02 March 2011

Rage Against the Machine

It seems the robot uprising has begun. Yesterday the Commonwealth Bank was bought to a grinding halt by computer errors that caused ATMs to hand out thousands of dollars to disgustingly greedy and opportunistic users. Meanwhile in the US (where else?) some clever cookies have developed a program that can beat human competitors at Jeopardy. And only three hours ago my brother was attacked by a giant robotic canary which exclaimed ‘expatriate’ and began faxing yoghurt to the Bavarian Consulate. Also, my spell check is coming the raw prawn and keeps defaulting back to US English. Apparently it can recommend the wrong spelling of ‘favour’ and ‘recognise’ but still can’t do anything to prevent that sentence about the canary. So that’s one to me, I suppose.

Sorry about that.

I’ve written before about my distaste for the new computerized customer operated check out stations at the supermarkets. Since then, the stations have been installed in every department store (or what passes for department stores in Darwin) in Darwin. I’m sure tech heads all over the city are rejoicing in the advent of the robotic revolution while owners and managers are gleefully rubbing their hands together at the thought of all the wages they don’t have to pay anymore.

I am just about ready to take a cricket bat to the stupid things. I’m all in favour of technological progress when it works. But the self operated checkouts don’t work. Every time I try to use them, they’ve run out of cash, or the weight scale isn’t working, or it won’t recognise the barcode on my biscuits. Generally I show my antagonism for the devices in a way which is less inclined to cause damage to a perfectly good cricket bat. That is, I just boycott them and only use the stations with human beings working at them. But during the last two days I’ve been pushed over the edge.

Last night I went to buy some new shoes for Sepak Takraw. Sometime later on I’ll get around to posting about how cool it is that I’ve taken up Sepak Takraw again, but for now I’m all revved up about evil department stores.

Last night, not only were the automated stations in Kmart beeping at me rudely, but when I went to deliberately and obviously not use them, I found I had no choice. Kmart did not have any human beings working the registers at all. There were two assistants supposedly on hand to help with the machines, but none of them seemed to pay the slightest attention when it took me three goes to get the thing to read my credit card correctly. I was ready to forget the whole thing and walk out, but I needed the shoes. Sort of. Admittedly it was six o’clock at night, so we might expect the shop to have been a bit quiet. But that should also have meant that service was exceptional since there was nothing else to do.

I also don’t want to single Kmart in this particular debacle. As I said, all the department stores and supermarkets, with the notable exception of Coles, have put them in, and no-one seems to have got them working properly yet.

This afternoon I realised that the only food I had in the fridge for tonight was pasta, and that if I cooked pasta tonight, I wouldn’t have anything to put leftovers in (I recently moved house and am still getting some of the basic things sorted out. Like a roof) so I went to buy some plastic microwavable containers which so prototypically embody a single man’s kitchen.

I tried Big W first, and once again was disgusted to find only one human being serving at the checkouts, with a line right back to the ladies’ lingerie section. My desire not to be late back from my lunch break overrode my desire to avoid the inhuman checkout operators and I gave it a go. After being told by a recorded voice that I need to remove my items from the bagging area and then put them back three times in a row I got over it, left the items where they were and made a great show of storming defiantly out of the shop.

No-one noticed.

I went back to Kmart and found that once again there was only one human-operated station open, despite the fact that is was lunch time and the shop was teeming with customers. I queued for twenty minutes and finally managed to buy my plastic containers. The poor check out chick was obviously struggling to cope with constant demand from old ladies who couldn’t use computer terminals and twenty-something year old professionals who just had to be difficult.

I’ve written complaint letters to both Big W and Kmart, but I’m philosophical about the chances of corporate strategists putting the concerns of one old-fashioned consumer over the chance to save millions by not actually providing any kind of service.

Maybe the robots have taken more control than we realise.



Garry with 2 Rs
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