About three years ago I wrote about the ethics of stealing from automated supermarkets. In the short space of time since then, theft from the machines is way up, perhaps aided by attitudes like this. Looking back at that little essay, however, I think I missed one of the most important aspects, perhaps the most important aspect, of the changeover to self-checkout, namely:
How to turn four unhappy-ish jobs into a single miserable one.
So let’s talk about that. And we’ll look at that hotter than hot essay on TabletMag, too, because they’re directly related.
A friend of mine (okay, it was Mrs. B) was at the grocery store yesterday. She watched a woman go through the self-checkout with a case of beer, then leave. At that point, my friend stepped up for her transaction, and put her loyalty card up against the scanner. She had to do this, because the supermarkets have made loyalty cards an unavoidable part of shopping now; at some stores, you can’t even do self-checkout without a loyalty card, which relegates you to the single half-hour line for a human cashier.
After scanning her card, she realized that the previous shopper was actually a previous stealer; the case of beer had been scanned, but remained unpaid. This was a problem. Ohio is not a Prop 47 state; we prosecute theft here. As far as the machine was concerned, that case of beer was now in her custody. So her choices at this point were:
0. Walk away from the machine, knowing that it would register her as the thief of that beer once all the data was reconciled;
1. Pay for the beer in addition to her own stuff;
2. Get the attention of the teenaged girl who was the checkout-station minder.
She chose the last of these options. The girl in question, when told about the theft, responded with an expletive then blushed for having done so. “Go to another machine,” she exhaled, “it’s fine.”
“No,” my friend responded, “I need you to take my card off this transaction.”
More sighing. “I’ll do that, go ahead and use another station.” In our conversation afterwards, my friend had a unique insight:
“Every interaction that girl has with people is negative. A supermarket checker would have mostly positive, or neutral, interactions with people. Maybe one out of five, or one out of ten, interactions would have some unpleasantness. It would be mixed in, you know? But this girl… every single time she talks to someone, it’s someone who is having a problem. And she has to have those conversations constantly, because the machines are constantly having problems.”
This is very insightful, and absolutely correct. The same thing is true of all the automated fast-food order stations that pop up everywhere the minimum wage pops up to $15 or more. These stations, like the self-checkout machines, are about an 80/20 solution. They are designed to handle the easiest eighty percent of transactions. The difficult twenty percent gets sent to a person whose job has gone from “take food orders from everyone” to “take the worst food orders from the worst people”.
I’ve designed a few self-service and trouble-ticket systems in my time, so at least I understand why it works like this. Coding the obvious “use cases” for a human-interaction system can be done in a hurry. All the non-obvious stuff takes a lot of additional time. So what most companies do is to code up the easy stuff and leave the hard stuff to human beings, whose lives will be made significantly worse as a result. You take four half-decent jobs running supermarket checkout, and you replace it with the uneasy combination of four lazy machines and one miserable person.
Of course, we did this with call centers and customer service a long time ago. Banks, too. To be a bank teller nowadays is to be confronted with a constant stream of problems, corner cases, unsolved mysteries. I’ve even noticed this phenomenon at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Ohio has made it fairly easy to renew or change existing registrations online. If you need something else, you go to the BMV. There used to be ten people working there; now there are three. Which seems okay, because the line is only thirty percent of what it would have been in 1990. But guess what? All of those people have corner case issues. Out-of-state transfers. Bad VINs on a title. Transfers where someone writes “Jack Baruth” instead of my legal name, which is “Johann von Baruth II”. (Maybe.) Each one of these corner cases takes significant time and energy to fix. So you end up waiting a lot longer than you did in 1990.
There is a supreme irony at work here. We were told that automation would take the dangerous work and the drudgery away, and that’s kinda-sorta true. The real truth, however, is that automation takes all the easy and livable labor away first, particularly in the service industry, which as you recall is where we all have to work since the factories went to China and the IT work was given to visa-holders. Take four people. Eliminate three of their jobs. Make the last job worse. Yay, progress!
It wasn’t meant to be this way. In the Isaac Asimov future, machines freed us to live more completely as humans. It turns out, however, that artificial intelligence is a sham and computers are, in fact, only good at doing stupid things, albeit quickly. This is why self-driving is Never Gonna Happen the way people think it is. When it Does In Fact Happen, it will be horrifying. They will have to clear all the unpredictable human-operated cars off the roads and limit the speed of the Self-Drivin’ Pods to something well below the velocity at which the occupants would be seriously injured by hitting a concrete barrier. I’m thinking 40mph is probably the maximum. Less in bad weather. So you’ll just be sitting in a pod that takes twice as long to get somewhere as it used to. On the positive side, you’ll be able to watch the new Michelle Obama documentary on Netflix, and by “able to” I mean “forced to”. Keep your expression neutral as you do it, because only a supremacist would frown while watching an Obama documentary. The telescreen will be able to tell if you’re frowning.
Viewed in this light, it’s easy to understand just how predatory our technological revolution has been. We are all Ned Ludd now, looking on in horror as a new machine does all the easy stuff and leaves us the nightmare occupations. The profits, naturally, go to the owner of the machine, who uses them to do things like ridiculous prole-level social engineering and/or buying up all the farmland a la Bill Gates.
There is an answer to this societal misery, of course, and it’s drawn directly from old-school liberal thought. You tax the proverbial living shit out of the machines’ profit, distribute that to the unemployed as “basic income”, encourage them all to do something meaningful with their lives like paint or sing or cut bonsai trees, then significantly raise the salary for the remaining miserable jobs so the incentive to fill them is positive (you can buy more stuff than the basic income crowd) rather than negative (you can afford to eat a meal when others can’t). You would think that almost everyone could agree on this. Even a red-state normie conservative like Brother Bark could probably go for it; the moral equation of taxing machine profits at an 80% marginal rate is nothing like taxing a doctor or even an attorney at that rate.
Alas, we live in Neocon and Neolib world now, with “neo” denoting the part of their platforms which are absolutely indistinguishable from each other. Both sides of the house (also, House, as in House of Reps) are in complete agreement on: rock-bottom labor costs, free movement of capital, lowering the standard of living, lower taxes on investment gains, public incentives for private gain. The “con” and “lib” part is mere moralizing dress-up, the same way they used to put a Buick nose or an Oldsmobile nose on a C-body sedan. Increasingly I’m seeing the horseshoe bend at the ends of “extremist” thought. You get stuff like this woman (warning: kinda NSFW), an ultra-lefist sex worker who uses the proceeds of her sex work to buy AR-pattern rifles and .300 WinMag sniper rigs. This up-cannoning (to use an Iain M. Banks phrase) of both the left and right doesn’t really worry the Neo-X crowd because they know that with the gentlest of pushing, the armed “extremists” can be manipulated into attacking either
* the cops
* each other
rather than, say, an Amazon distribution center or various Alphabet points-of-presence. The armed right openly pines for the day they can fire for effect at an Antifa pr(i)otest; the armed left imagines a day when they can kill racist whites en masse. If you could sit all of them in a room and let them talk it out, they’d come out with a very different, and largely mutual, agenda. Which is why nothing of the sort will ever be allowed to take place. The reader with more than a fruit-fly’s worth of memory will recall that “Occupy Wall Street” met a very public, and very swift, demise in December of 2011 when they briefly blocked some ports on the West Coast. This disruption of commerce with China, had it been allowed to continue, would have had nontrivially positive consequences for downtrodden Americans of all political stripes — but the spice must flow, so they got swatted like the proverbial flies.
At the intersection of these trends (tech-based misery, false polarization of America’s citizens) we have the remarkable essay Everything Is Broken, published earlier this week. I think you’d benefit from reading the whole thing, but I’ll excerpt two critical parts here. In the first part, the author addresses the “Seen It All, Internet” viewpoint very effectively, in words I wish I’d written before she did;
Let’s say you believe the above to be hyperbolic. You never fell through the cracks of the medical system; as far as you understand it, there are plenty of ways for a resourceful person to buy a home in America these days; you easily met a mate and got married and had as many children as you wanted, at the age you wanted to have them; your child had a terrific time at college, where she experienced nothing at all oppressive or bizarre, got a first-class education that you could easily afford and which landed her a great job after graduation; you actually like the fact that you haven’t encountered one book or movie or piece of art that’s haunted you for months after; you enjoy druggily floating through one millennial pink space after another; it gives you pleasure to interact only with people who agree with you politically, and you feel filled with meaning and purpose after a day spent sending each other hysteria-inducing links; maybe you’ve heard that some kids are cosplaying Communism but that’s only because everyone is radical when they’re young, and Trump voters are just a bunch of racist troglodytes pining for the past, and it’s not at all that neither group can see their way to a future that looks remotely hopeful … If this is you, congratulations. There’s no need to reach out and tell me any of this, because all you will be doing is revealing how insulated you are from the world inhabited by nearly everyone I know.
I think that from now on, I’ll just copypasta that any time one of my commenters gives me some world-weary drivel about how Everything Is Fine and It’s Always Been This Way. The second excerpt gets to the heart of the author’s point as to why, indeed, everything from medicine to journalism is broken:
The internet tycoons used the ideology of flatness to hoover up the value from local businesses, national retailers, the whole newspaper industry, etc.—and no one seemed to care. This heist—by which a small group of people, using the wiring of flatness, could transfer to themselves enormous assets without any political, legal or social pushback—enabled progressive activists and their oligarchic funders to pull off a heist of their own, using the same wiring. They seized on the fact that the entire world was already adapting to a life of practical flatness in order to push their ideology of political flatness—what they call social justice, but which has historically meant the transfer of enormous amounts of power and wealth to a select few.
Because this cohort insists on sameness and purity, they have turned the once-independent parts of the American cultural complex into a mutually validating pipeline for conformists with approved viewpoints—who then credential, promote and marry each other. A young Ivy League student gets A’s by parroting intersectional gospel, which in turn means that he is recommended by his professors for an entry-level job at a Washington think tank or publication that is also devoted to these ideas. His ability to widely promote those viewpoints on social media is likely to attract the approval of his next possible boss or the reader of his graduate school application or future mates. His success in clearing those bars will in turn open future opportunities for love and employment. Doing the opposite has an inverse effect, which is nearly impossible to avoid given how tightly this system is now woven. A person who is determined to forgo such worldly enticements—because they are especially smart, or rich, or stubborn—will see only examples of even more talented and accomplished people who have seen their careers crushed and reputations destroyed for daring to stick a toe over the ever multiplying maze of red lines.
I was surprised to find out after the fact that the author of this essay wasn’t some Christian “tradwife” but was, rather, the founder of Tablet herself, a 45-year-old Jewish woman. Like I said, the ends of the horseshoe are bending. They recognize a common enemy — the “flatness” that renders labor, art, and culture down to a single fungible commodity to be distributed at lightning speed in any manner necessary to keep costs at a bare minimum. The opposite of flatness is “friction”. It’s friction that keeps small businesses and individual artists and anything unique alive. Friction preserves choice. Virtually all of what we think of as “culture” is a product of friction. Regional accents, regional cuisine, the fact that the Japanese love their kei cars and the Australians love their “utes” — that’s all friction at work. In a world without friction, there’s only one store, and it’s Amazon. There’s only one social platform, and it’s probably Facebook. There’s only one Party, and it’s the Uniparty. Anything else would be… inefficient.
Should the ends of the philosophical horseshoe ever meet, what formalized belief system would result? Perhaps it would boil down to a single rule, one acceptable to pagans and Christians alike: Treat corporations, and governments, and people, like they treat you. What would this mean? It’s not for me to say, obviously, but I can see interpreting that rule like so: You can steal from machines, but not people. If a politician sends jobs overseas, we send his job to someone else. If a government doesn’t interfere with its citizens, those citizens will choose not to interfere with the government.
Note that I’m not talking about Libertarianism here. I have no respect for that philosophy; like many other Good Ideas including classical Marxism, it tends to break down when applied to communities of more than two hundred people. A bent-horseshoe society understands that government is going to exist and that it is going to perform tasks and that the nature of those tasks will represent a compromise among various interests. This society would also work to maximize friction. It would agree that every household is better off owning a single domestically-produced television rather than an endless proliferation of “screens” that create opportunities elsewhere while denying them on our own soil. It would suggest that you’re better off owning fewer things, if those things are produced and sold by your neighbors.
That’s how community is built and maintained. In that world, if you saw someone stealing from a grocery store, you’d say something — because the grocer is your neighbor. And you’d know that the person who was stealing from the grocery store wasn’t stealing out of hunger, because you’d know that he or she had a decent job. We would once again turn one miserable job into four unhappy-ish ones, understanding that in doing so we are preventing both the automated Utopia they promised us, and the automated dystopia they actually delivered.
Ah, but maybe the ends of the horseshoe will never touch and we will just keep flattening the world, worsening the jobs, shrinking your house, confiscating your cars, producing more Peak TV, giving you an endless supply of Two Minutes Hate against the all-powerful Emmanuel Goldstein enemy of multi-racial White Supremacy. What do you do then? Well, there’s Netflix, there’s legal weed to dull you into complacency, there’s the pleasure of hating someone who is much like you but who believes something slightly different. Oh, and there’s free beer. If, of course, you’re willing to steal it.