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Arms Race at the Sainsbury’s in Bethnal Green

June 19, 2011

I was buying a BLT, Red Delicious and Tyrrell’s Vegetable Chips at the Sainsbury’s near Bethnal Green tube station, when I was faced with a now rather mundane modern decision: do I pay by using the self-service tills, or by using the human being? Man or machine? There were 4 of each (4 bays; 4 bodies), and I just stood there, torn between my two options, umming and ahhing, feeling like a complete (Buridan’s) ass. The queue bore down on me as I went through the following phases of vacillation.

On the one hand, isn’t a transaction with a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood cashier rich with a warmth and bonding for which there is no mechanical substitute? When I look, briefly, into the eyes of my fellow man (reduced, though he is, to such a lowly flow-chart existence), do we not share something? Do we not dance a perfect transient dance of human flourishing together? Do I not see a little glimpse of myself in his eyes? Do we not peer, together, into the vast spiritus mundi? With serotonin juicing around our respective amygdalae in delight at our common genetic heritage?

But, then again, he/she might try to start a conversation. Or he/she might touch my apples with grubby coppers-hands. And there’s a greater-than-negligible probability that he/she/it will be a bit bumbling, a bit impatient, or maybe even a bit rude. It isn’t their fault – addled on all quarters as they are, ground to a pulp by the array of grotesquely uninteresting permutations of actions which pervade their existence.

After all, is this not precisely the kind of thing a robot is for? A slave built for servitude, that will not – cannot – get the change wrong, and is not permitted to look at you in a judgmental way if you so happen to choose to buy 2 or 3 tubs of Ben & Jerry’s? Forced to speak in a sexy ubiquitous Radio 4 accent that everyone can understand? Punished if they try to look down on you for buying maybe 5 or 6 tubs of Ben & Jerry’s (if you have friends over)?

But it’s not all roses with the robots. They get unnecessarily fussy about the weight of your goods, and they are suspicious to the point of paranoia about your bagging behaviour. Yet perhaps the very worst thing about going to use a robot is that, if there is any malfunction, your friends will take the robot’s side over yours. If you have a rough time with the scanning/pressing/bagging, and then try and laugh it off to a friend with a little “the machine got it wrong!” they will look at you, sternly, and say: “No. For he is a machine. He cannot get things wrong. You were the problem. You ruined everything.”

Tossing all this up, I plumped for the machine. However, just as I was meticulously placing my goodies in the notorious ‘bagging area’, I got a sharp poke-poke-poke on my shoulder and looked around. It was one of the cashiers. He looked ‘as if he’d had enough’, but I didn’t know of what he had had enough. Then he spat this at me: “Why did you choose it instead of me?” I kind of shrugged and did a Hugh Grant titter, but this he found unacceptable. He needed an answer.

If honesty were the only requirement of social interactions, I would’ve promised him I’d write up a spreadsheet weighing up the relative pros and cons of him, as a human being, versus that, a cheap bit of electronics with a plastic façade made in a factory in China. Instead, I just said, “I haven’t used one before. It looked like fun.”

This invited scorn.

***

The next time I walked into the Sainsbury’s in Bethnal Green, things had changed. There were now 3 cashiers and 5 machines. I picked up a bag of red Doritos and thought little of the new formation they were trying out, until I was once more handed the role of ass.

But the dilemma had completely changed.

Each machine now had a crudely constructed face, very wonky indeed, featuring two little beady eyes that tried in a kind of adorable way to latch onto the gaze of the shopper, whirring and buzzing and squinting as it did so. One of them even had a little arm that offered people a soft pat on the shoulder – something the cashiers weren’t allowed to do. People seemed genuinely attached to the machines; one woman was weeping over her seedless red grapes, telling Number 4 about how Frank had spent the whole weekend at the bookies.

And don’t think the humans weren’t trying to keep up! Each cashier had had their right arm fully amputated and replaced with a barcode-scanner, integrated wirelessly into the till system. These “handy” augmentations even sported a detachable module for collecting coupons, and a little screen which informed you of the latest update on the ongoing sale of Creme Eggs.

This time, I decided to “go organic”. The person I was allocated to spoke to me in a very appealing Radio 4 voice, and I soon realised they must’ve had an implant of synthetic vocal chords to align them with the evolving Voice of Sainsbury’s (that is, incidentally, the same as the Voice of the District Line). But then I got a poke-poke-poke and I looked around to see a very forlorn Bay Number 3, holding his bagging area just below his change tray in a very glum manner. He asked me, after a sad sigh, in an accent which was obviously him trying to ‘do a Londoner’: “Is it somethin’ we done wrong, mate?” I scrammed as quick as I could.

***

By the time I returned, this time to pick up bag of no-nonsense Bombay Mix, there was no dilemma presented to me. All tills were identical, but it was impossible to tell exactly what it was they were. The humans and the robots had converged and were now entirely indistinguishable. You could not tell what was man-become-machine and what was machine-become-man. The arms race having reached its conclusion of sheer convenience, the only anxiety remaining in the room was that of us customers, thinking: “If something goes wrong, it’ll be our fault; nobody will believe that it was them.”

As I drifted gracefully down the speedy queue, I remembered a conversation I’d had a long time ago, with my grandmother.

I’d asked, “Would you ever pay a robot, if you went to WH Smiths?”
And she’d said, “No! Never. There’s something about human contact – we’re human beans.”
I’d asked: “Not even if your Bovril costs 69p instead of 89p?”
“That,” she’d said, “is an entirely different question.”

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