November 26, 2017

Man and machine

We all experience moments when it seems like the whole world is out to get you.

You can issue and return books from the public library in Amsterdam without interacting with a single human. This evening when I placed the books on the conveyor belt at the returns section, it took the books in but didn’t mark one of them as returned. I went to the library help desk and they asked me the title of the book I had just deposited and the number of the conveyor belt that had processed it. They went inside the sorting room, fetched the book out, took my library card and removed the loan from against my account.

In the five years that the wife and I have used the library, this is the first time this has happened.

Our next stop this evening was the grocery store. This is the chain we’ve been shopping at since we set our foot in this country. Things are priced reasonably, the shelves are usually fully stocked (in fact sometimes they’d stock them just as you put the last item in your shopping basket) and their cashiers process things with a speed that surprises us till date. Most things are sold pre-labeled but for vegetables that need to be weighed, the cashiers have a weighing scale built right into their checkout counter. Most other stores in Amsterdam make you weigh and label things yourself. While you could still do that here, we’ve never felt the need.

Of late this chain has been embracing self-checkout counters, especially at their newer branches. If we choose to use them, the onus of weighing and labeling falls on us. Even vegetables that are sold by count need to be labeled with the bar code sticker that the weighing scale print outs (the scale asks you for a count that needs to be input on the touch-screen manually).

The prices that the weighing scale printed at the branch we were shopping at this evening were wrong. The label at the shelf said that the aubergines were priced at 0.89 Euro cents but the sticker the scale printed said 0.99 Euro cents. The same happened with courgettes (shelf - 0.79, sticker - 0.99). We dismissed it as a problem with the weighing scale and queued up for a good old-fashioned human-assisted checkout. After checkout, we asked for a printed receipt just to be sure. The prices were wrong again. A trip to their help desk followed by a trip with a person from the said help desk to the aisle where the vegetables were kept quickly rectified the error. No apologies were issued but we were curtly told that we were right and a refund of 20 cents was quickly provided. This of course was 10 cents too short. Mentioning this got us exasperated looks and 10 cents.

30 cents are not worth the time and energy it took but then we were doing it on principle and not for the money1.

On the walk back home, this got me thinking about the gradual but ever increasing automation around us. The scenarios this evening weren’t quite what the characters in a dystopian Philip K. Dick science fiction novel find themselves in, but they still made me uneasy. What happens when this class of jobs completely disappear from our libraries and our grocery stores. In situations like these, I am relieved when I get quick redressal and delighted if it comes with fake or genuine empathy. Unless the automatons taking over these jobs are programmed dramatically differently from the current state-of-the-art, I am sure we would get neither.


Thanks to a larger-than-usual serving of coffee in the evening, I couldn’t sleep last night. I lay in the bed thinking about how I would’ve reacted had the machines erred in my favour.

The answer for the first scenario came to me quite clearly. Had the system at the library claimed that I had returned a book while I still had it, I would’ve simply gone to the help desk and returned it.

For the second scenario, I am a bit more uncertain. The answer I arrived at bothers me a little. In all likelihood I would’ve assumed that the prices printed by the machine were more current and the people labeling the items in the aisle were simply lagging behind. That is, I would’ve accepted the windfall without any of the righteous indignation that arose when I was (literally) short-changed.


  1. Incidentally, at the prevailing interest rates in Europe, that’s also about the amount that a large sum of principal for a long duration of of time earns you.


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