The slicker, quicker, humanless future of commerce

I have to ask– what the hell is up with CVS? I walked in the other day and found that the entire store had been rearranged. This isn’t too unusual: stores do this sort of thing all the time, usually to add emphasis to certain items. But this time, the store’s “rearrangement” involved removing all the people. Only customers wandered the aisles, being watched, inevitably, on surveillance cam.

Every register had been replaced by a “self-service” checkout. There was a new frozen food aisle– which had not been properly monitored, and the food inside had rotted (awesome). The only employees in the store were unpacking a box of medical supplies, and there were three of them.

New York tends to favor these kinds of “express”, humanless transactions: metrocard machines (running Windows CE) have become so popular and widely-used that at many stations there are no longer any station attendants at all. They have largely been replaced by signs that dispatch instructions or indicate service changes and alternate routes. It’s funny (and a bit sad) to think that a person’s entire job could be replaced by one sign and a credit card machine, but, aside from attendants’ use as an ineffective form of security, this is largely what has happened.

Part of me wants to believe this is about cutting costs. Shannon Christman at Saving Advice says:


The reports on self-checkouts from the retail industry are mixed; they say that shoplifting has not increased (as I expected it would), but impulse buys are down. Customer service has taken a blow, but prices don’t seem to be decreasing, as they were supposed to have done. It seems that self-checkouts provide little benefit to either retailers or consumers, but I suspect many retailers will keep their self-checkout machines because they don’t want to back out on their investment in them.

Certainly, there were signs all over the store advertising “more cash back!!” and “new lower prices!”–but for a company whose stock is currently trading no lower than it did 11 months ago, and with nearly identical operating margins and net profit from last year, it seems that CVS is merely experimenting with cutting down on their 211,000 employees, with decidedly mixed results.

Perhaps, in another place, this would never have occurred: perhaps elsewhere we would resist the removal of human beings, the arrival of self-serve and self-checkout and signs that tell us all we need to know. But I’ve seen this progression happen before. When the machines can be trusted– and the metrocard machines can, for the most part, be trusted– there is simply no need for a person in the logical, get-me-where-I’m-going sense. In the other sense– the human warmth, the personality, the need for connection– it would seem we are instead far below our required daily minimums. And I believe we suffer for it, even as our repetitive daily path to work might unfold more efficiently. We are losing touch with our fellow human beings.

The reaction to these machines is varied. Some people call for an outright boycott, saying that the machines “are just one more impersonal checkpoint in the continuing decline of western civilization.”

The robot has its fans—usually people who don’t want any human interaction at all, like the folks who walk about the city wired up 24/7 in earphones.


But, love them or hate them, the one thing no one can dispute is that the rise of automated machines– 5 or 6 of which can be managed by a single cashier– means the loss of hundreds, even thousands of jobs. It’s no surprise that the economy continues to falter when so many service industry jobs are disappearing completely.

What do you think of “express” machines? (self-checkouts, vending machines, computerized boarding passes, etc). From my experience, with a very small representative sample, women tend to simply hate them (with varying degrees of passion), while men tend to value them for their efficiency and as a result either tolerate or outright enjoy them. How do you feel about them?

1 Comment

  1. Jess Timbecto /

    Hi this post is very interesting. I’ll use it for my essay :) . Can you reply me some related articles that I can read too?

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  1. How to Outdo 40 Years of Product Design | App Culture - [...] debate over self-service machines the other day got me thinking again of the ATM. It’s another example of a ...

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