a consumer dispute and more a howl for lost humanity. Which is more than you expect to see when you nip out to buy cereal.

The problem was one of the self-service machines that have all but replaced checkout staff in this chain, like most others. The woman next to me simply could not get on with hers, not because she wasn’t able to use it, but because it seemed implacably opposed to the whole idea of her weekly shop.

First it questioned her age suitability to buy alcohol – a glimmer of light for those of us visibly in to middle age, when the question comes from another human being, but less comforting from a machine. Then, in the way of these appliances, it insisted that she put her bags within a tenth of a square millimetre of an invisible mark, to avoid the “unexpected item in bagging area” reprimand.

An assistant who had come over just a minute earlier to help with the booze had to be summoned all over again.

The last straw was a bag of pistachios – the most benign of groceries, allergies aside – which just wouldn’t scan, no matter how she held it.

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Over came the assistant for the third time. The shopper was now severely rattled.

“I mean, this is insane!” she said to the checkout girl, who got on with the pistachio-scanning in silence.

“I could have been finished twice over by now! The world’s gone mad!”

Given recent events, the woman could have found stronger proof of that notion. But it’s hard not to feel that human beings and self-scan machines – meant to be partners in smooth shopping – are now at a critical level of hostility. Not only do the machines generally not make things any faster than dealing with a real person: those real people have to intervene to prevent the supermarket from coming to a standstill. Levels of checkout frustration are, I would say, higher than before these machines were ever invented. Tensions are rising week on week. We are not far from the point where we will see the first instances of human-on-machine violence – maybe even an electronic casualty. Which would put the tin lid on what has already been a tricky old year.

Or maybe this was simply a lady at the end of her tether with an unusually unresponsive device. Perhaps we shouldn’t read the decline of civilisation into it, especially when there are more potentially pressing things at stake elsewhere in the world. I’m just saying that I hope, when our successors look back on the ashes of our species, they at least pay a little attention to this column. 

This article appears in the 06 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump