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  • Paul Manigrasso


“Self-check-out is open,” the woman said. I said “no thank you” and continued to stand in the queue despite have but a few items. She raised her eyebrows and hurried along the line of cash registers -- “self-check-out is open. . . self-check-out is open.”

Why, my children ask, do you not use the self-check-out, especially when we’re in hurry?

Well, it’s like this. When I look at a cashier – or a bank teller – or a restaurant employee – I’m seeing a fellow human being who is striving to go to college, save money for an automobile, or maybe just trying to make ends meet; usually with bills that are just slightly higher than the pittance brought in from an eight to twelve hour shift performed while standing up.

Labor is generally the most expensive line in a service industry Profit and Loss Statement. Machines, that is, automatic checkouts, ATMs, fast food drive through lanes – have but one actual purpose: to maximize speed and minimize human intervention in the transactional process.

The argument usually proceeds along the lines that workers displaced by technology are then free to train in higher value skills and re-enter the workforce at some better paid position. That is to say, displacing workers from menial tasks is a social good. I will ignore the macro and micro economic analyses that drive that philosophical worldview; a worldview that I believe may be quite shallow, and indeed, morally bankrupt when considering the greater needs of human society.

People NEED people. We are social animals. Additionally, some people in these customer service positions consider them to be terminal positions – they are not seeking a higher paid job. Decades ago, I did taxes for a gentleman in San Antonio who was a waiter at a French restaurant (L’Etoile on Broadway for those of a certain age). He owned three apartment buildings in the downtown area, paid for with his tips over the years – no one knew he was more “comfortably well off” than most of his customers.

He was a professional waiter.

He took the job school kids perform and raised it to the level of art.

There are places we go (and spend money) based on the waitstaff. Machines do not accomplish that goal. The dream of the Automat (a restaurant concept comprised entirely of vending machines) is over. Why? We, as a society, choose to deal with people rather than machines. Speed, efficiency, cost – these drivers of modern society are important; but they are not as important as the interrelationships of human beings one with another.

Besides – Robot cashiers do not need lawyers. . .

Or accountants

Or hairdressers

Or auto mechanics

Or colleges

Or books

Or playwrights

Or (insert your job here, unless you program and oil robot cashiers for a living).

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