#45: Rage against self-checkout
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Good morning and happy Daylight Savings Time!
It’s currently 5:17 p.m. on Thursday for me and the sun is streaming through my living room window and I can hear kids playing outside and I’m wearing my summer shorts. Next week it will be this light at 6:17 p.m., which is very good. Although it’s still March and it won’t be reliably warm for a while, this past week of sunshine, combined with the promise of more vaccines, has felt so existentially encouraging I could cry. I recently remembered this old Instagram caption of mine from 2019 and would like to raise it a year-long pandemic: “The best thing about the first sunny weekend of the year is realizing you’ve been sad for three months but just forgot.”
Rage against self-checkout
Avi and I are at the grocery store and we’ve just finished our shopping. There is a long line snaking behind the single cashier working, and to her left, an empty bank of self-checkout machines. We look between them cartoonishly. It feels like a trick. “Let’s do it!” I say, heaving one of our baskets onto a mini self-checkout counter. Avi sets the other on the ground.
We’ve come here spontaneously, so our first problem is we don’t have bags. Self-checkout, of course, has none, but to our right is a wall of “sustainable” options for sale. I pick one up. The material is impossible to describe—like something you might barf in on an airplane, but also flammable. I buy two, knowing I will never use them again because I have 15 canvas totes at home. I swipe their tags across the counter and notice the plastic loop is wrapped around the handles, rendering them useless. I grip the tag between my hands and rip, cutting into my fingers. I do this twice.
For the next five minutes, mayhem ensues. First the bag doesn’t fit on the scale, but when we remove it, the machine beeps at us like criminals, so we maneuver it back on. Next the machine does not recognize a bag of chips. Then we don’t know what kind of avocados we’ve picked. Then the bag fills up, and we try to take it off to make room for the other bag, and it beeps again. PLEASE PLACE THE ITEM IN THE BAGGING AREA! The machine repeats this so many times, and at such an alarming volume, that an attendant, standing bored against a wall, comes running. She puts in a code and we start swiping some more. When the second bag fills up, we try to add a block of cheese to the first bag. PLEASE PLACE THE ITEM IN THE BAGGING AREA! Exasperated, and also panicking, we put it directly on the scale, teetering on the edge. By the end I’m using both hands to keep it all in place, every muscle in my body clenched as if I’m playing Twister, wondering how, exactly, this is better than chatting about the weather with a trained employee.
There is a pervasive belief in modern society, at least among capitalists, that technology can solve everything, or that more technology is always better than less. Baked into this belief is an entire value system: that what technology offers—ease, speed, efficiency, autonomy, digital experiences—is always better than the opposite: friction, slowness, inefficiency, interdependence, analog. This is not remotely a novel observation—books have been written on this, and nostalgia for a world more firmly rooted in the physical is basically a tentpole of modern life. But tech’s reach, even if we resent it, has become so ubiquitous that most of us have absorbed its priorities. We may be into sustainable clothes and old-school alarm clocks and farm-to-table groceries, for instance, but both are still being shipped to us in two days, ordered via simple, colorful apps, and shared on platforms that connect us to infinite strangers in seconds. #VanLife, one of the most literal examples of a younger generation’s rejection of modernity (i.e. homelessness rebranded by millennials) is best marketed via supercuts on social media, which smooth out every challenge, summing up months in under one minute. Progress has become inextricably linked with ease.
Self-checkout, that “futuristic” invention we all know and love, is my favorite example of what it looks like when this ethos jumps the shark. Perhaps because it sits at the nexus of everything technology is meant to do—make an experience easier, faster, more efficient and autonomous. And it either succeeds, making you feel empty inside, or more likely fails, driving you insane. To top it all off, the actual motivation behind the technology is almost certainly cost-cutting from the reduction in overhead, a savings I can guarantee is not passed on to customers or employees. In this way, it’s the perfect exemplar of late-stage capitalism: a flashy talisman of progress that funnels money to the 1% under the guise of innovation.
Face ID is another good example, recently made nearly obsolete by masks. There’s no way Apple could have foreseen a deadly pandemic that would render this technology useless, but perhaps they could have asked themselves how useful Face ID was in the first place. Or was it just benign advancement for the sake of making more money? Almost every technology that annoys us falls in this trap: finicky touch screens that could be buttons, circuitous chat bots that could be conversations, toilets that automatically flush while you’re still going, misting your body with someone else’s pee. This is the world on technology, a dystopia dressed up as utopia by the few who stand to profit. Of course some of it does serve the greater good (and is also fun), but it’s not a value system that scales infinitely or democratically. Treated as a given, priorities skew, and suddenly a robot is scolding us for trying to buy yogurt and nobody can “afford” to pay a $15 minimum wage in the richest country in the world.
The other day I asked people on Instagram for examples of “progress” that had actually made things worse, citing self-checkout as an example. Let’s call it pseudo-progress. The answers poured in hot and fast, so diverse and specific they felt like a collective scream. “Honestly it would be easier to name a recent invention that didn’t reinforce [cultural] hegemony,” replied one person. Reading through the answers was strangely cathartic, so I’ve decided to share some of my favorites below, not including the heavy-hitters like Slack and social media, which cropped up so many times they can almost go without saying. While they’re not all directly linked to tech, what I found most gratifying about these examples of pseudo-progress is nearly all of them fall into the similar trap of assuming one of the aforementioned five factors is more important than it is: ease, speed, autonomy, efficiency, or innovation for the sake of it. Financial incentives, meanwhile, cut horizontally; you can assume they’re always relevant if not the sole driver.
“Bagel slicers, avocado slicers, egg slicers: all smash the thing you want to slice nicely!”
“Email (that New Yorker article hit me hard)”
“Open floor plan work spaces”
“Checking yourself in at the airport—it never seems to work and you always need help”
“The 2x-speed button on podcasts”
Ed. note: reminds me of this tweet:
“‘Smart homes’ that don’t actually work”
“Venmo. I miss getting a friend’s coffee without them insisting they Venmo me $4.” A related one: “The proliferation of cashless payments in businesses. It’s discriminatory.”
“Online learning. I keep hearing stories of classes getting taught by videos of professors that are dead.”
“The BQE: It represented a new era for Brooklyn but ended up dividing neighborhoods and was essentially a tool for redlining.”
“Providing compostable dishes/utensils but then NOT COMPOSTING ON SITE”
“Recycling of plastics! It increased plastic production (great NPR article about this).”
“Wearable technology for ‘health tracking’—perpetuates healthism + disordered eating”
“Online clothing shopping. You just buy more shit you don’t need and it doesn’t fit.”
Ed. note: Got this one so many times
“Synthetic fibers” and related: “fast fashion”
“Healthcare ‘portals,’ which often put more onus on the patient.”
“Dog walking or sitting services like Rover. They text you when your dog poops.”
Ed note: Got this one so much it surprised me. I’m assuming people are using apps where it’s not possible to turn them off? Maybe dating apps?
“Turbotax/online tax-filing scam companies”
“The millennial direct-to-consumer mall on Bleecker and Lafayette”
Ed note: LOL. 100%
“The IKEA-fication of all furniture. Now you have to assemble everything yourself?”
“The elimination of the headphone jack on iPhones i.e. the rise of the dongle”
“Botox. It superficially eases age anxiety for user but compounds the issue for the collective.”
Ed note: This could be a whole essay!
“Food delivery apps...they aren’t actually making money for the restaurants”
“When waiters bring the check on an iPad. Makes it way more awkward to leave your phone number”
“Fancy induction cooktops they make now where every surface is touchscreen and impossible to use”
“All of the streaming apps! Why can’t it all be in one place like cable TV?”
“Assigned seats in movie theaters”
And for the speed round, I got: Uber, AirBnb, Tinder, Stevia, GMOs, Juul, Zoom, Alexa, Amazon, Instagram, Spotify, and essentially every newish brand valued in the billions.
It’s easy to name examples of pseudo-progress and harder to imagine our trajectory not barreling toward an increasingly “optimized,” frictionless, smooth-brained world. One where the conditions this pursuit has thus far created—alienation, hypernormalization, mass inequality—only grow starker. In my more optimistic moments, I try to imagine what it might look like to shift our collective priorities. There are many growing movements attempting to do this (ScreenTime, slow tech, slow fashion, wellness, coworking spaces, apps that lull us to sleep like newborn babies), but they often rely on markets or technocratic measures themselves. And like their predecessors, they have a way of rerouting the payoff to a wealthy few, or shifting the burden of responsibility to individuals. Maybe these attempts fail at changing much because the way out of this isn’t new habits, brands, or business ideas, but something less neoliberal and capitalistic. Would we be so obsessed with speed, ease, and efficiency if we didn’t spend so much of our lives working? How might our collective priorities shift if resources abounded and there was less to gain by commodifying ourselves?
In a book I’m reading called Do What You Love by Miya Tokumitsu, she writes that many of the tropes of modern work, like “do what you love,” are imbued with false promises of upward mobility that simply don’t exist for most people. “When the quality and sincerity of work, say, as a call-center employee fails to deliver security and some measure of comfort,” she writes, “such work exposes the fraudulence of the idea that hard, earnest work guarantees a reward.” More often, it doesn’t. In fact, a recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition showed that full-time minimum wage workers in the US cannot afford a one-bedroom rental in 95 percent of the country, even with their chipper attitudes. Go-getterism, then, is just another idea sold to us as individually empowering that merely maintains our complacency: As long as we think it’s our fault, we can’t complain.
This is exactly why I’ve stopped placing faith in noble entrepreneurs and philanthropists and started placing it in collective action. Which isn’t to say we can’t try to address the issues individually—deprioritize productivity, invite more interdependence, prioritize process over execution. But as long as society is run on profits and governed by austerity, human-centered solutions will never flourish for the collective. We’ll be stuck fighting over $1,400, or for marginally less predatory healthcare, or for fracking-friendly climate plans. We will be, figuratively but also literally, stuck fighting with a faceless machine, white-knuckling our branded garbage while it takes our money and drives us mad, all in the name of progress.
1. The term “revenge bedtime,” which refers to the decision to stay up late and fuck around (even if you’re tired) in an attempt to recapture leisure time stolen from you by work, chores, and errands.
2. “My Parents Got Sick. It Changed How I Thought About My Marriage,” an essay by Mary H.K. Choi for GQ that I went into with no expectations and came away from stunned by its beauty.
3. The definition and cause of “the cat zoomies,” which is when a cat displays sudden bursts of energy, going from napping to dashing wildly fast across the room in just a few seconds, something I have heretofore referred to as “Bug being on one” or “Bug chasing a ghost.”
4. The Ove Glove, the perfect oven mitt purchased by Avi.
5. “Late-Stage Pandemic Is Messing With Your Brain,” a funny and also moving piece by Ellen Cushing for The Atlantic about forgetting how to be normal.
6. The Meghan & Harry Oprah interview of course. I don’t have any vested interest in the royals but I am watching The Crown right now (season 2) and I wanted to know what everyone was talking about on Twitter. (I also read this follow-up piece in The New Yorker by Doreen St. Felix.)
7. A frozen French bread pizza, the likes of which I had not eaten in 15 years, and I have to say, it was fucking delicious.
8. This New York Times coverage of Dimes Square which felt like possibly the end of Dimes Square? That said I would still smoke a cigarette outside Clandestino tonight if I could...and I don’t even smoke.
9. This incredible photo of my dad in a camping bucket hat from the late 70s:
10. Uncanny Valley, a memoir by Anna Wiener and transporting profile of Silicon Valley and people who run it. It really took me back to working at startups in SF after college.
11. “What If We Pay People to Stop Using Drugs?” an illuminating piece by Zachary Siegel for The New Republic about “contingency management,” a form of behavioral therapy that does not judge and punish people who abuse drugs, but incentivizes sobriety.
“Decades of research show that contingency management works—and is much more effective in treating stimulant use disorders than traditional addiction treatments. But a conservative impulse to punish those who use drugs instead of offering quality care has hardened into policies and laws that prevent contingency management from being more widely used.”
12. A roll of film we just got back, featuring photos Avi took of me on the snowy, abandoned beach last month. (In case you missed it: my winter beach ASMR carousel)
13. Once again, the creepy elevator footage of Elisa Lam, which haunted me the first time I saw it. There is currently a show on Netflix about her case, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, which I am definitely watching, although not necessarily recommending…I think it’s bad?
14. “Andrew Cuomo Is Screwed,” by Alex Shephard for The New Republic. I’ve been mad at Cuomo for years, so it’s a relief to see a crack in the public’s bizarre adoration for him, which I don’t believe he ever deserved.
15. So...many...apartment listings. And also actual apartments. At this point I myself am just a sentient apartment.
Thanks for reading! This Tuesday it’s time for another round of Pop Quiz, my monthly-ish pop culture roundup on the Maybe Baby podcast. This week I invited some of my regulars on (Avi, Danny, my brother Andy) to discuss everything from Lola Bunny to Justin Bieber to the Meghan & Harry Oprah interview. It’s as chaotic as you’d expect.
Or I’ll just see you next week!
This month a portion of subscriber proceeds will be redistributed to GlobalGiving Coronavirus Relief Fund, a non-profit focused on equitable vaccine distribution and getting resources to those made especially vulnerable by the pandemic.
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