A bag? In the bagging area? Whatever next?

There's an accusation of theft inherent in the robotic questions of self-checkout machines


Barclays Bank plans to phase out human cashiers and turn its branches over to self-service machines, supervised by fewer staff, armed with iPads. People with iPads will also soon be taking over from ticket office staff on the London Underground. Obviously, these people will be very helpful because they have an iPad: a badge of superior status in our technophile society.

I speak as a technophobe. I don't trust technology and I don't see why I should. I rarely perform an entirely online transaction, yet I have twice been the victim of electronic identity theft. On one of these occasions somebody acquired a store card in my name at a women's clothes shop. Nowhere in the automated process did the question come up: "How come you're buying £1,200 worth of designer dresses if you're called Andrew?"

I do have the facility of online banking, having been more or less ordered to sign up for it by the staff in my local Barclays. But they don't get rid of me so easily, and I now contrive reasons for speaking to a cashier. I'll go in looking to change a bag of coins. "I think there's a hundred pennies in there … might not be." The cashier sighs and puts the bag on her little scales: "Sixty-nine pence, Mr Martin." "Ah," I say, "thanks. Whilst I'm here, could you just do a quick transfer for me?"

I always book railway tickets with a booking clerk, perhaps out of tribal loyalty, since my dad used to be a booking clerk. I will justify my presumption in seeking out a human by asking questions such as: "Can I break the journey on the way back?" I also try to avoid supermarket self-checkout machines, which I find too peremptory. As was pointed out in the latest Viz comic, there's an accusation of theft inherent in the robotic question, "Have you swiped your Nectar card?" and the message "Finish and Pay" seems to flash up before I've even started.

When I am asked, "Will you be using your own bags?" there is no facility for replying, "Don't know … haven't quite decided yet." I don't think I've ever interacted with one of these machines without it peevishly complaining, "Unexpected item in bagging area." This is usually my bag (if I've brought a bag). Because bags aren't allowed in the bagging area. And if I buy wine, I have to linger guiltily by the machine while a human being comes up and reassures the thing that I am (to put it mildly) over 18. Supermarket staff, I notice, have an amused tolerance of these machines. "They're a bit talkative!" one cashier said to me, as she tried to stop one of them saying, "Scale is not working properly", which it had repeated about a hundred times in the previous three minutes.

Whether the staff are unaware that the machines will soon be taking over their jobs, or are perfectly well aware and pleased about the fact, since they might then find work for which being human is deemed a requirement, I don't know. But I prefer to think it's the latter.

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