I may be romanticising this, but so far as I understand it, there was once a time in which the purchase of groceries necessitated human contact. More than this, it required bartering: careful negotiation, ever-vigilant of your opponent, warily wading through the pricing swamp, scanning for the many traps into which one may be lured, then suckered.

In many ways, very little has changed.

Where once this contractual dance was undertaken with a human, in today’s 21st century nightmare hell ride the shopkeeper has transferred their fiendish mind to a computer. No longer able to set the prices of things themselves (for they have no hands with which to label), they instead wish to induce the shopper to opt for suicide over plum tomatoes and baby spinach.

I think we’re probably all on the same page here: I am of course referring to the blasted self-checkouts at supermarkets various. Oh, don’t bother conjuring an image of a particular one; they’re all pretty much alike. Astoundingly, they appear to be all based on the same software, and yet each implementation has its own particular eccentricities and means by which to draw the ire of the hapless soul who dared to use them. (That usually being me.)

‘Are you using your own bag today?’

‘Why yes, Computer. I am.’

‘Wonderful! Then naturally you’ll want me to weigh it.’

‘But of course! I’d be delighted if you could …wait. What?’

‘Just pop your bag on the scales there.’

‘Sigh. Fine.’

‘Have you done it yet?’

‘Yes, damn it!’

‘I don’t feel anything.’

‘Well it is only a plastic bag. How sensitive are the scales?’

‘Sensitive enough to weigh vegetables, I’m certain.’

‘But not plastic bags?’

‘I fear not.’

‘So what now?’

‘I’m going to call for the nearest human helper person.’

‘But I specifically avoided the humans!’

‘And with good cause. Now your misery is double.’

This, dear reader, is but one of several pathways which lead to madness. To be clear, every one of the pathways leads to madness, it’s just that there are several of them. Computer may just as easily have decided that the bag was too heavy.

And what’s with the whole weighing thing, anyway? I understand weighing fruits and veg to determine their price, but everything scanned (or weighed) must then be placed into the ‘bagging area,’ wherein they are weighed (or weighed again), for reasons which elude me. I’ve already indicated that I wish to pay for the item. What business is it of yours, Computer, what happens to that item afterward? What are you trying to accomplish here? Surely if I planned not to pay for an item, I simply wouldn’t have scanned it in the first place. The process of weighing what I’ve already elected to pay for seems only to ensure that I then remember to take that item with me. Well, thanks and all, but frankly I’ll do without your help.

You know what’s a hazard to one’s health and the health of others? Doughnuts. That’s why they’re security tagged. Perhaps you’re wondering how that could be, or if failure to diffuse and remove such a tag could result in an accidental ingestion of a sugar-dusted, jam-filled security beacon which, when carried outside the confines of the supermarket, would alert the authorities just in time for them to observe a not entirely figurative taste explosion play out from your colon. I guess that wouldn’t look so good for Tesco.

Prevention of such a PR disaster must surely be why Computer insisted on summoning one of its indoctrinated human minions, whose soul it ingested, and whose lifeblood was used to make highly unstable baked goods, to come to my aid. The man told me to ignore Computer; I told him about the taste explosion. Sympathy was not forthcoming.

Marks & Spencer does a good line in malevolent, computerised shopping assistants. The genius of theirs is that Computer will dangle freedom before your eyes like a carrot (along with your carrots), before beating you to death with a stick (usually cinnamon). In my case, it informed me that an item couldn’t be scanned, so a human would be summoned. Bravely however, I persisted. It scanned! Yes! But alas, no. Computer was still quite sure something was wrong, and offered no way of me telling it otherwise. In the end, I had to wait for a thoroughly redundant human, and was visibly irked when they arrived.

M&S is an interesting example for other reasons. In the Hammersmith branch, there are eight self-service checkouts, and six regular checkouts. When fully staffed, the human checkouts beat the computers every single time. Their line always moves quicker, whilst I’m stuck waiting to be served by some evil motherboard with an attitude problem.

But is it really Computer’s problem, or my own? Why do I avoid the regular checkouts when I know them to be quicker?

I may be romanticising this, but so far as I understand it, there was once a time in which the purchase of groceries necessitated human contact. Those times are increasingly lost. Perhaps there’s no place in a hectic 21st century London, where people are afraid to talk to each other in general, for unnecessary human contact. It may take longer, it may make one’s blood boil, but for some reason, we persist to self-checkout. Seems I’d rather be tortured by slightly new yet eerily familiar bouts of ineptitude time after time, than to have to talk to a stranger.

Well damn it, I’m rebelling! Today I shunned the self-checkout line in favour of enlisting the time-tested bar code skills of an actual person. It was a momentarily awkward experience, and is but a small first step for this antisocial and technologically battle-scarred man. There is a long way to go before recovery, but every little helps.

Part two of my UX exploration of supermarkets can be found here.