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The Casual Invalidator

Failings of Men & Machines

I was at the pharmacy picking up over-the-counter remedies for a sick friend.

There was a long line, a single cashier, and a row of bright, shining, aggressively blinking self-checkout machines standing there unused.  I could feel their sadness at being ignored and feeling useless.  I understand feelings like that.

Normally, I would have stayed with the crowd, studiously ignoring them. Still, every minute I delayed was ultimately another minute that my friend was going to be suffering before getting symptomatic relief.

All work where we interact with another person is important to work, as it gives us a chance to provide encouragement, show compassion and perhaps even share an uplifting thought or a groaner of a joke. Machines like this replace important work with, at best efficient work. (NB: “at best”)

With great apprehension, I went over to the first of the machine and dropped my armful of medical mercies unto its scanners.  (I perhaps should have gotten a cart or at least a basket.) It scanned them with self-satisfied beeps that might have made r2d2 jealous and sat there waiting for me to pay.

I couldn’t figure out how to do it.

It began making less happy beeps and repeatedly LOUDLY announced that “Help is on its way!”

If a pharmacy had been nearby, I would have given up and walked out.

Instead, I gathered everything up and prepared to get back into the now even longer line.

Just as I picked up the last item, a human arrived. I guess help really was on the way. With an unlabeled white card, he took only twice as long to disarm the machine as I had taken to scan my purchases.

I thanked him and said, “I’m not very good with machines,” to which he replied, “It’s really easy.”

At this point, it went from being an issue with a bad machine UI (that I could perhaps fix) to being a human issue that I cannot.

Under what circumstances, when someone has utterly failed at something, does hearing “It’s really easy” make things better?

Yes, that man had important work.

Instead of replacing the cashiers with machines, we should replace him. If not with a human that understand the nature of important work, at least with a machine that will only show indifference rather than contempt.

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Written by Russell Brand

Russell has started three successful companies, one of which helped agencies of the federal government become very early adopters of open source software, long before that term was coined. His first project saved The American taxpayer 250 million dollars. In his work within federal agency, he was often called, “the arbiter of truth,” facilitating historically hostile groups and factions to effectively work together towards common goals


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