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Two Cheers for Luddism


An interesting discussion in the comment thread to Erik’s post on the welcome decline of robocheckers below. There’s been some mild pushback against the notion of resisting robocheckers out of solidarity with the actual paycheck-drawing, rent-paying, family-feeding workers. The pushback is of the sort of “that may work in practice but not in theory” variety, and is seen as lacking in scope and vision for the future of work.

Warren Terra:

We are a wealthy country: people willing to work deserve a job and a wage worthy of their time and dignity. If their efforts can satisfactorily be replaced by a few thousand dollars of computer and conveyor belt, that shouldn’t be a problem but an opportunity; our society should ensure that it is made richer by the change, and not poorer. Surely some job can be found for these people that isn’t so demonstrably unnecessary, thereby enriching our society and justifying their wages rather than wasting their time as an overpriced substitute to a simple machine?

Later, Dirk Gently

Using technology to eliminate menial jobs is not the problem. Structural inequities which create and perpetuate the conditions in which human beings are only really good for menial labor is the problem. You good Marxists’ beef is with ongoing poverty, ongoing educational failures, etc., not with machines that, in my experience, are faster and work perfectly well in particular situations (i.e. 25-ish items or less).

Two general comments on this line of thinking. First, let’s be clear that this is some deeply utopian stuff. This makes third party advocates seem downright practical. We’ve had a modern capitalist economy for quite some time now, in many different countries, and I can’t think of any that have come anywhere close to this, or made it a meaningful priority. Of course some unpleasant and meaningful jobs have been largely eliminated, and more probably will be in the future, but when this does occur it is almost always with indifference or actual malice toward the eliminated worker, rather than compassion. And while the overall mix of jobs in a society may improve for the better over time, it’s virtually never the case that workers in eliminated fields end up better off. If the elimination takes place in a moment of robust employment they may be OK, but for the most part those who lose the jobs are going to be worse off for a good long while. Even in the most robust and humane welfare states the modern world has developed, unemployment is generally associated with a decline in living standards, sense of self-worth, and so on.

Now, this is not in itself a critique; there’s nothing inherently wrong with utopian theorizing about how we could dramatically restructure the modern economy in a more humane and just way. But the key to such utopian theorizing is to not let it crowd out practical measures to improve lives. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, people are going to badly need the job they’ve got. The depth and force of this truth became much greater in the great vaporization of jobs of 2008, and this is basically our new reality. Should full employment ever return (and I’m a skeptic we’ll see anything like for well over a decade) I’ll consider revising my priorities. But for now, solidarity with workers seems, if not particularly visionary, a heck of a lot more important than re-imaging the economy without menial jobs. (And it’s not limited to boycotting robocheckers, of course, at a more intermediary stage, we can advocate for policies that improve these jobs, through regulations, unionization, and so on.)

Secondly, this line of thinking makes some assumptions that I’m sympathetic to, but can’t entirely get on board with. First, the assumption that we can theorize about jobs in this concrete and certain way and determine that supermarket checker (and I assume many much worse jobs) are ‘menial’ and we should hope for a world in which humans don’t do that sort of thing. I like my early Marx, too, but I can’t get on board with this. I simply don’t think we have the tools to do this kind of universal theorizing about the essential nature and value of this or that job. People have long found meaning and dignity in all manner of repetitive and uncreative work. Others have approached the world of work with indifference; they work to pay the bills and finding meaning and value in other aspects of their lives. Marx, of course, chalked this sort of thing up to alienation and false consciousness and the like, but I’m more of pluralist about what a dignified and fully human life looks like. At a minimum, I don’t have all the answers, and have a healthy distrust of letting my own tastes and proclivities get in the way of respecting other’s ability to determine what they value about their lives on their own terms.

Later, Malaclypse weighs in on the poor track record of luddism

There was a name for a movement of people dedicated to resisting the use of technology to change labor relations. History is not kind to the Luddites.

This is a widely held view, but it needs some serious rethinking. If we define Luddism as the resistance of new techniques or technologies that threaten to eliminate the demand for labor, including more subtle forms, its track record is far more mixed than it’s doomed namesakes. The thing is that when it’s successfully pursued successfully, we don’t hear or read about it. Even some of the most powerless and impovershed workers have all kinds of clandestine tools of resistance available to them, as James Scott’s ethnographies unearthed, but without really knowing what you were looking for, outsiders (and bosses) would never see it. But in other cases this sort of thing is perfectly visible, but we don’t think of it in terms of luddism.

Think about the internet. Massive gains in productivity have been realized because of it. That’s cost some jobs, surely (although almost certainly created more). But the average office worker wastes something like two hours a day on the internet. If your office or cubible is configured correctly, you can even look busy doing it! This is a form of luddism properly understood, and thank God for that. It enhances and improves our lives, and keeps our productivity at levels that allow for significantly more employment. The mindset that the value of worker productivity overwhelms the added value here is surely something we can finally bury, after several decades of productivity gains being utterly divorced from wages. The violent smashing of machines version of luddism has little value in the modern world, but the basic idea behind it is sound and necessary.

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  • el donaldo

    Culturally it would be a hard sell, but since it’s doubtful that the economy will bounce back to what it was in 2007, we may be at a time that the notion that technology may mean people can and should work less might gain some traction. It would probably be the fastest route to fuller employment.

  • I’m inclined to think it’s best to keep human to human interaction an important part of shopping. Going to market isn’t just a matter of supplying ourselves with stuff for the house and larder. It’s also a matter of taking part in the public square. Plus, humans are social animals, we’re meant for society. A shopping experience in which we interact only with machines is hardly social. That said, robocheckers aren’t true robots. They have a human component and work just like the regular cash registers—the difference is that the human operating them is you. They’re a way for the store to get you to do for free work they normally have to pay to have done.

    • mndean

      It’s one reason why I only use the self-serve for when I have only three or less items and I’m in a real hurry. The number of checkers is kept deliberately low, making customers wait, so to force the use of self-serve. Another reason I do it is that people walk away leaving money in the till. Sometimes many, many monies. I walked out once after grabbing the bills from the till and wondered where that extra $90 came from.

      They can’t blame that on a cashier.

    • UserGoogol

      I disagree completely.

      The word social has multiple meanings. Shopping is by definition a social experience in the sense that it is an interaction with other human beings: namely buying stuff from them. It’s just not social in the sense of being all touchy-feely. Human beings are social animals in the former sense, in that we must regularly interact with other humans in order to live. But that doesn’t mean we all want to be all touchy-feely about it. Some people are extroverts and some people are introverts, and a just society should not force people to interact directly with people in order to get by in life. If people want to interact with others they should have that choice, but we shouldn’t force it on anyone. Although this post raises the valid point that other problems can arise, the dehumanization of the public square is in of itself a good thing.

      • UserGoogal, taking a few seconds to say things like “Good morning” and “Unusual weather we’re having” and “How about them Sox?” and “Thank you!” isn’t “touchy-feely.” It’s common courtesy, something the most introverted of introverts ought to be able to manage.

        • UserGoogol, sorry about the misspelling. Rob, Scott? Is there a preview/edit feature I’m not finding?

        • Tyro

          Why should introverts be forced to “manage” simply to conform to a certain aesthetic of food shopping that you prefer?

          I’m the social sort, but my food shopping experiences tend to involve showing up to the grocery store late at night after work with 12 items or less and zipping through the self checkout before loading the things in my car and going home. I’m not really missing anything.

        • literatzi

          Speaking as an introvert, and someone who has worked in checkout lines before, I hate that sort of interaction.

          If you want your shopping to be a social experience, go to a small shop where you can get to know the owners and their workers and develop a real relationship with them. These are also the places that aren’t getting robo-scanners.

          I’d rather deal with a machine that I don’t have to pretend to be polite to, and have it be forced to ask how my shopping experience was because that’s what their managers force them to do.

        • mndean

          I don’t mind the greeting being said to me by a checker/clerk/stocker I know (I’ve gone to the same store for 20 years). But when a manager from corporate headquarters similarly greets me and asks about my health in that same store, I feel no need to be polite, and I’m not. He (it’s always a he) doesn’t know me from Adam and is either robotically doing what he was trained to or is doing the passive-aggressive “acknowledge me!” shtick. I won’t have it.

        • UserGoogol

          Well it’s all relative. I was just trying to use the word “touchy-feely” to refer to face-to-face interaction in generally, which is more touchy feely than the sort of interaction we are doing right now.

          And despite being pretty introverted myself, I don’t really mind saying thank you to cashiers and such. I actually kind of like it to tell someone to have a nice day, when I’m in a good enough mood to mean it. But that doesn’t make it an unmitigated good. Some people like it and some people don’t.

          And just because shopping is nominally a part of the “public square” doesn’t mean that all these stupid little exchanges actually add up to some sort of important building up of civic society.

          • UserGoogol

            Although that’s not to say that I don’t like all forms of cashier interactions. I find it genuinely weird and disorienting when a cashier remembers my name, and anything more than “thank you, have a nice day” tends to strike me as mildly invasive.

            • UserGoogol

              That’s not to say that i do like, I mean.

              So no, there doesn’t seem to be an edit button.

            • mndean

              UserGoogol, you’re a bigger curmudgeon than I could ever hope to be. I converse with staff at one store simply because they know I’ve gone there since before they even moved to their “new” (heh, they moved there in 1970) location. My father would drag me there as a a toddler, ferchrissakes. It’s not a corporate chain, which probably helps. Other stores, I converse with people who’ve helped me and get to know them. They’re people, too. Except the corporate suits who blow in and out. What species animal they are I haven’t a clue.

    • brent

      I’m inclined to think it’s best to keep human to human interaction an important part of shopping. Going to market isn’t just a matter of supplying ourselves with stuff for the house and larder. It’s also a matter of taking part in the public square.

      I really couldn’t disagree more. For me, the grocery store without the self checkout means standing in line which is to say that it actually delays me from doing stuff that I want to do. Some of those things involve socially interacting with other human beings in contexts in which that interaction is not forced because of a highly inefficient queuing system.

      They’re a way for the store to get you to do for free work they normally have to pay to have done.

      I doubt that these machines save grocery stores that much in labor costs but if they do, then as a consumer, thats potentially good for me. Of course I realize that it is more complicated than that but in general lower costs for the grocery in a truly competitive market means lower cost for me. The 35 seconds of intense labor required to check myself out is fine tradeoff for me if the stuff I am buying is a little cheaper as a result.

      • jefft452

        “…but in general lower costs for the grocery in a truly competitive market means lower cost for me.”

        If I sell x units of widgits per month at $1 ea, lowing the price to $.99 will allow me to sell more (in an econ 101 textbook, if not in the real world) BUT if I don’t sell at least an additional 1% of x, I have reduced my net!

        If I can sell x at $1 with an overhead of y, I can still sell x at $1 with an overhead of 90% of y

        • Malaclypse

          If I sell x units of widgits per month at $1 ea, lowing the price to $.99 will allow me to sell more (in an econ 101 textbook, if not in the real world) BUT if I don’t sell at least an additional 1% of x, I have reduced my net!

          No, if units sold is a constant, you reduced your gross, while keeping your net constant.

          • Well, since your gross filters down to your net, unless you save that penny someplace else, your net is going to suffer too.

            • Malaclypse

              In his example, I read CoGS as shrinking by a penny/unit.

          • jefft452

            my bad, the argument would have worked better if I used gross

            my thinking was net with overhead saving by stiffing some high school kid a couple of hours per week, selling x units * $y – x units * $z wholesale price vs the same overhead savings and same wholesale cost but selling 1.05x units * $.99y

            the last para is the main point

        • elm

          You need to go back to your econ 101 textbook: price of inputs is definitely a factor in determining price of a good as long as we assume a downward sloping demand curve. How important a factor it is depends on the elasticity of the demand curve, but if you reduce the price of a good, you increase the demand for it and, thus, sell more of it. If you care about profit and not revenue, then when input prices decline you can increase your profit by dropping the price of your good and selling more of it. Now a $1 decrease in input prices is unlikely to lead to $1 in the price of the good but it should (in theory) lead to some reduction.

          • Furious Jorge

            But I don’t know a whole lot of goods that have a high enough elasticity of demand that consumers would respond in any noticeable way to a one-cent decline in the price (as in jefft452’s example).

            • elm

              Well, yes, in practice I don’t know if this is a good example of the phenomenom: cost reductions from automated checkout are not likely to lead to particularly large price reductions on groceries to make much of a difference in the lives of most consumers. I was merely responding to Jeff’s claim that reduction in input prices has no influence on reduction of final prices.

              • Furious Jorge

                Well yes, as a blanket statement it’s ridiculous. But it serves as a good example of why almost all things in economics must be understood on a case-by-case basis, or at least with a deep suspicion of sweeping generalizations.

          • jefft452

            “You need to go back to your econ 101 textbook:”

            no thanks,
            I’ve actually sold stuff, to actual people

            • jefft452

              sorry, didn’t mean to sound so snarky and condescending

              its late

              but my point holds – actual customers that walk into a store are under no obligation to be swayed in their purchasing decisions by what the author of an econ 101 textbook thinks would sway them

      • Furious Jorge

        but in general lower costs for the grocery in a truly competitive market means lower cost for me.

        The problem is, there really isn’t any such thing as a “truly competitive market.” It’s one of those theoretical constructs that economists find useful as a starting point for thought exercises.

        • brent

          The problem is, there really isn’t any such thing as a “truly competitive market.”

          Perhaps true, but is that really “the problem” with discussing labor costs with respect to the cost of goods? What I mean is that one can certainly niggle over the meaning of “truly competitive” but when it comes down to it, is there any doubt that there are many places to buy groceries which compete with each other for consumer dollars. Here in Vegas we have Albertsons, Vons, Gardenas, Smiths, Fresh and Easy, Wild Oats, Sunflower Markets, not to mention Wal Mart and Target. As an aside, most of them are terrible (I love Publix but we don’t have those here) but there is no doubt that they compete and that one of the factors in that competition is price, even when the difference in price on particular items is quite minimal.

          Like I said above, its obviously a complicated matter to understand the precise relationship between any store’s individual labor costs and the price of goods they offer but does anyone really want to argue that there is no important relationship between the two variables?

          • Bill Murray

            If labor costs aren’t a significant portion of the costs of the goods, then there is no significant relationship. That’s one reason raising the minimum wage usually has little effect on employment. I seem to remember a CEPR study on increasing the minimum wage in Florida in which a substantial wage increase (like $1-2 an hour)led to almost no change in the price of meals (like a penny on a $20 meal), although I could not find the study

            • Njorl

              Changes in minimum wage are not significant because the wages are only a small part of the labor costs for a minimum wage employee. Other labor costs – overhead like liability insurance, training, space, equipment etc. – tend to swamp minimum wage employees pay. However, automation allows the elimination of entire employees with all of their associated non-wage costs. That is significant.

    • Apart from the checkout clerk, Lance, which interactions are you missing? You’d ask the butcher still about the meat, the deli counter would tell you how long the potato salad keeps, and you can always find a stock clerk to inquire about sales and such.

      Sure, the checkout is usually manned by someone whom you actually have to spend some time with (scanning groceries is labor intensive, thus the push to get customers to do it themselves), but they rarely give you any enlightenment there.

  • Ed Marshall

    I understand the sort of connection you are drawing to Taylorite “soldiering” as being a form of Luddism, but I don’t think it right. Also, as someone who finally said “Fuck it” and left labor for an education and org theory that teaches Taylor, Scott, Lipsky, etc.. I don’t think any of them understands at all what they studied.

    Being a prole is complicated, people react in very different ways to management demands and the societal pressures are far more variable than any of them seem to take seriously. Your incentives if a technological advance is going to take your job are far different than “let’s keep the rate down on this part that we are all in the same boat making”. You aren’t in the same boat anymore, some of them are going to try and resist. Some of them will attempt industrial sabotage to discredit the new technology. Some of them will work really hard and try and be John Henry. Some of them will cut their neighbors throat to be retrained.

  • firefall

    This is a form of luddism properly understood,

    With all due respect, bollocks. All this has done is replace gossiping around the coffee pot, surreptitiously reading a newspaper, and other forms of old-style goofing off, with a newer, shinier way of achieving the same nil productivity amusement. Trying to cast it as active resistance is simply ludicrous

    • djw

      To be a bit clearer, I meant to suggest that Luddism isn’t always necessarily active in the sense of organized resistance against job-threatening efficiencies. Some of it is general, apolitical, unspecified resistance against spending 8+ hours a day on this nonsense. Some of it is making sure you’re stretching out what work you do have to make it appear as though you have enough work to justify a full time position.

      • Malaclypse

        Some of it is general, apolitical, unspecified resistance against spending 8+ hours a day on this nonsense.

        I really think this defines Luddism out of existence.

        • DrDick


        • djw

          This is a reasonable concern, and I may in the end decide to abandon this conceptual claim (you probably noticed this isn’t a well thought out argument).

          I really do think, though, that once we get to the historically accurate understanding of Luddism (not anti-technology per se, but a particularly violent and extra-legal attempt to manage the social and economic impact of new technologies in the workplace), I think we also have to recognize that what they were doing is a perfectly ordinary and necessary thing to do. (Minus the extra-legality and the violence, most of the time). It’s such an ordinary and routine coping and survival strategy in a world where we have to have these ‘jobs’, that sometimes it’s done without explicit political will. If it defines Luddism excessively widely, that’s because it’s a widely practice form of the management of ‘work’ from below.

          • Malaclypse

            I think that even if violence was not an intrinsic part of Luddism, the part of it where it is an active, collective social movement, with real, non-ambiguous goals, is an intrinsic part.

            Look, humans goof off at work. Bosses do it, workers do it. We’re monkeys, and monkeys play. That is not Luddism. It is not resistance, it is how humans work. All humans. Working flat-out throughout the day requires an extraordinarily violent slave system, with massive oversight, and early death. We simply are not built for that.

            Goofing off at work is not equal to Luddism.

            • DrDick

              Even slavery cannot produce that, though it clearly has an impact. One of the reasons that slavery never took off in the North is that slave labor tends to be less productive per person than economically coerced “free labor.”

              • Western Dave

                It seemed to do a pretty good job doing that in the Caribbean where the costs of feeding slaves enough to keep them healthy exceeded the costs of buying new slaves. On the sugar plantations, slaves worked until they died (which was pretty quick). That’s the biggest difference between Caribbean (and Brazilian) slavery and slavery in South and North where slaves could produce their own food. Slavery was perfectly popular in the North (even in places with strong abolitionists tendencies like Pennsylvania) and might well have persisted if it hadn’t of been for the American Revolution. (In Pennsylvania, the shift was already on after the French and Indian War, although a grdaual emancipation bill didn’t pass until 1780). But that’sa cultural not an economic explanation.

  • Vance Maverick

    I get your skepticism about “theorizing” that certain jobs are inherently menial, etc. But to turn the same move on you, I’m skeptical about your implication that all jobs should be presumed redeemed by people’s ability to find “meaning and dignity in all manner of repetitive and uncreative work” or neutralized by their “indifference”. There are, really, people who have to take jobs they hate.

    • Mark

      Capitalism is organized blackmail, and working for money is inherently dehumanizing. I believe that false consciousness is real. Most people hate their jobs, even if they don’t hate the actual tasks they are paid to perform. People who don’t hate their jobs, with the possible exception of people who have really awesome jobs like tenured college professors and pediatricians, are merely unwilling to face the implications of seeing things as they are.

      • Vance Maverick

        With my deeper insight, though, I can see that your belief is itself a form of false consciousness. Really, come on.

        (FWIW, I have a job I greatly enjoy — but wouldn’t do if I weren’t paid for it.)

        • Mark

          So it’s realistic to believe that people who go to dull, pointless, low paying jobs to be abused by management hour after hour actually like their jobs, but it’s nutty to believe that those people are merely unwilling to admit to themselves that they hate their jobs? If you want to take the first position, it’s up to you to explain why it’s not crazy. The existence of false consciousness, understood in the usual way, is manifest.

          It’s possible that you don’t use the word “enjoy” the same way I do, because, if you wouldn’t do whatever your job is for free, than I question how much you really enjoy it. Sometimes it is easier to pretend though.

          • Furious Jorge

            It’s possible that you don’t use the word “enjoy” the same way I do, because, if you wouldn’t do whatever your job is for free, than I question how much you really enjoy it.

            In your world, people might not have to actually earn any money to survive, and all their needs may be taken care of with a simple handwave so that everyone can spend 40+ hours per week doing things they enjoy with no expectation of compensation. But sadly, the rest of us do not live in this Roddenberry-esque utopia.

          • Vance Maverick

            Just to be clear, I’m taking a middle position here — there are people who hate their jobs, people who enjoy them, and a bunch of people in between. I don’t see a strong reason to think there are many people who are mistaken about their feelings.

            As for my own attitude: I’m a software developer. If I didn’t do it for money, I’d probably still write some sort of programs, some of the time, probably to do with music. As it is, the function of the software I write is driven by the commercial goals of my employer. It turns out, though, that the daily work of writing that software is demanding and satisfying on its own terms. In other words, it’s not what I would be doing on my own, and I enjoy it. Not sure what’s difficult about this.

      • DocAmazing

        Speaking as the putative possessor of a really awesome job, the problem with employment is often employers. I have bosses. Were it not for that, my job might well be more awesome. (Of course, I’m not a big fan of self-employment, either. Guess I’m never happy.)

        • Mark

          Self-employment is overrated. The self-employed just have a bunch of bosses, which are called clients. They take on more risk and do more work, while remaining subject to the same requirements of conformity to others’ wishes. Working for money sucks and there is no way around that basic fact.

    • JMP

      Here’s what I don’t get: the line “Others have approached the world of work with indifference; they work to pay the bills and finding meaning and value in other aspects of their lives.”

      “Others”? Shouldn’t that be “everybody”? That’s what work is; what you do to make money so you can get by. It’s not something people enjoy or get meaning out of; really, does anyone get “meaning and dignity” out of their daily drudgery at work? Maybe there are some lucky duckies out there who actually enjoy their jobs; but if so, I’ve never met one.

      • elm

        Nearly all of the ‘meaning and dignity’ in my life comes from my work (and the rest comes from commenting on the internet!) Nearly all of my colleagues work more than the 40 hours a week we are contracted to work because we enjoy our work and find it meaningful and important or because our self-esteem is partially determined by the status we’re accorded within our profession. While academics may be peculiar in the extent to which this is true, I don’t think we’re alone in this.

        • JMP

          Maybe not alone, but incredibly rare; and you should realize just how lucky you’ve got it if you actually enjoy your work. But academics is incredibly strange compared to the normal drudgery of working.

          • elm

            Oh, I recognize I’m lucky. But I think many people out there get at least some ‘meaning and dignity’ from their work even if they hate their job. Plenty of people I know, academic and non-academic, take pride in doing their job well or feel validated when they are recognized for their work-related contributions. Perhaps this is a minority of the population but I don’t think it’s aparticularly small minority.

  • Mark

    But the average office worker wastes something like two hours a day on the internet.

    The time at the office that I spend using the internet for non-work purposes is the only time during my workday that is not wasted. It’s my pointless, ridiculous job that is a waste of my time.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    Okay, just to add my two cents to the discussion, since the previous thread is slowly but surely moving down the page…

    I’m probably the only person here who actually currently works as a grocery store cashier, to help pay my way through school. I don’t want to do this demeaning, horrible job for any longer than I have to, but I *simply* cannot go without it. I really, really wish people had the opportunities to do better things with their lives, but sometimes all you can do is to scrape by. And yeah, anything that gets rid of these kinds of jobs…you need to think long and hard about those people who (and do I detect a bit of victim blaming of those cashiers who don’t have cushy jobs?) rely on being cashiers to live.

    As a purely practical matter, I don’t think they work just right yet. People are always needing assistance, produce codes are miskeyed, and the long waits to check alcohol ids. And may I say, having had the (mis) pleasure of serving you all, that customers are pretty damn fucking stupid. Yep, even those lawyers and software engineers know jack shit about purchasing and bagging their own groceries.

    • I don’t have any particular brief for self-checkout machines, and really don’t even use them. And heck, they’re small bore enough, if they really do cost cashiers their job I’m more than happy to refuse to use them and tell management as much. But by the same token, because they’re so marginal I doubt they really displace *that* many workers (not that that’s consolation to anyone who loses a job to them) so for the overall point they’re kind of useless.

      By and large it seems that some of the truly monumental increases in technology that really do displace a lot of workers also tend to have a very positive impact on overall human welfare. I’m thinking of things like the refrigerator or advances in farm machinery. I don’t really think anyone would seriously consider banning refrigerators so that people could once again be employed as milk men would be a good trade off.

      And really, I don’t particularly understand the point of calling advocacy of something approaching social democracy “utopian,” if only because one would think there ought to be at least a bit of that in all advocacy. I mean, economic stimulus is never going to pass Congress anytime soon, but I don’t generally see people saying we ought to do more stimulative things called “utopian.” “This probably won’t happen in America” is a valid critique, but not so much that it makes me want to go all in on Loomis’ view that we ought to freeze the nature of the economy in the Gilded Age (but with unions!) Having grown up on a farm, known people who worked in factories, worked coal mines, etc., I don’t have any problem saying that those jobs suck, even granting that there is dignity in doing them (I’m not sure why those two would have to be mutually exclusive).

      And to that end, I very much doubt there are a lot of college professors sitting in their offices daydreaming about finally realizing their dream of working in a union mine.

      • Ed Marshall

        I have a streak of technotopianism to. I think “Yes, it’s just going to get worse until the age of robot slaves, but they *have* to just give people what they need at that point”. Although the dystopian verdict would be that the masters of Capital would just build robot executioners and get rid of the excess Human species that they no longer needed.

      • Brien, refrigerators have been around for a hundred years, milkmen disappeared in the 70s. Refrigerators and refrigeration actually made milkmen possible. It wasn’t refrigeration that put an end to their jobs it was the gas crisis, the proliferation of convenience stores (gas stations that sold milk were an amazing novelty when I was a kid), and families owning two cars so that (in the suburbs) the household’s chief shopper wasn’t trapped at home all day and could run out to the store when she needed to get milk and eggs. All these changes put milk men out of work, but put other people to work at jobs that didn’t exist or weren’t commonly available before.

        Times change, new technologies arise, societies and economies reorganize themselves. We hope this is always a good thing, but nobody knows until it’s all over and done with. In the meantime, a little resistance and skepticism is probably the most prudent thing, so I’ll keep going to the human cashier until I can’t anymore—mainly because where I shop the lines at the robocheckers are always longer.

        • jbahr

          Where I live (Boulder County, CO), there are at least two different companies offering “milk” home delivery — which of course includes a lot more items than milk, but mostly dairy.

          As to self-checkout: I use one one grocery store (King Soopers) rather than the one across the street (Safeway) specifically because they have self-checkout. Well, also better in-store food samples.

          • tsd

            In terms of number of “good” jobs for cashiers, it is probably better to use a self checkout at a unionized chain (or other store that compensates its employees well) than buy your groceries at WalMart or Target using regular cashiers.

      • djw

        Brien, I didn’t place you in the same category of wild utopianism as those who argued for the elimination of menial and non-fullfilling work as a political project.

        Your position is different–if I can attempt to characterize your position (and let me know if you disagree, please: In general, technological innovations are likely to improve our lives through consumption of said technologies and through the creation of a better overall mix of jobs and should be embraced. Insofar as there are losers who are harmed by creative destruction, we should design and pay for a robust welfare state so we don’t have to worry about the costs of embracing change. Insofar as there is a failure to produce that welfare state, it should be addressed by political efforts to build it up, not be changing anything about our approach to technology.”

        There’s a lot that I like and agree with in this vision. It’s at the end that I find it particularly wanting. Building that robust welfare state, or even maintaining the level of support of the meagre one we’ve had in the face of the changes to the economy we’ve seen in the last 4 years, isn’t as existentially utopian as the elimination of menial work as a political project, but for the foreseeable future, except for minor improvements at the margins it’s pretty clearly off the table in the short and medium term. Under those circumstances, I think the political ethics that assume that’s the proper solution need to be rethought. Here’s a message I’d be pretty ashamed to say to the face or a grocery store checker: “Sorry you lost your job that you really need, but it was a crappy job anyway, and if it were up to me you’d get to more robust unemployment and retraining support. Even though all this really means is that Kroger profits go up slightly, and they don’t spend or reinvest those profits because of the lack of demand in the economy, at the end of the day this is progress.”

        I also think there’s a missing part of the story of progress. We’ve more or less decided–even, to a somewhat lesser extent in the more robust welfare states out there–that the way to get access to your share of the wealth we’ve collectively created is to get a job in which you work “full time” for the vast majority of your adult life. If you can’t do that, your access to a secure and reasonable share of the wealth is likely to be quite difficult in most cases. Sometimes exciting new job opportunities are created by social and technological change, and that’s a good thing, but the only way we can create anywhere near enough of these ‘jobs’ to go around is to create a massive amount of busywork and waste a massive amount of time in our jobs. And on some level, mostly self-preservation rather than solidarity, we find ways to protect those jobs. I think these practices should be understood alongside the welfare state as a necessary corrective to make capitalist societies ‘work’, and as the the prospects for the former fade, I think it’s worth thinking more about the latter in collective and solidaristic terms.

        • Malaclypse

          We’ve more or less decided–even, to a somewhat lesser extent in the more robust welfare states out there–that the way to get access to your share of the wealth we’ve collectively created is to get a job in which you work “full time” for the vast majority of your adult life.

          This is true, but “full time” deserves the scare quotes you have given it. A lot labor fights in the early history of industrialization involve not higher wages, but decreased hours.

          Somewhere (Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts, maybe?), Marx talks about how rising productivity could allow us to overcome the division of labor, because our needs can be met so easily that we can labor for gain in the morning, and be fully human at whatever we want in the afternoon.

          Marx failed to anticipate humans wanting bigger and bigger televisions…

          • djw

            This is true, but “full time” deserves the scare quotes you have given it. A lot labor fights in the early history of industrialization involve not higher wages, but decreased hours.

            Oh, indeed. Scare quotes fully intended to convey substantial difference across time and space. This has been a central way we’ve managed to use increased wealth to ameliorate the absurdity of the ‘jobs for shares of wealth’ rule.

            I suppose another way to try to make the point I was trying to make about ‘luddism’ is to appreciate the micropolitical strategies for surviving the ‘job rule’ alongside the macropolitical ones, and be open to the ways in which the micropolitical ones can be advanced through solidarity.

          • DocAmazing

            I don’t think bigger and bigger televisions are what is driving the problem; it is the idea that a person must put in amount x of labor, regardless of what that labor might be, before that person can participate in the economy.

            The fact is that most jobs are not really necessary. Nail salons and Whole Foods stores could disappear tomorrow and no one would be any the worse off. The problem is that we all internalize the old and stupid “work or starve!” dictum set out by the Puritans, rather than some variation of “from each according to his abilities…”. Ivan Ilich wrote quite a bit on this question, but it comes down to a misplaced valuing of busy-ness and an undervaluing of meeting needs.

            • Malaclypse

              Have to disagree. Remember Weber’s depressing conclusion to The Protestant Ethic:

              Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. Today the spirit of religious asceticism–whether finally, who knows?– has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer.

            • BradP

              I disagree with all of this:

              1. “…from each according to his ability” is a remarkably shitty and non-human standard,

              2. and we externalize inherent human altruism into feelings of obligation and contribution.

              3. and your concept of necessity doesn’t exist outside of your head.

              4. Puritans aren’t responsible for 40 hour full-time work weeks.

      • Clearly, pointing out that self-checkout machines in supermarkets are eliminating jobs that people need today is precisely the same thing as saying that I want people to have terrible jobs of drudgery, preferably in coal mines, or since I research this, logging camps.

        Rather, my sense of Brien’s vision is one where technology frees us from horrible oppression, specifically allowing us to not have to get coffee for Peter King or Chris Berman before becoming a full-fledged sportswriter.

        And as for our backgrounds, not that it matters one iota in making these arguments, but as a first-generation college graduate who grew up around lumber mills, I will put my working-class background up against anyone. The idea that I’m some out of touch professors sitting in my office dreaming of the Gilded Age lacks any credibility.

        • Amanda in the South Bay

          And as for our backgrounds, not that it matters one iota in making these arguments, but as a first-generation college graduate who grew up around lumber mills, I will put my working-class background up against anyone. The idea that I’m some out of touch professors sitting in my office dreaming of the Gilded Age lacks any credibility.

          I’m not sure who you are directing this to, but if I was going to judge you about this, I’d judge you on your current behaviour and words, not on how you grew up. In general, I’m tired of people who are quite clearly privileged and out of touch saying they grew up poor, etc and using that to defend their fucked up views as an adult.

          It wasn’t my intent to call you out on that, but people’s upbringing shouldn’t shield their adult selves from saying stupid shit.

          • Amanda in the South Bay

            And my upbringing is almost certainly very similar to yours.

          • It was being said to Brien, who used his working-class background to essentially say I was dreaming of a Gilded Age past. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

            • tjones

              I can out poor mouth almost anyone reading this blog and certainly some professor whose day involves doing a bit of work and then having butter scones for tea before pressing wildflowers and then putting on women’s clothing and hanging around in bars.

              • dave

                Damn, that’s me out then.

    • redrob

      Customer at the IGA where I worked: Where is the A&P bread that’s on sale?
      My co-worker: Go down this aisle, go past the cash registers and turn left, go out the door, turn left again, and go about a mile down the street to the A&P.
      Customer leaves in a huff.
      My co-worker: I swear, people take stupid pills before they go shopping.
      Me: I just send people to aisle 7.
      My co-worker: Why?
      Me: ‘Cause I’m not there.

    • JAtheist

      Grocery store workers unite!

  • Ed Marshall

    (and do I detect a bit of victim blaming of those cashiers who don’t have cushy jobs?)

    Possibly. The first thing I wrote was a long series of first party experiences about institutional worker bureaucracy that I realized had me writing myself in as always winning at shit jobs (meaning staying on top of the darwinian technology curve while technological advancement got rid of people at an incredible pace) and neglecting the times I lost. I threw the thing away when it seemed self serving, dishonest, and just vaguely disreputable. People suck at understanding their own motivations.

  • Jon

    How about some pushback against those annoying new “robonewspapers” we have these days, which are clearly nothing more than a naked attempt to put tens of thousands of typesetters, printers, reporters, editors, and delivery persons out of a job. I tried to read one earlier today out of desperation and it just kept spitting out outdated economic fallacies, and finally I had to wait for some commenters to come along and help.

  • brent

    Our lives, most of them anyway, are replete with our choices to do things for ourselves that we could alternatively employ some other person to do for us. When I change my own oil or go to a lunch buffet rather than a full service restaurant (not to mention making my own home cooked meal) I am making a decision which could conceivably foster less employment. This is certainly true but I don’t thinks its a very useful way of thinking about these matters.

    But more to the point of the post, the simple truth is that if something increases convenience for enough people at a cost they are willing to pay (and in this case it seems that the extra costs are probably pretty close to zero) than that is what will eventually prevail. That will be the reality. The truly utopian approach is to think that it could be otherwise.

    I happen to like the self checkout but I am not of the opinion that it is some great leap forward. However, when it comes down to it, all that really matters is if it significantly increases convenience for the store’s consumers. I feel it does for me. If a lot of people agree with me then its overall effect on unemployment won’t really be material.

    • Rarely Posts

      I agree. Maybe I’m secretly anti-social, but I prefer to quickly scan my own items and move out the door. I don’t generally feel that my interactions with the clerks have any independent social value for either them or me. Also, when there are multiple scanning machines, one can usually avoid the idiots in line who take forever whether they’re in self-scan or not. I’m not sure why some people have so much trouble buying groceries, but some do.

      I will say that clerk scanning remains clearly superior in the area of produce. But, I strongly prefer self-scanning in other circumstances. Also, it may just be me, but sometimes I’m a bit embarrassed about some of the products that I’m purchasing, and I mildly prefer not having them scrutinized (for example, lots of unhealthy food, or certain cosmetic products, etc.).

  • James Hunt

    What a thought-provoking piece. While I don’t neccesarily agree with everything in the article (or in the comments)I did want to make a couple of points. Once, some years ago, I worked for an employment agency and had a call from a citizens advocacy service representing a 50-ish recently divorced woman who had few tradeable skills, poor English and poor socialization skills. All she wanted, they said, was a basic job with very little chance of advancement. Not 48 hours later I had a call from an employer who said he was “…sick of employing people who quit as soon as something better came along…” and was willing to pay an 80% premium to employ a dishwasher I could guarantee didn’t want to “…further their studies, move up to wait staff or spend more time with their family…”. A match made in heaven, I thought, and, indeed, I ran into the employer a year or so later and he claimed she was the most productive, reliable and responsible employee he had ever hired. Secondly, I work in a job I adore, teaching seniors PC skills in a public library, as well as co-ordinating library-specific hardware and software over a multi-branch library service. If I was lucky enough to win the lottery I would, at the very least, offer the training courses without asking for pay. I’m willing to accept that both of these scenarios are uncommon but they do happen, quite possibly more often than you expect.

    • Greet, but it would be bteetr if in future you can share more about this topic. Keep rocking.

  • Michael Drew

    If, say, this technology is failing because people (like I), given the choice, prefer to interact with a human checker than to use a machine so long as it doesn;t mean a significantly longer wait, then I think that tells us really nothing about the larger debate about how to regard the issue of truly labor-displacing technologies. It seems that the technology is simply failing on the merits, because it;s failing to deliver a clear improvement in utility to users. The difficult cases are where technology actually does succeed in doing this. And here, I think, two things do become important. Ther first is to be very scrupulous in our calculations of the number and quality of jobs created by the technology as compared to the number and quality eliminated. These checkers didn’t come from nowhere. the business who invented them had to employ developers, contract with manufacturers, employ salespeople, accountants, office managers, etc.etc. Who knows how many? Who knows how many checkers have lost their jobs as a result. That latter must be very difficult to calculate during these times of mass job evaporation. Which brings me to the second important thing: econmic context and the short versus long term. These machines pre-dated the recession, but it would, IMO, be reasonable, if we were debating whether their proliferation would be a good thing startng now, to approach that question with a provisional attitude that they would not be welcome in the short term in this economy, pending a strong case that their front-ed employment creation outstripped their back-end job elimination effects, while holding that over the long term, perhaps their utility could be something to test on a widespread basis. As it happens, it seems we got some of the worst of both those worlds, as they proliferated just prior to the recession, whereupon they likely increased the ability of supermarkets to cut employment above what it might otherwise have been, after which we are now perhaps finding that they actually have limited net utility benefit. Nevertheless, I don’t think that could have been clear from the outset, and in a setting in which the most serious recession since the Depression was not happening, I have trouble seeing myself reject the idea that this work-saver ought to be shunned simply for the sake of preserving human checkers’ jobs. That would be Luddism properly understood.

    • Michael Drew

      …rather, trouble seeing myself *embrace* the idea…

  • Warren Terra

    To respond to the charge that my utopian vision of how the people urrently working at jobs being made obsolete won’t happen, I’d say that you’re probably right. But we can dream, and maybe even do more than dream.

    The point, though, is that the change is happening. The supermarket companies are figuring out how to make self-checkout work. Heck, there’s a supermarket chain here in Southern California called Fresh & Easy (and isn’t that a dumb name) in which essentially every item is packaged for easy scanning, and there are no checkout clerks at all (there are some proctors and baggers). I don’t think the choice is between keeping checkout clerks or casting them brutally aside – I think the casting aside is largely inevitable, and the choice our society has to make is about what it does for them when it happens.

    • djw

      Even if this is true in the long run (and the story Erik linked to raises some doubts), I think there’s still a good case to be made for solidaristic resistance. Even if such a strategy only manages to postpone the elimination of checker jobs for a few years, that’s a few years people stay out of poverty, and maybe they’ll be shoved back into the job market in a slightly less shitty job market. Given the profoundly trivial costs, it seems worth it.

  • dave

    The trouble with being the kind of worker who resists by generating inefficiencies is that you become the kind of person who would be inefficient even in a much more equitable system. And meanwhile your resistance becomes an argument in favour of your need to be managed more harshly. Heightening the contradictions is all very well, but when the time comes to push through them, how will you cope on the other side?

  • AGM

    If this is utopian, we live in utopia, because this is what has been happening for the past 300 years. Would we be better off if the majority of the urban population still worked in textiles? Or if 90% of the labour force was needed for agriculture?

    Short term, those in redundant occupations suffer and they may never return to their pre-redundant level of wealth. In the long term, fewer resources consumed (in this case labour) to met our current needs and wants means more resources to produce and provide other goods and services.

    • McWyrm

      In the long term, fewer resources consumed (in this case labour) to met our current needs and wants means more resources to produce and provide other goods and services.

      I may scan the products for myself, bag them, and pay for them or somebody else can do it for me. The same amount of labor is required in either case.

      • BradP

        Labor time involved is a very arcane way of looking at it. You should focus on the subjective value created by the labor.

        Because people will labor at different rates and different levels of productivity, shifting labor burdens can have effects on prices, as it seems it obviously would in this situation.

  • To defend the Luddites for a second – they weren’t anti-technology, as E.P Thompson and other historians have amply proven. The Luddites only broke machinery in places in which employers were using the new technology to reduce wages below their customary rates; those who paid what was considered a moral wage were left alone.

    They went after technology as a way to shut down production and up the cost of wage-cutting (since machines represented expensive fixed capital), not because they thought the machines were powered by demons.

    In other words, it’s the social organization of technology that matters.

    • dave

      They were also f*cked-up by overwhelming military repression, partly because they made the mistake of branching out into what today we would doubtless label ‘domestic terrorism’ [though that was surprisingly common – google “wiltshire outrages” for some events a decade before ‘Luddism’]

  • Scott P.

    It’s true that productivity gains aren’t necessarily translated to improved wages. It’s true that’s a problem. But that doesn’t mean the problem lies with the gains in productivity. If we could wave a wand and end productivity improvements for a decade, that would certainly provide some temporary help for people that currently have jobs. But it wouldn’t end unemployment, and would in fact put the United States at a competitive disadvantage with respect to other nations.

    We have plenty of examples of nations that eschewed gains productivity for full employment. They were called the Communist Bloc. Their example doesn’t exactly inspire one with confidence.

  • The self-checkout situation does not actually replace human labor with machine labor. It just forces the customer to perform the tasks that were previously performed by a cashier.

    • DocAmazing

      Lord Buckley observed this very thing about supermarkets back in the 1950s.

    • Njorl

      I was going to say just that.

      I don’t use the self-checkout if I have more than a handful of items. The store personel do it much more quickly. Their time is cheaper than mine. They want the money, and I don’t want to do the work.

      I think part of the problem is the disappearance of the middle class. We need more people who don’t think scanning and bagging their own groceries is worth the 0.3% savings on their grocery bill.

      Genuine improvements in productivity are one thing, but innovations which merely shift the labor to the consumer are another.

      • matth

        The machines shift labor to the consumer, but “labor” as such isn’t really a big deal for me. I care about time. If I have to stand there watching the clerk scan my stuff anyway, my time is spent regardless.

        Since scanning my stuff or watching someone else do it impose about equal costs on me, I’m happy to see a store use self-scanners if it has other benefits to me: lower prices, shorter lines, etc.

        (Unlike a surprising number of commenters here, I am actually able to work a self-checkout machine without becoming confused or disoriented, and I’m quite fast. But, I usually buy produce from stores that don’t have self-checkouts.)

    • Precisely. It’s not more efficient – it’s getting charged extra, just invisibly.

  • Tyro

    America seems to resort to cheap labor first and then think about self-serve, labor-saving devices later. This is in part because of the abundance of cheap labor.

    What this ends up doing, I think, is creating an economic bias in favor of industries that depend on menial labor– labor is so cheap, you might as well start a retail business that needs lots of low-paid menial workers rather than a business that depends on higher-paid skilled staff.

    I wouldn’t mind lots of grocery stores with automated shopping and checkout systems. But in a cheap-labor economy, these sorts of jobs are going to be the “first resort” of employers.

    • dave

      It’s always cheaper, by one measure or another, to get workers to do it, if your labour-market is ‘flexible’ enough. ‘Free labour’ is self-maintaining, requires no capital investment, and can be discarded at a moment’s notice without any disposal costs. If you’re really lucky, you can get it to vote you into office as well.

  • BradP

    This is some simple-minded progressivism, here. Or Loomis and djw have never been to a grocery store.

    This sort of efficiency gain is absolutely necessary to support wealth gains needed to maintain an increasing population.

    Stagnating labor markets in the hopes of providing artificial protections of technologically obsolete jobs is a perfect recipe for youth unemployment. When times are good, this sort of backward thinking stifles demand and entrepreneurship. When times are bad, these jobs are absorbed by excess labor in the existing force, not new entrants.

    • Furious Jorge

      This sort of efficiency gain is absolutely necessary to support wealth gains needed to maintain an increasing population.

      Wealth gains for whom?

      • BradP


        The efficiency gain must be there, regardless of how wealth is distributed.

    • Njorl

      Actually, self-checkout is a necessary innovation for wealth loss, not gain. Self checkout is only viable if the bulk of consumers value their own time as equivalent to a supermarket checker’s.

      An innovation of wealth gains would be if supermakets paid employees to accumulate the bulk of your groceries for you. That is also done, but it is not widespread.

      This demonstrates the movement of our economy. A small, wealthy group which has its time preserved by purchasing services, and a larger and growing group which is being pushed into providing more of their own labor rather than purchasing it.

      • UserGoogol

        I don’t think that’s right. Your time isn’t being saved when there’s a human cashier, in that you when someone else checks your things out for you you have to sit and watch them. In fact, if the self-checkout system is well-designed, self-checkout should be faster than cashier-checkout, since you don’t have to waste time handing your groceries back and forth.

        It’s not an issue of valuing time differently, it’s an issue of rather you’d rather stand around watching your groceries get priced or just do it yourself. Certainly some people would rather someone else do the work of scanning and bagging items, but the preference isn’t one of valuing time.

      • An innovation of wealth gains would be if supermakets paid employees to accumulate the bulk of your groceries for you. That is also done, but it is not widespread.

        Except they pass along those costs to the consumer (see: Fresh Direct or PeaPod)

      • BradP

        Actually, self-checkout is a necessary innovation for wealth loss, not gain. Self checkout is only viable if the bulk of consumers value their own time as equivalent to a supermarket checker’s.

        So when they check themselves out, they achieve more value at less cost. Where is the wealth loss?

        • Malaclypse

          No, when we convert paid labor to unpaid, 1) the unpaid labor is, on a whole, and certainly in this example, done less efficiently, and 2) GDP shrinks.

          • BradP

            1) the unpaid labor is, on a whole, and certainly in this example, done less efficiently

            As a veteran of self-checkout aisles, I can assure you that it is a far more efficient use of resources for me to check myself out than to stand watching someone else check me out.

            • Malaclypse

              As a whole, on average, it stands to reason that people who specialize in a task are better than amateurs. You may be faster, but, trust me, my mom is not.

              • Ohio Mom

                Reading this thread and the one before it, I did think of moms — grandmas, for starters, the ones who are getting frail, who are helped greatly by having baggers pack their groceries, and put them in their carts, and push those carts out to the parking lot and load up their cars. It’s not just cashiers who are replaced by the self-check-outs, after all, it’s the baggers too.

                And I thought about my days as a mom of a restless toddler/preschooler, and that phase where it is all you can do to keep your kid within arm’s reach and out of trouble, and it’s enough to move the groceries out of the cart onto the conveyor belt. Scanning and packing were just too much in those days.

                Finally, I was reminded of a TV documentary I saw a few years ago, where a young woman with intellectual disability (what we used to call mental retardation), thrilled to be supporting herself by being a bagger, was laid off when the bag carousels were installed and her job was added to the cashier’s duties.

                • AZ Escapee

                  Thank you, Ohio mom. As a mother with two young children and chronic back troubles, there are times when I would rather put down the groceries and leave the store empty-handed than scan, purchase, bag, and carry the goods without help.

                  And to DocAmazing upthread, if we wink Whole Foods out of existance, folks with severe food sensitivities, (like my little one with celiac disease) would be very sad to see them go. I prefer supporting the local food co-op, but for some of our staples, Whole Foods is the only vendor within 2400 miles, most of which are nautical.

            • Barbara

              Checking yourself out is more efficient until there is a problem or an exception. Then checking out yourself becomes a problem that needs intervention.

              Suddenly, you need a human being to solve that problem. And where is a human being to be found?

              In a high profile store with a lot of traffic, there’s usually a person close by to help you, true. But in some stores, like my local A&P, the store staff have been so reduced that you have to leave the line and go look for somebody. (Oh, yes, there is a switch to set off a blinking light to alert staff. Good luck with that!)

              Another version of “trouble checking out” is the in-store special coupon – sometimes the best deals you can get, because it’s meant to move perishables approaching their sell by date. The automated machines are not programmed to handle these impromptu coupons, so once again you have to go find help.

              Then there’s the way the checkout process shortchanges the customer vs manned checkouts. When I go to manned checkout, I get coupons from the cashier as a reward for future shopping. Some of the coupons are useful, some not – but that’s my choice. When I check out using the automated lane, they have a coupon producing printer, but routinely no coupons are printed. And every time that happens, I think – so what’s my reward for doing the supermarket’s job for them?

              The problems with the auto check out increase the longer a store has the system. There are increased instances of products not being added to the database or pricing not being updated. All of these increase the ineffectiveness of self-checkout lanes.

  • Part of the reason I’m not against a form of value added tax is we might actually see some accountability in terms of what gets added in value to a product at various levels.

    Altho I doubt a VAT would ever get to the specifics of a per-job assignment (altho in some management accounting practices, it might actually), it might be a large wake up call to the Board of Directors to find out that, indeed, the check-out clerk adds more value to their individual products than the CEO.

  • montag

    Say what you will, the robo-checkers are good training for when I will graduate college and need a job.

  • Yosemite Semite

    I’m sure all those stevedores and longshoremen who remember the days of break-bulk freighters, and hours shuffling up and down gangplanks with sacks over their shoulders, are looking back with nostalgia on the good old days of honest and fulfilling labor after reading your paean to the Luddites. Let’s call up Harry Bridges for his reflections. Oh, wait. I can call spirits from the vasty deep, but will they come when I do call for them? Sadly, no.

    Or how about the trackwalkers for the railroads? They used to be employed by their thousands, walking up and down their sections of track, looking for things out of order. A nice quiet peaceful walk outdoors — unless, of course, you got run over by a passing train. Or you had to walk a section of track in Kansas in January. A brisk walker can do about 4 miles an hour over longer time span, but at that rate, it’s not possible to concentrate on flaws on both tracks, and switches onto sidings, and the sidings themselves, so they covered maybe 2 miles an hour. (That, however, is actually 1 mile an hour, because they have to walk out and back.) HiRail trucks cover the tracks at about 30 miles an hour, and have extensive monitoring and detection equipment in them. Trains running at higher speeds with heavier loads have meant that smaller defects cause problems — i.e. derailments — which are harder to pick out visually. The Luddite answer: Run those trains slower, don’t load them so heavily, and get those trackwalkers back on the job.

    Next: calling all threshers.

  • mds

    Bloody hell. If I see one more comment about (1) just how awesome someone is at self-checkout; (2) how incredibly valuable even thirty seconds of their time is, or (3) how of course the savings are passed on to customers, and how could it be otherwise; and all in a discussion where people have labeled djw and Loomis as out-of-touch elitists, I’m going to go kick one of the local $3.50-fee ATMs.

    • buddabelly

      rAmen, not only are the automated systems an unmitigated pita, something always fails to scan with no one near to fix or override or whatever failed this time, I already pay the checker and bagger to do those jobs in the cost of product……why in the heck would I want to do something I’m already paying someone else to do…..

      And anyone who honestly thinks the company rebates any savings that accrue from self ckout to the customer by way of lower prices never owned or ran a retail establishment….You add to that margin any way you can….

      Many stores are severely understaffed and we just suck it up. Kinda sad actually there’s not more revolt at the loss of customer service in the retail world in general.

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