Automation is often presented as an inexorably advancing force, whether it’s ushering in a threat to jobs or a promise of increased leisure or larger profits. We’re made to imagine the robots rising, increasingly mechanized systems of production, more streamlined modes of everyday living. But the truth is that automation technology and automated systems very often fail. And even when they do, they nonetheless frequently wind up stranded in our lives.
For every automated appliance or system that actually makes performing a task easier—dishwashers, ATMs, robotic factory arms, say—there seems to be another one—self-checkout kiosks, automated phone menus, mass email marketing—that actively makes our lives worse.
I’ve taken to calling this second category, simply, sh%$ty automation.
Sh%$ty automation usually, but not always, comes about when new user-facing technology is adopted by a company or institution for the ostensible reason of minimizing labor and cutting costs. Nobody likes wading through an interminable phone menu to try to address a suspect charge on a phone bill—literally, everyone would rather speak with a customer service rep. But that’s the system we’re stuck with because a corporation decided that the inconvenience to the user is well worth the savings in labor costs.
That’s just one example. But it gets at what makes spending some time wading through the world of sh%$ty automation worthwhile—it often doesn’t even matter if automation improves anything at all for the customer, for the user, for anyone. If some enterprise solutions pitchman or government contractor can sell the top brass on the idea that a half-baked bit of automation will save it some money, the cashier, clerk, call center employee might be replaced by ill-functioning machinery, or see their hours cut to make space for it, the users will be made to suffer through garbage interfaces that waste hours of their day or make them want to hellscream into the receiver—and no one wins. Not even, sometimes, the company or organization seeking the savings, which can suffer reputational damage.
To start, let’s look at everyone’s favorite cluster of machinery to walk past in the grocery store with a dismissive scowl, to hold off approaching until you’ve finally, painfully decided the line you’ve been stuck is so painfully not-moving it’s worth the hassle: Self-checkout kiosks.
There are fewer better poster children for sh%$ty automation than self-checkout. I have literally never, as in not one single time, successfully completed a checkout at a self-service station in a grocery store without having to call a human employee over. And it’s not because I’m an idiot. Or not entirely, anyway. Incessant, erroneous repetitions of “please place your item in the bag” and “unknown item in the bagging area” are among the most-loathed phrases in the 21st century lexicon for a reason, and that reason is that self-checkout is categorically awful.
Hence, I turned to Alexandra Mateescu, an ethnographer and researcher at Data & Society, and a co-author, with Madeleine Clare Elish, of “AI in Context: The Labor of Integrating New Technologies,” which uses self-checkout as a case study, to find out why.
To understand how we arrived at our current self-checkout limbo, and why it’s terrible and dysfunctional in the special way that it is, it helps to understand that the technology we encounter in the grocery store is just the most recent iteration in a century-long drive to offload more of the work involved in the shopping process onto us, the shoppers.
It sounds an awful lot like the self-driving car.