Column: Let’s take the ‘self’ out of ‘self-service’

During my recent battle with COVID, I did what I always do when I’m sick, exhausted, or in need of mental comfort: re-read Agatha Christie. In the middle of The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Jane Marple and one of her friends lament all the changes that have taken place in their beloved village of St. Mary Mead. These include a modern grocery store where, as Miss Marple says, ‘you’re expected to pick up a basket yourself and walk around looking for things … and then wait a long line to pay when you go out. Very exhausting.”

Like her creator, Miss Marple is a child of the Victorian era, and even in 1962, when the book came out, she still has a housemaid and a kind doctor who makes house calls.

Maybe that’s why I subconsciously chose to do it. I can do without a maid and the class structure it represents, but imagine living in a world where doctors make house calls! Or where you took your list to a store and a helpful clerk brought you everything that was on it.

The closest thing to a home visit these days is to schedule a telemetry appointment, which isn’t the same at all. You can also order your groceries online and have them delivered, but even if you don’t get a bizarre substitute (what exactly am I supposed to do with three bags of oranges?), it feels very soulless and extremely tiring. Especially since it supports apps that underpay their employees (please tip your delivery person).

However, not as soulless and tiring as the dreaded “self-checkout”. Grocery stores and wholesale markets are increasingly being filled with DIY tills. Having filled your basket yourself, you will now also be expected to do unpaid clerical work, while regularly being asked to put your item in or take it out of the packing area, done in the chilly monotony of a Dalek who announces his intention to “destroy.”

It’s not just business; Dodger Stadium recently installed ID checks, self-service beer machines. Not only does this raise a lot of questions about borrowed ID, but what will happen if these $17.99 blonde ales refuse to fall? Or when a poor soul takes too long to push the buttons? It’s hard to imagine disruptions that are unmanned beer machines will end well.

Ever since the invention of the vending machine, self-service has ostensibly been created to save us time, money, and inconvenience; Why wait for those movie tickets or wait for those flight reservations when you can buy them from the comfort of your own home?

Most “self-service” do neither of these things. Even before this latest surge in inflation, everything seemed to cost the same. Discounts are not included when using a self-service system; In fact, many digital transactions involve an online service fee. (Um, what service am I billed for?)

A cashier calls a beer purchase at Dodger Stadium.

Cashiers like this one serving beers at Dodger Stadium are being rendered redundant by self-serve beer machines in the dubious name of progress.

(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Honestly, waiting in line to speak to a trained representative really is more time consuming than spending hours searching/downloading/uploading/typing in your credit card number online just to see what you have for a completed one transaction held ?

Well, yes, if there is a dwindling number of actual interlocutors. Sometimes long lines are unavoidable, but all too often they are simply a matter of understaffing. Businesses create a problem and then “solve” it with self-service.

Increasingly, it seems that this solution serves no one but crooked companies that have managed to shift the burden of the work to the people who pay them while passing the savings directly to their shareholders.

It’s a Tom Sawyer-esque con-job without the Twain charm; Not only is the consumer increasingly doing all the work, but we are to blame when the system fails. Seriously, if I read another article advising travelers on how to avoid horrible flying experiences – “give yourself” extra travel days; get to the airport three hours early; do not give up bags; fly non-stop; Build your own plane and learn how to fly it – I’ll scream.

Avoiding ghastly flight experiences is not the responsibility of the people who paid for the tickets! Stop overbooking your damn flights, airlines. And hire more people! At fair wages! Because the only thing worse than standing in a horribly long line is standing in a horribly long line when only 2 out of 10 counters are open and the people serving them look like they’re dying from exhaustion fall over.

I myself grew up during the self-service revolution – I’m old enough to remember my mother’s delight when our bank installed a drive-through facility that allowed transactions via pneumatic tube.

I also remember her outrage when she realized she had to pump her own gas. Self-service gas stations came of age in the late ’70s and were one of the key harbingers of the revolution, although they remain illegal in most of Oregon and all of New Jersey.

Now banking is so automated that you can deposit a check using just your smartphone, and when your local bank’s ATM flashes, it gives you directions to the nearest working ATM instead of suggesting you stop by the Bankwhose door is two feet away.

But then the bank only has two cashiers and a 10-person management. So why not just drive three miles to another ATM and save the bank the trouble of hiring another teller? So much easier. For the bank. Not that much easier for the consumer or cashiers or people who used to work as cashiers but have been downsized.

Oh, and when you need to post a video showing people how to use a self-service system that’s supposedly designed to save them time, it’s not self-service anymore. it is unpaid work. And don’t get me started with the Homeric list of passwords we all have to maintain in order to access online self-service, passwords we have to keep changing because one platform or another just got hacked.

Miss Marple might have been able to solve the smartest of murders by reminiscing about a similar person or event that once happened in St. Mary Mead, but I don’t see her using the two-factor authentication system survived.

I realize I sound like a next-gen Andy Rooney, ie a cranky old lady who just had COVID and is still tired all the time. Obviously, there are many instances where self-service is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do – make life easier for the consumer. But since multitasking is already a sine qua non of modern capitalism, forcing many of us to hold onto numerous jobs while providing virtually no support in terms of child or elder care, it seems a little rich that we’re also increasingly in demand not only to pay more for goods and services, but to do so work for you too.

I am not advocating going back to “simpler times”. For 98% of the people living on this planet, there were no “easier times”. Too many of our industries have been built on the backs of enslaved, underpaid, or otherwise exploited workers.

But let’s not kid ourselves that self-service fixed this problem. It has only allowed companies to offload much of the work to the consumer and rake in the difference. In fact, if a business owner wants to stand out these days, he or she might think about how they can give the customer what they pay for without making them work so hard for it.

The first step might be to take the “self” out of “self-service”.

I mean, when we’re paying more than $5 a gallon for gas, it doesn’t seem all that unreasonable to expect someone to pump it for us and maybe clean the windshield. Even for those of us who don’t live in New Jersey. Column: Let’s take the ‘self’ out of ‘self-service’

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