Mega-City One or bust
May 15, 2016 2:31 AM   Subscribe

A robot will soon be asking you if you want fries with that. In response to the rising minimum wage, the fast-food chain Wendy's is following through with threats to to start automating all of its 6000 restaurants because of plans to raise the minimum wage in some US states. Carl's Jnr is also looking at the idea. Robots also might soon take over parts of the education system.

Meanwhile, in China, manufacturing jobs are being edged out by robots. It's part of a global trend of low-paid, and increasingly middle class jobs being replaced by automation.

So, with jobs going at the bottom, increasing pressure to force wages down, and executive pay out of control, and little proof a minimum wage hurts, where will the next generation of consumers come from? (via).
posted by Mezentian (170 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
They won't. I believe it's #1 of the many contradictions of Capitalism that will lead to its ultimate collapse.
posted by Grangousier at 2:34 AM on May 15, 2016 [30 favorites]


This is not in response to the rising minimum wage. Workers could be free and they would still be replaced with kiosks if possible, because the organizational structure required to support workers costs more than their wages.
posted by effugas at 2:36 AM on May 15, 2016 [115 favorites]


These businesses were going to do this anyway and have been developing it for years. Threatening to do it as a inevitable result of the minimum wage hike was just an excuse so they could save a few million bucks in the meantime if the hike didn't go through.
posted by chillmost at 2:38 AM on May 15, 2016 [88 favorites]


They better let the robots have breaks, a living wage, and leave, or in a hundred years they'll be dealing with a robot labor uprising.
posted by otherchaz at 2:46 AM on May 15, 2016 [10 favorites]


Do fast-food kiosks dream of electric suicide?
posted by stifford at 2:46 AM on May 15, 2016 [28 favorites]


Good! Fast-food jobs in the US and manufacturing jobs in China both suck, and requiring a minimum wage for them is a poor way to compensate hours of scut work. The value in a higher wage for such jobs is that it helps you to more quickly leave said jobs for a better one. Nobody is proposing that we ban brick-laying machines for the sake of creating even more minimum-wage menial work, and if automated service kiosks were already the status quo nobody would be demanding to take their place either.

Yes, this means that some people will be temporarily out of work. But that just means there'll be more pressure for society to adapt, perhaps by preparing them for other jobs, perhaps with better welfare programs or a basic income. Worst-case scenario is that society really is okay with having more impoverished or homeless or imprisoned people, and yeah, that would be terrible and I hope that doesn't happen, but in the long run if one generation suffers from the disruption of robots taking their jobs then the next few might not be committing suicide at those jobs.

As for the TAI, I'm just plain impressed by that. And there's not even an immediate concern of people having to adapt, since computer science TAs would probably much rather do research developing that kind of bot than spend time answering the tenth question about "I didn't upload my assignment, can you grade this random bunch of files on my laptop instead?"
posted by Rangi at 2:54 AM on May 15, 2016 [30 favorites]


The truth is that ever-increasing hostility to unions has made subsistence employment impossible to improve and minimum wage has been wholly useless as a replacement for collective bargaining. Time to throw in the towel. Just replace most minimum wage workers with robots and switch to UBI.
posted by xyzzy at 2:54 AM on May 15, 2016 [14 favorites]


Robo-tills at the checkout are already taking over supermarkets here in the UK, to a point where many branches make them your only option. I refuse to use the bloody things, partly because I don't like them, and partly because the people (mostly women) they displace have so few other job opportunities to fall back on.

One phenomenon this has produced is the "Judas goat" employee, allowed to keep his or her job only at the cost of switching duties. Their new task is to patrol up and down the queue of shoppers encouraging them to use the robo-tills instead of whatever human check-outs remain.
posted by Paul Slade at 3:21 AM on May 15, 2016 [14 favorites]


no, yeah, it's cool that apparently capitalism can't work on a fundamental level without a quarter of the population living in poverty

this is fine
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:30 AM on May 15, 2016 [99 favorites]


"If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he will eat for life. If you build a fishing robot, do we all eat or do we starve?"
posted by Freen at 3:34 AM on May 15, 2016 [106 favorites]


automated restaurant = vending machine, not restaurant?
posted by zog at 3:38 AM on May 15, 2016 [6 favorites]


I can never read through one of these articles about automation of industries without 'Soup Is Good Food' by the Dead Kennedys auto-playing in my head.
posted by spoobnooble II: electric bugaboo at 3:43 AM on May 15, 2016 [6 favorites]


Automate long enough and there won't be any humans left to "consume" and maximise your profits.

on preview, I see I joined the choir
posted by infini at 3:48 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


Yes, this means that some people will be temporarily out of work. But that just means there'll be more pressure for society to adapt, perhaps by preparing them for other jobs, perhaps with better welfare programs or a basic income. Worst-case scenario is that society really is okay with having more impoverished or homeless or imprisoned people, and yeah, that would be terrible and I hope that doesn't happen,

This is essentially what they said back when manufacturing itself was being outsourced to a cheaper location. Now that enough years have passed, there's enough evidence of the worst case scenario outcome emerging. This entire conceptual framework is unsustainable for a humane future.
posted by infini at 3:51 AM on May 15, 2016 [53 favorites]


Carl's Jnr is also looking at the idea.

"Carl's Jr! Fuck you, I'm eating!"
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:59 AM on May 15, 2016 [20 favorites]


I haven't had my coffee yet, but it occurs to me to tax robots at a rate that is identical to what an employee would cost an employer in terms of FICA, etc.
posted by ob1quixote at 4:14 AM on May 15, 2016 [35 favorites]


If only we had some kind of exhibit of the decaying skeleton of what happens when Glorious Capitalism outsources jobs and it doesn't turn out to be handwavey "Why, workers will just be prepared for other jobs, everything is fine!" Some kind of belt, perhaps, across several states, all featuring decaying monuments to the time of manufacturing. Rusting, of course, since they'd be largely metal.

Oh, well, fortunately no such thing exists since glorious capitalism has kept that portion of the country secure in well-paying jobs in fields such as...
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:25 AM on May 15, 2016 [95 favorites]


I'm not convinced that Wendy's is doing this only because of minimum wage increases (or even that it necessarily means more overall unemployment, assuming other factors are stable). Here's a Fast Company article from 2004 that discusses self-serve kiosks talks about how this sort of automation can lead to a rise in employment ... which makes sense, because businesses don't want to just cut costs, they want to increase growth/sales. Here's an excerpt about one McDonalds owner:
The machines have actually increased the Moultons' labor costs—in two ways. Volume overall is up so much that they have had to add kitchen staff to make more food. And the Moultons have added "kiosk representatives" to greet customers and help them with the machines. "We've basically had to add two people per store," says Gary. "One in the kitchen, one for the kiosks, and we haven't been able to take anyone off the front counters." But if labor costs have gone up, the Moultons' cost of labor as a percentage of sales has dropped. "We've outpaced the labor costs with the increase in sales," says Gary.
Here's a Snopes article about "McDonald's is reportedly replacing workers with self-service kiosks to get around $15 minimum wage laws." They say it's not so: "McDonald's kiosks have been in development globally since 2011, well before movements to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour had galvanized in the U.S. McDonald's has always cited food customization issues (not automation) as its goal in adding kiosks in test markets."

I'd like to read some objective, knowledgeable analyses, but at the moment I guess I'm distrustful of the way this is being represented as a consequence of wage costs, since the self-serve kiosk concept for accepting orders is not a new thing that was just developed, and it seems like sensationalistic / opportunistic politicking against higher minimum wage.
posted by taz at 4:32 AM on May 15, 2016 [56 favorites]


ob1quixote for benign dictator.

McDonald's have order kiosks here, 'Have It Your Way" or something. I've not been in, and they are just ordering places, and it doesn't prepare the food .... yet.
posted by Mezentian at 4:38 AM on May 15, 2016


Some random thoughts, since have the McDonalds ordering kiosks here in Ottawa. Funny thing is that no one seems to want to use them, so occasionally there will be a big line of customers waiting to order with the remaining 1 or 2 humans at the counter, while three computer ordering kiosks sit unused.

I'm of mixed feelings about this, because I so often seem to need to carefully repeat my order to get it right, while a computer touch screen is fast and accurate. And I couldn't say for sure, but I imagine their staff levels haven't changed, they've just shifted more towards kitchen.

And as far as motivations, there are no major plans to significantly hike the minimum wage here as far as I know. So I would guess their strategy was to have more kitchen staff for the same cost, and to complement their "McCafe" push to serve people who are just in for a doughnut or a fancy coffee and have a faster ordering and order pickup system.
posted by Nutri-Matic Drinks Synthesizer at 4:57 AM on May 15, 2016 [5 favorites]


Robo-tills at the checkout are already taking over supermarkets here in the UK, to a point where many branches make them your only option.

A bunch of supermarkets had them but got rid of them because they were so hard flaky that people eventually refused to use them.
posted by octothorpe at 5:05 AM on May 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


Workers could be free and they would still be replaced with kiosks if possible, because the organizational structure required to support workers costs more than their wages.

That would be true if the machines were free, but they're not. Machines will go in where the cost of the capital expenditure and maintenance expense is less than the labor cost of the employees.

Raise the cost of labor, and it's more likely the machines will make economic sense.

(And I'm sure they're making assumptions about productivity and customer experience to determine whether revenue will be affected)
posted by jpe at 5:10 AM on May 15, 2016


People were like that with self-service terminals at supermarkets, which we have had for 2-3 years?

It has been slow to adopt them.
I hate them.
posted by Mezentian at 5:15 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


Wendy's is an interesting case to highlight for this because I used to love Wendy's when I lived in Canada. Clean restaurants, good service and a nice satisfying single combo with cheese.

In Chicago I have occasionally gone to a Wendy's out of vague nostalgia but the service is so poor I always wonder if they spat on my burger and am only comforted by the belief that it would obviously be too much effort. I get that it is unfair to demand emotional labor of people but can I at least get some neutral instead of the weird sullen disinterested hostility that they serve up at Wendy's?

I'm also tending to use self-checkout more and more because I am better at it than the cashiers at most grocery stores. If you want to protect your job from robots you have to at least be better at it than amateurs doing it by themselves for themselves for free to route around your customer disservice.
posted by srboisvert at 5:23 AM on May 15, 2016 [8 favorites]


I'm perfectly willing to accept that a raised minimum wage is the tipping point at which it finally becomes cheaper--or more palatable to the system/corporation--to have a robot, rather than a person, doing a menial, repetitive job.

It doesn't invalidate any of the other points people are making above. And it's sure as hell not an argument for not trying to raise the minimum, which is part of the general subtext IBD is pushing in that Wendy's article, and a point CA Business Associations have been hitting over the head for years now.

Fast food jobs suck. Living at minimum wage, even a raised one, mostly sucks. Not having a job at all, in a society without a serious safety net (US) or with the crumbling remains of a post-socialist one (PRC), because a robot took your job? Really sucks.

But these are socio-political problems, and at a very non-nuanced, hand-wavey level we know how to solve them: progressive taxation and redistribution of resources.

We are already living in a post-scarcity world full of awesome robots that could be making food for us, but instead of making sure everybody has a house to live in and enough food, we go ahead and continue to let some people "live" on the street and some people "live" in Mar-a-lago. We let half of our food rot because it isn't pretty enough, and luxury housing go empty--with developers collecting tax breaks--while people freeze to death on the street. All because we won't do the hard work of making sure that this Hayek/Randian crock of steaming neoliberal pie is accountable to its lowest common denominator.

That tech-boosting slashdot comment gives me the deep-down cringes, because as we've seen with Uber et al, the tech industry is filled with the very worst examples of how this is being perpetuated. Oh, you have a job that because of its inherently local nature the bosses couldn't manage to offshore? let's provide a disruptive model that pushes even more precarity to the labor side of the equation.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:27 AM on May 15, 2016 [103 favorites]


Excellent. I sort of like Wendy's for fast food, but clearly their policies suck. So, much like Chick-fil-A, I can now eliminate them from my diet for social reasons.

Know which company's food sucks, but has stuck to their guns for a social cause that I believe in? McDonald's... their food practices are abhorrent, but I can physically see a Ronald McDonald house and see the good it does for sick kids...

Wendy's just said 'Fuck our workers' publicly.... that is abhorrent for so many reasons.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:33 AM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]




Worst-case scenario is that society really is okay with having more impoverished or homeless or imprisoned people, and yeah, that would be terrible and I hope that doesn't happen.

You say that as if the "society" that makes these decisions includes anyone other than the 1%. The ruling capitalists long-ago decided that large swaths of people being homeless, imprisoned and otherwise marginalized and invisible is perfectly ok. "Winners and losers," as we've been indoctrinated to accept.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:37 AM on May 15, 2016 [23 favorites]


"Fish and sea greens, plankton and protein from the sea!"
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:43 AM on May 15, 2016 [21 favorites]


Most Seattle employers surveyed in a University of Washington-led study said in 2015 that they expected to raise prices on goods and services to compensate for the city’s move to a $15 per hour minimum wage.

But a year after the law’s April 2015 implementation, the study indicates such increases don’t seem to be happening.
So, yeah. Employers (and pro-business advocates) will say the sky is falling, but in reality the cost of minimum-wage employees is not the biggest cost of business in the majority of cases.

And when it comes down to that blessed market theory, customers won't put up with higher prices, so they find a way. Capitalism always finds a way.
posted by rokusan at 5:45 AM on May 15, 2016 [7 favorites]


Didn't Cory Doctorow write a short story that started with robots-at-McDonalds and ended with a universal living wage for humans?

Unless I'm imagining it, it seems extra-topical today.
posted by rokusan at 5:47 AM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


I think the most likely outcome is The Oligarchy eventually decides there are too many people.

That's when things really get interesting.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:50 AM on May 15, 2016 [30 favorites]


This may have been in the works for years, but so has the inexorable rise of minimum wage.

Do the jobs suck? Well, maybe, but as first job experiences for unskilled teenagers, they do play a role in becoming an adult. Not that unskilled teenagers are taking those jobs, not in a lot of places, anyway, but that's another discussion.

I do see one major plus - disgruntled machines are less likely to spit in your food.

I think the most likely outcome is The Oligarchy eventually decides there are too many people.


Eh. One good epidemic will take care of that. Mother Nature knows best.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:54 AM on May 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


Zen,

This is in fact the most likely outcome.
posted by effugas at 5:54 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


Oh hello, Godwin, yes, we know but this time you're invited for tea. Have a biscuit?
posted by infini at 5:55 AM on May 15, 2016 [8 favorites]


on preview, I see I joined the choir

Another service that will soon be automated, I am sure.

I avoid the supermarket self-service machines when I can because I am so much slower than an experienced checker. I am sure the fast food ordering kiosks are the same, it is hard to be faster than telling a person "I'd like a number four, medium." The advantages would be in customization for people who don't want just a regular order, and probably being able to shift staff from the front to the kitchen.

The last time I went to Wendy's the staff were terrifically sullen and the floors were dirty. If that one location is at all representative they have management and morale issues and I could see their interest in automating.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:55 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


The Scandinavian Model and Economic Development (4 page PDF) argues that wage compression - high minimum wages combined with keeping top wages limited - is a big part of what has allowed them to combine economic justice with increasingly productive industry. Probably not politically feasible in the US, though, especially the part about limiting top wages. But still a good reminder that replacing shit jobs with robots doesn't have to be a disaster for the poor.
posted by clawsoon at 6:02 AM on May 15, 2016 [23 favorites]


Are there any specific studies or statistics that examine the number of actual jobs or workers who have been let go due to robots/automated kiosks, etc.?
posted by Fizz at 6:13 AM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Dean Baker has steadfastly argued that the idea that automation presents a threat to workers is just a smokescreen to divert attention from policies that redistribute income upward.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 6:20 AM on May 15, 2016 [20 favorites]


Manna
posted by fuse theorem at 6:20 AM on May 15, 2016 [6 favorites]


I think the most likely outcome is The Oligarchy eventually decides there are too many people.

Well, you have the wars, but in the US this will be REALLY OBVIOUS.
posted by Mezentian at 6:29 AM on May 15, 2016


Dean Baker has steadfastly argued that the idea that automation presents a threat to workers is just a smokescreen to divert attention from policies that redistribute income upward.

WhyNotBoth.gif
posted by Mezentian at 6:30 AM on May 15, 2016 [6 favorites]


How many jobs are you really able to replace with kiosks at a given establishment? Even during jam-packed periods, the CFA near me doesn't have more than 4 working the counters and 2 at the drive-thru, and at least one of them is constantly doing something to help out the kitchen. That's at the lunch-rush--you might be able to get rid of one or two of those cashiers, but not more than that.

Automats didn't eliminate the fast food employee, and neither will kiosks.

Also, McDonald's has been extremely slow to roll out kiosks to their restaurants even as cost of labor has increased. Wendy's will be no different. From their article, only 10% of their stores are corporate-owned; the rest are franchisees. The capital investment to do this remains substantial.
posted by Room 101 at 6:32 AM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


There's at least one experiment in basic income going already. Fingers crossed.
posted by emmet at 6:33 AM on May 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'm convinced that robot fast food joints aren't what the consumer wants because a good chunk of what you're paying for isn't the food, it's having somebody who is, for a short time, by definition, unarguably below you, somebody that you can abuse and give orders to and expect to be obeyed. A kiosk can get you your food- hell, it might be a better order-taker and chef than humans- but you can't degrade it, you can't point at it and teach your kid that they're better than it is, and interacting with it doesn't make you better than anybody.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:38 AM on May 15, 2016 [15 favorites]


I'll join this chorus too.

Saying the push to automation is a consequence of a rising minimum wage is just a way to shift the blame for something that was going to happen anyway onto the victims.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:41 AM on May 15, 2016 [11 favorites]


Being real, a touchscreen makes it exponentially more likely your order will be right. Phone phobia may be the main reason why younger consumers prefer to order fast food delivery via online form rather than by telephone, but I personally just like it when I get the food I wanted. So I would say this really would lead to a better experience for the customer.

If Wendy's were to frame it that way, this might go over better than would some childish "fuck U Obama!!1!" whining about a minimum wage hike. Wendy's can afford to take care of its people. If it doesn't want to, it shouldn't be in business.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:46 AM on May 15, 2016 [6 favorites]


"as first job experiences for unskilled teenagers, they do play a role in becoming an adult"

I've heard this a lot, and I'd respond that while this might have been true in the 50s and 60s, since the mid-90s at least these have been shit jobs that actually teach almost nothing. I seriously think they are a net social negative, existing in this weird de-skilled, semi-automated world where the only genuine human interactions are expected servility and the product is farm-subsidized malnutrition.

I can really only speak to first-hand experience here, but my first job was at McDonald's in a small town off a major interstate. In terms of the role it played in [my] becoming an adult, the main thing it made me realize was that working in fast food was going to teach me zero skills other than mimicking the officious obsequiousness of those unfortunates a dollar an hour up the chain from myself who toed the corporate line.

I mean, what kind of job experience is this? It's not like it's going to impress someone on a resume. This was in 1995 or 96; already we barely handled making change, we pushed a button for drinks, there were timers for everything, all of the ingredients came in vats or freezer packs . . . no becoming-an-adult-skills learned, except perhaps learning to live paycheck-to-paycheck, which I could have learned at literally any other job.

I quit after cleaning some kid's shit out of a urinal earned me a free french fry coupon.

Incidentally if there were any humanitarian impulse in the robot-boosters, shit-cleaning robots would have been the first goddamn thing out of the factory.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:03 AM on May 15, 2016 [110 favorites]


Lots of fast-food workers are adults, many of them working multiple minimum-wage jobs to get by. Assuming that they're all teenagers working their first jobs is a handy way to dismiss their grievances.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:13 AM on May 15, 2016 [62 favorites]


There are already several chains in my area with those touchscreens. I'm not sure they have fewer workers because of them. The main one is Wawa which has them for ordering deli sandwiches and they seem to have more workers than ever.

There's also some sort of "choose your own noodle bowl" place which has them.

The thing I hate about the ones at Wawa is that just when I get used to the setup for ordering my sandwich the way I like it, they add new choices to the screen and I wind up accidentally ordering guacamole on my Italian hoagie.
posted by interplanetjanet at 7:14 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


I, and a large number of my friends, refuse to use the self-checkout at the grocery store specifically because it displaces a paid worker. I would take a similar stand at Wendy's, or more likely, decide that if Wendy's doesn't feel like engaging the workforce, I don't really need to eat at Wendy's.
posted by xedrik at 7:15 AM on May 15, 2016 [5 favorites]


I assume these will be similar to the self-serve kiosks at Sheetz and Wawa? I've only used them a couple of times but they seemed like an incredibly slow way to place an order compared to looking at a wall chart and then making words come out of your mouth that convey your selection to a human-type cashier. I've got the same sense about self-serve registers in grocery stores--that they may eliminate some waiting time because there can be more of them operational but that overall it takes the average person longer to check out a small grocery order at one than it does with a good checkout clerk.

So in a place like Sheetz or Wawa where a good percentage of your store traffic isn't there to order sandwiches, it's kinda sorta ok. But consider that in a dedicated fast food establishment where they want to get your order taken AND served in a time frame of 2-3 minutes, less than minute of that is spent placing your order. And I just can't see a kiosk order system ever getting so easy to use that the average consumer can get an order placed as fast as they can with a human. It seems like you would need 2-3x more kiosks than human cashiers to keep up with a store that had a lot of traffic during the lunch rush.
posted by drlith at 7:17 AM on May 15, 2016


Do people order different (or more) items when using a touchscreen vs. talking to a cashier? I wonder if people might choose slightly healthier items/choose a diet soda/forgo adding a dessert, etc. when talking to a person instead of the cold non-judging surface of a touchscreen.
posted by downtohisturtles at 7:20 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


Do people order different (or more) items when using a touchscreen vs. talking to a cashier? I wonder if people might choose slightly healthier items/choose a diet soda/forgo adding a dessert, etc. when talking to a person instead of the cold non-judging surface of a touchscreen.

Hmm, I think it more likely that individuals would order unhealthier options when its just the kiosk/robot standing in front of you. Bender doesn't care if you order more tacos and booze. If anything Bender is more willing to join in on the indulgence.
posted by Fizz at 7:23 AM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


The factory product served at Wendy's ain't Real Food. There is absolutely no reason to patronize that company ever regardless of their attitude toward their employees. They don't care about their customers either.
posted by bukvich at 7:24 AM on May 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


Automats didn't eliminate the fast food employee, and neither will kiosks.

There wasn't really such a thing as "fast food" at the time of the automats. In some ways, automats were a harbinger of the coming of fast food. Automats can be seen as an experiment in centralized production and distribution, and not automation. If you've looked at a modern fast-food restaurant, you will have seen that the entire production line can be easily automated as just about everything has been standardized and only needs a human to pull a trigger or flip a switch.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:25 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


I tend to avoid the self checkouts at the grocery store because they freeze and fuck up and also there is no easy way to use my own bags...it thinks I've got an unpaid item and I have to get an employee to calm it down. Not yet seen automated fast food here.
posted by emjaybee at 7:42 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


A lot of the self-checkouts now ask you first, "Do you have your own bags? [push yes] Please place them in the bagging area now." Then it doesn't spend the whole transaction bitching at you because of your bags.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:44 AM on May 15, 2016 [5 favorites]


I went to a McDonald's recently and for a beverage, was directed to one of those big machine dispenser things with a touch screen (no human necessary). The ONE thing the machine was unable to produce was a glass of water (all "waters" came with some flavour or other as you always need sugar in your water amirite?).

These are great steps for me in fast food, as now, for the one or two times a year I might visit a McDonald's or Wendy's or whatever, now I won't.

Because I'm not interfacing with a machine which is unable to get me a fucking glass of water.
posted by parki at 7:45 AM on May 15, 2016 [5 favorites]


I, and a large number of my friends, refuse to use the self-checkout at the grocery store specifically because it displaces a paid worker.

A couple of stores close to me have times of day where there is no checkout staffing and the only option is the self checkout. It doesn't look ADA compliant except that presumably they would produce a person upon request if someone needed assistance.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:58 AM on May 15, 2016


I'm pretty sure that when I've used then, I've had to have a manager come over and reset the stupid automated checkout systems more often than not. Now I mostly don't go to stores that have them.
posted by octothorpe at 8:01 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


Because I'm not interfacing with a machine which is unable to get me a fucking glass of water.

I was at a Subway in small-town Alberta couple of months ago, and the machine was able to get me a glass of plain water.

...but I had to ask a human cashier how to use it.
posted by clawsoon at 8:03 AM on May 15, 2016


Part of the problem is how Wall Street values companies. Unless a company makes increasingly large profits, quarter-over-quarter, their stock price will stagnate or tank. (Just look at Apple for an extreme example.)

A huge amount of stock market money is tied up in institutional investment, which is to say, public and private pensions, 401Ks, university endowments, etc. These institutions need huge returns to pay their liabilities (and pay their investment teams, too, who take their share off the top.)

Problem is, a company can't grow forever. And when you stop being able to grow, there are only a handful of ways to juice a stock price:

1. Slash expenses (including workers, wages, and facilities)
2. Merge with another company
3. Combination of 1 and 2.
4. Pivot into a new growth field (which is expensive, risky, and likely to cause a stock slump before it works.)

In summary: the game is rigged for the super-rich and the banks.
Summary of the summary: Capitalism is a problem.
posted by SansPoint at 8:08 AM on May 15, 2016 [21 favorites]


Incidentally if there were any humanitarian impulse in the robot-boosters, shit-cleaning robots would have been the first goddamn thing out of the factory.

^This.

This is one of the reasons I can't be bothered going to fast-food restaurants. It's not just the grime, it's the dumb-ass washroom design. Why can't we design washrooms that can be cleaned effectively by reluctant teenagers, or even robots? I mean at the very least, the whole f*cking washroom (if not the floor and lower five feet) could be made out of resistant material that would allow cleaning with a pressure washer. Absolutely not! The only possible material for washroom walls is badly-installed tiles - everybody knows that. It's no wonder people kick the shit out of those places, because they're hateful.

/rant /foam
posted by sneebler at 8:10 AM on May 15, 2016 [12 favorites]


Three years ago McD put out a financial guide book for its employees. With ~$2,000 of take-home pay ($14/hr for 35 hrs/week) its largest outgo was rent expenses of $600/mo.

https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/?g=4tFt

shows since 2011 rising rents have out-paced wage-gains.

We need a new national investment in housing and mass transit on the scale of the GWB wars, to "bend the curve" down in housing and keep more money in the paycheck economy.

Put in the fucking kiosks and put the people to work in real jobs, building capital.

https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/?g=4tFz shows we could add a million construction jobs here pretty easily, more if we actually got serious about all this.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 8:18 AM on May 15, 2016 [13 favorites]



I think the most likely outcome is The Oligarchy eventually decides there are too many people.
posted by ZenMasterThis


There are various progressive, or at least morally neutral, reasons to think about population reduction achieved by voluntary means (lower birth rates, basically) as an important if slow and partial approach to adjusting to a fast-encroaching future determined by the intersection of climate change, artificial intelligence, and epidemic disease driven by antibiotic resistance.
posted by spitbull at 8:19 AM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


Heywood Mogroot III: CREEPING SOCIALISM! MASS TRANSIT IS THE FIRST STEP TO COMMUNISM!

I'm being sarcastic, of course, but it feels like the national discourse over government investment in transportation, even if it's just repairing our existing infrastructure, is demonized as wasteful government spending that the private sector should do instead.
posted by SansPoint at 8:21 AM on May 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


it's the dumb-ass washroom design

This must be the Platonic Ideal of a First World Problem. ; )
posted by spitbull at 8:21 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


Bathroom design is super-important and comes up all the time as a crucial issue for First- and Third-World public health!

(The Platonic Ideal of a First World Problem is that my double stroller pisses me off because it only has three cupholders and needs four.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:23 AM on May 15, 2016 [20 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: Bathroom design is super-important and comes up all the time as a crucial issue for First- and Third-World public health!

Seriously. Do you know how many public bathrooms New York City has? About 700 in public parks, and a handful in subway stations. There's also five pay toilets installed, and another fifteen that have been sitting in a warehouse for almost a decade.
posted by SansPoint at 8:26 AM on May 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'm just kidding, but I mean as a reason not to go into a fast food restaurant or as evidence of irrationality in the labor market. I've got nothing against well designed bathrooms, of course. But when you gotta go, you gotta go, and a McDonald's or a Wendy's is a pretty luxe version of an option along the global spectrum of places to exercise your bodily functions. (Hey, I spent years as a road musician, you ought to see the worst of the worst.)

Meant lightheartedly. Labor automation as we are discussing it in this thread is a first world problem too, almost by definition, affecting jobs that can't be offshored to the third world. I could definitely imagine a kid in India on the other end of the drive through intercom passing the order along to the local kitchen as potentially cost-efficient vs. a fully automated kiosk. I wonder if it's been tried yet . . . . it's sort of how much of radiology works these days!
posted by spitbull at 8:27 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: (The Platonic Ideal of a First World Problem is that my double stroller pisses me off because it only has three cupholders and needs four.)

The free market is the canonical solution to all canonical First World Problems.

In addition to solving the four-cupholder problem, it will also solve all of our gripes about automated kiosks.
posted by clawsoon at 8:28 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


// I could definitely imagine a kid in India on the other end of the drive through intercom passing the order along to the local kitchen as potentially cost-efficient vs. a fully automated kiosk//

Somebody, and I don't remember who, was experimenting with call centers to run the drive though lane. So the voice on the other end of the intercom wasn't in the restaurant, or even in the state. I do think the call center in this case was in the US.
posted by COD at 8:30 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


spitbull and COD: It's been done (and it was in the US).
posted by SansPoint at 8:32 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think the most likely outcome is The Oligarchy eventually decides there are too many people.

That's when things really get interesting.


Patton Oswalt has a bit on his most recent comedy special that speaks to this. It's about how, every time there is some social advancement in who gets to be president, there is something horrible that goes with it.

*We have a free trade treaty with Mexico that's going to suck millions of jobs out of the country? Get a Southern a good old boy who likes cheeseburgers and blow jobs to sell it.

*Have a secret torture program that's about to get discovered? Get a guy who likes to play cowboy and talk like John Wayne, but who's funny because he stumbles over his words and trips over himself all the time.

*You just invented flying robots that kill people? I guess we have no option but to go with "cool black guy."

At this rate, he surmised that by the time America elects a gay president we will already have Soylent Green implemented. Gay President will be all catty on TV and say, "Oh, grandma was annoying anyway! Who's hungry for some energy bars?"

And I was holding out so much hope for the Nathan Lane Administration...
posted by jonp72 at 8:36 AM on May 15, 2016 [19 favorites]


My problem with first-world washrooms is that we can afford to do better. But I'll try to keep my idealism in check for the future.
posted by sneebler at 8:50 AM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Phone phobia may be the main reason why younger consumers prefer to order fast food delivery via online form rather than by telephone.

I suppose the logical assumption from that is that they'd active prefer to avoid human staff in any kind of retail establishment too. For the Sheldon Coopers among us, face-to-face interaction with another human being is presumably even more distressing than speaking to one on the phone.
posted by Paul Slade at 8:51 AM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Paul Slade: As one of those "I'd rather avoid human staff" people, it's less the distress of interacting with another human, and more the distress of interacting with another human who's running the script. If I'm at my local bodega, where the guy rings me up, asks for money, and lets me go on my way, I can handle that.

When I'm at the chain drug store, where the cashier is required to ask me to sign up for a loyalty card, ask me to make a donation, give up my phone number, ZIP Code, and blood type, then ask paper or plastic, give me the cold, unfeeling, and barely functional self-checkout any day.
posted by SansPoint at 8:54 AM on May 15, 2016 [18 favorites]


I think the most likely outcome is The Oligarchy eventually decides there are too many people.

If by The Oligarchy, you mean intelligent Very Progressive People, then yeah. Among the places I hang dominated by progressives, such as MetaFilter, "too many people" is a pretty common declaration that pops up when prompted by the appropriate topic. Maybe the challenge is to get The Oligarchy onboard with the idea?

I hate how people are satisfied trying to convince themselves that the minimum wage can have no ill effects, and then hedge that assertion by convincing themselves that those lost jobs are shitty and should be automated anyway. "I care about those low wage workers so much, I'd rather they be jobless than suffer, as defined by me."

I don't know why people can't admit that the minimum wage is a shitty idea that exists because a better idea has yet to convince anyone. And then be surprised that a minimum wage always ends up still plenty shitty.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:57 AM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


I'm convinced that robot fast food joints aren't what the consumer wants because a good chunk of what you're paying for isn't the food, it's having somebody who is, for a short time, by definition, unarguably below you, somebody that you can abuse and give orders to and expect to be obeyed.

I... I don't know anyone who thinks this way about fast-food employees. What the consumer wants is cheap food of consistent (note that I didn't necessarily say "good") quality fast.

I have a lot more faith that I'm going to get what I want when there are fewer humans in the chain -- especially for ordering. In the credit card age, all that a cashier (at a fast food joint) does for me is translate my spoken words and enter them into a computer -- there's no reason why I couldn't do that entry myself.

Blaming this on the minimum-wage increase is dumb. But so is saying that the move to automation is some kind of apocalypse for workers.
posted by sparklemotion at 8:58 AM on May 15, 2016 [8 favorites]


I... I don't know anyone who thinks this way about fast-food employees.

get a job there and you'll be amazed at how fast they appear for you
posted by pyramid termite at 8:59 AM on May 15, 2016 [36 favorites]


Oh hello, Godwin, yes, we know but this time you're invited for tea. Have a biscuit?

How did I get pulled into this?

The first place I saw automated kiosks displacing a paid employee (apart from ATMs in banks, I guess) was about twenty years ago in movie theatres. I generally refuse to use these for the same reasons others have recounted above -- losing an actual paid job for a human. That said, I did break my boycott once: after passing by the ticket-vending kiosk, I stepped lively toward the box office. Between me and the counter, maybe twenty customers in line; behind the counter, one hapless seventeen-year-old with a coupon of some sort in one hand while he leafed through a binder of sample passes. As I watched, he got to the last page and apparently still hadn't found a match, so he looked up and swiveled his head, searching for (I suppose) a manager.

With gritted teeth, I stepped back to the automated kiosk and bought my ticket.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:01 AM on May 15, 2016


I... I don't know anyone who thinks this way about fast-food employees.

One of the hardest things to keep in the front of my head (and I still fail - often) is that other people's lives aren't constrained by the extent of my experiences.
posted by Mooski at 9:02 AM on May 15, 2016 [10 favorites]


They should change their name to McSwiney's.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:06 AM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


I... I don't know anyone who thinks this way about fast-food employees.

Get a job where you interact with the public- not other companies, or members of the same firm, people with accountability and who can be disciplined for being an asshole, but just random-ass members of the public- and you'll pretty swiftly come to the realization that "aggressive psychopath" is a shockingly common personality the second a lot of people comprehend themselves as having any sort of power over you.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:14 AM on May 15, 2016 [38 favorites]


This all has a really easy solution. Automate the shit jobs, rev up the Public Works Administration again, and put people to work fixing crumbling bridges and shit at a living wage. I don't know if "bridge fixer" is a better job than fast food worker - it's certainly gotta be more dangerous - but it's going to teach you something and add value to society.

There's a million reasons this probably won't happen, but there's no reason it can't. There are tons and tons of potential jobs out there that can't be automated (or are too expensive to); we just need the will to create them.
posted by AFABulous at 9:27 AM on May 15, 2016 [16 favorites]


I tend to avoid the self checkouts at the grocery store because they freeze and fuck up and also there is no easy way to use my own bags...it thinks I've got an unpaid item and I have to get an employee to calm it down. Not yet seen automated fast food here.

Baggin after paying is how i deal with this. I scan and stack the groceries, pay and then put the groceries in my bags. Once you pay the scales don't matter. The only issue is that you may be marginally slower (unless you are at CVS where you will finish before your eight foot long receipt prints out)
posted by srboisvert at 9:32 AM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


AFABulous I agree, and see exactly where you're coming from. Problem is, bridge-building and repair is a skilled trade. You can't just grab some guy off the street, hand 'em tools and say "get going" without a ton of safety and liability issues.

We need to start putting a value on skilled trades in the US again. Manual labor, even the kind that results in shiny new buildings, is painfully undervalued in the United States. Even as someone who is a (mostly) happy desk-jockey, I'd love to see more vocational education for people, instead of people screaming "YOU SHOULD HAVE GOTTEN A STEM DEGREE" at people struggling for decent work.
posted by SansPoint at 9:33 AM on May 15, 2016 [9 favorites]


In addition to the same rising wave of 'order from iPad' sushi restaurants everywhere, there are innumerate sit-down restaurants, usually of the assorted-things-in-noodle-soup variety, all over Japan, at which all ordering is done on a vending machine at the entrance. Make your selections on the way in via push-buttons, insert money or card, receive tickets. Give tickets to waitress and sit down. Food arrives later.

These is all with old-school, 1970's-looking tech, and since Japan is seriously pro-full-employment, I doubt it was designed to reduce the size of the human workforce. I think it's all about the food-workers not handling money in any way, but I stand to be corrected on that.
posted by rokusan at 9:42 AM on May 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


a better idea has yet to convince anyone

Oh, dear. You think that a capitalist can be persuaded to hand over "his" money to other people by the force of good ideas?
posted by praemunire at 9:42 AM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


Bring it on; less menial shitwork = more time to devote to the things that matter. The costs of labour should be high enough to reflect that they are the price of the finite hours of a short-lived social being.

Of course, we'd have to first overcome millennia of indoctrination about the majority of humans being bovine peasants and/or TV-dependent dullards whose lives would be wasted were it not for menial labour.
posted by acb at 9:43 AM on May 15, 2016 [7 favorites]


I think the most likely outcome is The Oligarchy eventually decides there are too many people. -- zenmasterthis

Something something "Kissinger", something something "depopulate Africa."
posted by rokusan at 9:43 AM on May 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


All these comments and only one mention of Obama. I supported him for election but if you'd asked me 8 years ago, I thought his legacy was going to be grappling with (and starting to solve!) issues like this. How can we get people at risk of job displacement educated for the jobs of the 21st century when they presently need every minimum-wage shift they can get, just to make ends meet? Remember "Change"?

Fast food is so easy to make... I'd happily buy mine from a co-op where employees are supported in getting educated with skills needed for good, available jobs--and profits go towards their education rather than into the pockets of some rich person. Forget needing to boost fast-food profits quarter over quarter; Wendy's doesn't need to exist. And we consumers don't need the fast-food formula to be innovated upon, unless that innovation leads us back towards more natural food. It's the perfect sort of industry for a co-op whose goal is something other than corporate profit. I don't know if that's a good idea, but Obama has had 8 years and lots of smart people to help him work on this problem!
posted by mantecol at 9:47 AM on May 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


Fourteen cans of soup at a self-checkout:

"please scan item"
I scan
"place item in bagging area"
Kiosk thinks for a while
"please scan item"
-- repeat 14 times.

Fourteen cans of soup with a human checker:

Checker types in 14@, then scans one can, I pay and am done.

I'd be OK with systems I've heard about, where you scan items as you put them in your cart, there is no scale, and there are no checkout lines at all.
posted by yesster at 9:49 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


I... I don't know anyone who thinks this way about fast-food employees.
get a job there and you'll be amazed at how fast they appear for you

Get a job where you interact with the public- not other companies, or members of the same firm, people with accountability and who can be disciplined for being an asshole, but just random-ass members of the public- and you'll pretty swiftly come to the realization that "aggressive psychopath" is a shockingly common personality the second a lot of people comprehend themselves as having any sort of power over you.

etc...


The comment I was replying to stated:
a good chunk of what you're paying for isn't the food, it's having somebody who is, for a short time, by definition, unarguably below you, somebody that you can abuse and give orders to and expect to be obeyed.
As in, people, at fast food joints, are paying to have someone to abuse. And I don't think that's true. It's obviously true that some people are really shitty to fast food employees (and, really any employee that can be looked at as providing a service role). But, I truly don't believe that anyone (at least the types of folks who eat fast food -- I can't speak for 1%-er brain) is consciously, or unconsciously looking to feel superior to someone as part of the transaction. I mean, there's an entitlement mindset (I'm paying for this so I should get what I want), but that applies regardless of how the service is being provided.

So yeah, some people look down on, abuse, and expect to be obeyed by, fast food workers. But I don't think that that's "a good chunk of what [they] are paying for." Which is why more automation isn't going to kill off demand for fast food (absent the follow-on effects that have been discussed re:, for e.g., not having enough consumers because nobody has jobs).
posted by sparklemotion at 9:51 AM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


Sure, things will go along fine, until just one cute blonde girl, aged oh say, 9 gets e coli from a provable defect in the robotic temperature sensor and her "meat" is under done and a recall of the equipment for review stops the restaurant chain dead in the water for 6 months and NOBODY ever eats there again.

Robotics is fine for jobs that crush people and that's about it.
posted by Freedomboy at 10:08 AM on May 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


So yeah, some people look down on, abuse, and expect to be obeyed by, fast food workers. But I don't think that that's "a good chunk of what [they] are paying for." Which is why more automation isn't going to kill off demand for fast food (absent the follow-on effects that have been discussed re:, for e.g., not having enough consumers because nobody has jobs).

It wouldn't be something people would consciously look for. It would be a feeling, part of the restaurant "experience," that je ne sais quoi that makes the consumer choose one restaurant over another when their stomach starts rumbling.
posted by mantecol at 10:08 AM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Robo-tills at the checkout are already taking over supermarkets here in the UK, to a point where many branches make them your only option. I refuse to use the bloody things, partly because I don't like them, and partly because the people (mostly women) they displace have so few other job opportunities to fall back on.

Same here. Since Home Depot is mostly self check out I usually just go to Lowes instead. If I do go to Home Depot I go to the contractor check out where they have a person.
posted by bongo_x at 10:10 AM on May 15, 2016


Eyebrows, yes they do say that but then when I do they switch to REMOVE ITEM and WAIT FOR CASHIER ASSISTANCE
posted by emjaybee at 10:19 AM on May 15, 2016


All these comments and only one mention of Obama. I supported him for election but if you'd asked me 8 years ago, I thought his legacy was going to be grappling with (and starting to solve!) issues like this.

I view the ACA as precisely a first step towards this kind of thing.
posted by migurski at 10:30 AM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]




We have kiosks at the McDonald's upstreet from me, and I've never seen anyone use them. I'm somewhat tempted because you get to design burgers and whatnot, but have decided that the millions of dollars they've spent designing a Big Mac is probably money well-spent and I don't need to be mucking around with it.

I guess that feature - "you get to design it!" is one of those things where something has been "gamified" to hide the fact that it is a piece of labor that is being passed on to you, when at its base, you're eating out so someone else will be doing the work.

It's like the self-checkouts (which I despise - I always fondly remember the checkout ladies when I was grocery shopping with my mom or dad, and the big cylinder of produce codes they could spin around to find the code for broccoli or whatever) which are just frustrating and awful. It's not Enhancing Customer Joy by Offering Choices, it's transferring work to the customer.
posted by the uncomplicated soups of my childhood at 10:33 AM on May 15, 2016 [6 favorites]


2N2222: "I hate how people are satisfied trying to convince themselves that the minimum wage can have no ill effects"

I don't think that it has no ill effect but it's obvious no minimum wage is worse. Companies even with minimum wage manage to game the system to pay no wage at all to many employees. Really I'm surprised they don't charge for internships.

I'm a little surprised at all the hate for self serve checkouts. Maybe it's social anxiety but I love the self serve checkouts. Do you all use full serve gas stations exclusively?
posted by Mitheral at 10:45 AM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


it is a piece of labor that is being passed on to you, when at its base, you're eating out so someone else will be doing the work.

Is it though? Grocery self-checkouts are different, because at least a grocery cashier legit does something with the product. All that fast food cashiers do is transcribe the order that you are giving them into a computer... how is it more work to enter the order directly into the computer as opposed to telling it to someone (and then monitoring the display, if they give you one) to make sure that the someone got it right?

It's interesting to see the universal hate here for the grocery self-checkouts. When you're buying 14 cans of soup, or a bunch of produce that they probably have the codes memorized for, then yeah, cashiers seem better. But when I'm doing a small run and don't have anything overly bulky/complicated, the self-checkout option is obviously superior. Ditto with Home Depot -- when I'm making my 3rd trip to the hardware store on a weekend, I don't need to stand in line and interact with a human to pay for my single tube of caulk and extra paintbrush.
posted by sparklemotion at 10:52 AM on May 15, 2016 [5 favorites]


If that one location is at all representative they have management and morale issues and I could see their interest in automating.

Reinforcing loop. Their interest in telling their workers "fuck you, I only have you until I figure out how not to" sure doesn't engender team spirit and confident customer-service-over-self-protection.
posted by ctmf at 10:55 AM on May 15, 2016


I'm a little surprised at all the hate for self serve checkouts. Maybe it's social anxiety but I love the self serve checkouts. Do you all use full serve gas stations exclusively?
My dad is a retired labor relations specialist. A union rep. The first time we saw the self checkout roll in he turned to me and said, "I refuse to do labor that will displace a worker, even if that worker is a snot nosed teenager who's just working for cigarette money." When I was a kid he wouldn't let us use self-serve gas stations until they became the only option.
posted by xyzzy at 11:00 AM on May 15, 2016 [20 favorites]


> Fourteen cans of soup at a self-checkout:

I wish there was security camera footage of Ted Cruz buying 100 cans of soup at a self-checkout*.

* Because an unfortunate human cashier would likely fail at least one of his/her SAN checks, and really, what reptoid Senator needs that kind of unwanted attention.
posted by Fiberoptic Zebroid and The Hypnagogic Jerks at 11:13 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've been seeing the checkout machines everywhere, and have been seeing the ordering machine trial runs from time to time for years in fast food. I like the concept, but the UX needs a lot of work. For anything but the most simple select transaction, I'm going to need assistance from your machine supervisor. You're counting on most people NOT needing help, so one supervisor can cover many machines.

I made a mistake, what do I do?
What if I don't want pickles?
How do I substitute a shake for my fizzy-sugar-water?

Also, your interface needs to be efficient and make some default assumptions (with a clear way to change it if I want.) The WRONG way to do it is ask me every detail as a yes/no. I'm looking at you, Kmart and Home Depot. [scan scan scan...] Do you have a whippedy doo! saver card yes/no? Do you want a receipt yes/no? Do you want your receipt emailed to you yes/no? Want to donate a dollar to whatever fucking thing yes/no? I thought this was supposed to be more convenient for me. I'm afraid to see how I input my email address with a touch pen if I want that.

I think of it as the power-user line. If I know what I'm doing and I'm pretty confident I don't need help, I take that line. If I know I'm going to do something that's probably going to require human intervention, I resent being sent to the machine, only to have to wait for the machine supervisor to help me while holding up everyone behind me. I KNEW that was going to happen, that's why I went to the manned station. (Hello, buying beer in Safeway, government-booked red passport travel in airports)
posted by ctmf at 11:16 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


"I refuse to do labor that will displace a worker, even if that worker is a snot nosed teenager who's just working for cigarette money."

I understand the sentiment, but it's quickly being replaced by a reality where fewer and fewer people can do work that will not be automated out of existence.

I'm not frightened of human work being superseded by automatons; I'm frightened of a post-scarcity world where the haves simply discard the have-nots, and I don't know of anything short of violence that will cause them to do otherwise.
posted by Mooski at 11:16 AM on May 15, 2016 [13 favorites]


You say that as if the "society" that makes these decisions includes anyone other than the 1%.

Well, that's a nice excuse to avoid looking in the mirror. Depressed minimum wage, homelessness, an oppressed underlass- all of those things require the collusion of the middle class. But it's a hell of a lot easier to rant about the wealthy Other, than look around at your neighbors.

So Wendy's is automating a crap job-agriculture and industry have been automating crap jobs for ages. Do people want to have growers go back to picking cotton by hand? Do we actually feel nostalgic for that hand labor?

The thing is, how society deals with this is up to the decisions of society in general- throwing up ones hands and hollering "1%! Capitalism! Wall Street!" is an abnegation of responsibility.
posted by happyroach at 11:18 AM on May 15, 2016 [12 favorites]


Since Home Depot is mostly self check out I usually just go to Lowes instead. If I do go to Home Depot I go to the contractor check out where they have a person.

I wonder, if you failed to scan everything could they charge you with a crime? I feel like that's what they deserve for making me work for them when I'm just trying to buy something. I had a cashier ring up a stack of hardie board for a penny each so I doubt I'd be doing any worse.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 11:32 AM on May 15, 2016


So, the job of a fast food teller is this: You say Combo 3 with a Coke. They Press the combo #3 button, and "Coke". They then (typically around here), press "Credit Card" or "Debit Card", and ask you to put your card in the machine and complete the transaction.

All they are doing is acting as a voice recognition algorithm. It is an incredibly menial job. It is not a good job for them, it is not a good task for society, and it is not good for productivity. If you want to create a job, these are not the jobs you want to create. I respect that you want to spend your money to create jobs. But you buy your furniture made offshore mostly by machine, with the remaining workers loading the machine. You buy countless stuff that has displaced *skilled* workers so you can have more stuff, and cheaper. And you draw the line at crap teller jobs?

The only problem with automating tellers is if the subsequent money savings is passed purely onto the rich. And that problems exists without automation if you let them keep degrading workers rights laws, and keep the minimum wage low; they just profit the difference. If, instead, it just lowers (or keeps low) the price of goods (and some industries are competitive enough for that to happen), you can spend your extra cash on something that creates a good job, not a crap one.
posted by Bovine Love at 11:38 AM on May 15, 2016 [24 favorites]


mantecol: All these comments and only one mention of Obama. I supported him for election but if you'd asked me 8 years ago, I thought his legacy was going to be grappling with (and starting to solve!) issues like this. How can we get people at risk of job displacement educated for the jobs of the 21st century when they presently need every minimum-wage shift they can get, just to make ends meet? Remember "Change"?

One current Republican establishment argument for itself (and obliquely against Trump) is, "Remember *Change*? We stopped that! Why would you turn against us??"
posted by clawsoon at 11:44 AM on May 15, 2016


I'm not to worried about automation causing a net loss of "jobs". (I'm not even convinced that "creating jobs" should be a thing - I can "create" hundreds of jobs, but if the thing didn't really need doing I might as well be giving away money)

We have fancy welding machines. They do a great job, top quality. Guess what, setting those machines up to work properly and hanging around in case something needs adjusting is just as skilled as the welding, plus I need rigging teams to move the machine without breaking it.
posted by ctmf at 11:46 AM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Is it though? Grocery self-checkouts are different, because at least a grocery cashier legit does something with the product. All that fast food cashiers do is transcribe the order that you are giving them into a computer... how is it more work to enter the order directly into the computer as opposed to telling it to someone (and then monitoring the display, if they give you one) to make sure that the someone got it right?

Is it an intuitive interface? Are all of those interfaces (McDonald's/Wendy's/A&W/etc.) going to be the same or do I have to relearn each one? Am I going to get frustrated if I don't know how to tell the machine to make my burger? Can the machine take requests that it doesn't know how to do? (I like BBQ sauce to dip my fries in, say)

It's not added value, at least not for the customer or frontline employees. I'm a good user of the computer machine and I still find these things frustrating.
posted by the uncomplicated soups of my childhood at 11:50 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think the most likely outcome is The Oligarchy eventually decides there are too many people

step one: take away the affordable health care that people just got so that only the wealthy survive
posted by poffin boffin at 11:54 AM on May 15, 2016 [5 favorites]


I don't need to stand in line and interact with a human to pay for my single tube of caulk and extra paintbrush.

It's worth thinking it through a little beyond your own petty convenience at that particular moment though, isn't it? Not only for the sake of the man or woman who relied on the job the self-service checkout destroyed, but also for future you. When automatic check-outs are the only option available anywhere, you may look back and find you miss human operators after all.

It's all very well to argue "These are shitty jobs anyway, so who cares", but if your only real-world alternative is no job at all, then losing that shitty job is still a disaster for you and your family. And, as someone pointed out up-thread, even in fast-food joints, many employees are grown adults with children to feed. That's all the more true when it comes to other retail outlets.
posted by Paul Slade at 12:07 PM on May 15, 2016 [7 favorites]


Is it an intuitive interface? Are all of those interfaces (McDonald's/Wendy's/A&W/etc.) going to be the same or do I have to relearn each one?

The "human" interface is not consistent across all of these places. The combos are different, the sizes are different, some places have coke or pepsi. You can get a Baconator at Wendy's, but need to know that what you want is called a Papa Burger at A&W, etc. etc.

Nor is the "human" interface all that intuitive -- you need to look up at a display to see what you want (if what you want even sells enough to merit space on the display), then turn to talk to the cashier to ask for it (remember, it's rude not to make eye contact, so please don't read off the display while you're talking). Sometimes, there's a screen where you can see how your order is being run up, but lots of times there isn't (so you won't know if the cashier heard your request for "no cheese" on the double cheeseburger -- because the menu doesn't have an entry for double hamburger).

I think that anyone who has managed to learn all of those arcane rules, can figure out how to press buttons on a screen (which, I wager will have a picture of the thing you are going to get beside the button). And for those people who can't -- there's still going to be the kiosk monitor, or whatever the name of that job is.
posted by sparklemotion at 12:10 PM on May 15, 2016


I will go out of my way to find a store that has automated tellers, rather than humans.

I also VASTLY prefer the new McDonald's self-serve kiosks. It's much easier to customize your order, or order less-known items without the cashier misunderstanding or inputing it wrong.

On a related note, McDonalds is converting its restaurants in Canadato the self-serve kiosks, and they're hiring 15,000 new employees as part of the rollout. So where's the job loss?
posted by blue_beetle at 12:15 PM on May 15, 2016 [5 favorites]


It's worth thinking it through a little beyond your own petty convenience at that particular moment though, isn't it? Not only for the sake of the man or woman who relied on the job the self-service checkout destroyed, but also for future you. When automatic check-outs are the only option available anywhere, you may look back and find you miss human operators after all.

Except that every place that I've seen that has self-checkouts ALSO has either a.) a self checkout monitor to help people who need help, or b.) actual check-out lanes with cashiers, or (most often) both. Adding the self-checkout option gives consumers another choice, which is helpful both for my "petty" convenience, and for the people who want to have assistance with checking out. Stores/restaurants aren't going to completely eliminate the people-based option until the automated option is so good as to be preferable (see, e.g. self-service/pay-at-pump gas stations).

I don't have an answer to the "jobs" issue, except that fixing the societal issue of not having enough meaningful, dignified, work that pays a living wage isn't going to happen by fighting to keep work that is non-meaningful, undignified, and pays subsistence wages.
posted by sparklemotion at 12:17 PM on May 15, 2016 [5 favorites]


"I truly don't believe that anyone (at least the types of folks who eat fast food -- I can't speak for 1%-er brain) is consciously, or unconsciously looking to feel superior to someone as part of the transaction" [emphasis mine]

I more-or-less agree with the rest of your comment, but whether you truly believe it or not, it's part of the transaction. The 'entitlement mindset' you speak of, perhaps?

"I'm not frightened of human work being superseded by automatons; I'm frightened of a post-scarcity world where the haves simply discard the have-nots, and I don't know of anything short of violence that will cause them to do otherwise."

Violence is their (the 'haves') tool, and it's an inherent part of the discarding.
posted by aspersioncast at 12:29 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


how is it more work to enter the order directly into the computer as opposed to telling it to someone (and then monitoring the display, if they give you one) to make sure that the someone got it right?

For some people it's less work, but for a lot of people it's going to be more time consuming to navigate screens. The fast food cashier does the same thing all day. I'm sure they can ring up a cheeseburger no pickles extra onions with their eyes closed. Meanwhile, a kiosk user has to find the cheeseburger button, then the pickles yes/no button, and the x2 onions button. It's not a huge time difference but I can definitely see it adding up. There's a reason they limit the items in the self-checkout line at the grocery store; it's always slower when people do it themselves.
posted by AFABulous at 12:33 PM on May 15, 2016


it's always slower when people do it themselves.

But maybe, for the consumer who chooses the kiosk, the added time is a worthwhile tradeoff for not having to engage in the emotional labor of interacting with a cashier and monitoring the cashier to ensure that the order was entered correctly.
posted by sparklemotion at 12:38 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


I totally agree with you sparklemotion and I usually use the self-checkout. But in aggregate, it's less efficient.
posted by AFABulous at 12:44 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Those machines will break all the time, and will need constant maintenance, repair, and replacement. Guess who's gonna do all that shit? Humans.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:46 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


(Also someone's gonna have to wipe the ketchup off the screen every few minutes.)
posted by Sys Rq at 12:48 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Well, not at Wendy's, from my experience there.
posted by ctmf at 12:52 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


If you say "great, those are terrible jobs, they should go away," you better fucking have a plan for the people that are getting pushed out of them other than a shrug and a "welp, guess they starve or go homeless, oh well!"
posted by emjaybee at 12:52 PM on May 15, 2016 [7 favorites]


[Wendy's] should change their name to McSwiney's. -- Confess, Fletch

I don't usually go for fast-food breakfast, but that Bacon and Dave McEggers is delicious.
posted by rokusan at 12:52 PM on May 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


Every place that I've seen that has self-checkouts ALSO has either a.) a self checkout monitor to help people who need help, or b.) actual check-out lanes with cashiers, or (most often) both.

Yeah, but how long's that going to last? I can already think of at least two biggish supermarket branches in central London - one a Tesco, one a Sainsbury - where their remaining human check-outs are often left completely unmanned. I dare say they did have a self checkout monitor such as the one you describe, but as I prefer to avoid the self checkouts altogether, that was irrelevant for me.

The only staff I recall seeing in either store on those occasions are the one or two people serving at the cigarette counter (who can't weigh stuff if you try to pay for your groceries there) and a single security guard by the door. I guess there must have been a few shelf-stackers beavering away too.

Incidentally, I didn't mean to imply that your convenience is any more or less petty than my own - just that standing in a queue for an extra five minutes really isn't that big a deal when one considers the wider issues involved.
posted by Paul Slade at 1:07 PM on May 15, 2016


The power dynamic thing with food service / cashier workers is interesting because my perception is the opposite. I don't feel like I have power over the waiter or cashier. The person that can spit in my food, drop it on the ground and still serve it to me, etc. has a lot of power over me for the small time we are transacting. They can literally fuck with my food. What can I do to them if they don't do something to me first? Very little, actually.

Then again, my mother was a waitress / bartender for many of the years I was growing up, so maybe I'm just predisposed by training to have more respect for service workers.
posted by COD at 1:10 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


//The first place I saw automated kiosks displacing a paid employee (apart from ATMs in banks, I guess) //

Did they though? I remember back in the late 90s the talk of bank branches ceasing to exist. My perception is that there are way, way more bank branches staffed by people today than there was when I was a kid or young adult. I avoid them like the plague though, because every interaction with a Wells Fargo employee involves me parrying 8 sales pitches for other banking products.
posted by COD at 1:13 PM on May 15, 2016


As in, people, at fast food joints, are paying to have someone to abuse. And I don't think that's true.

i worked with the public for 20 years - i don't have to think about it, i know, and furthermore there were times when people flat out TOLD me i was there to take their abuse

you have no idea - you just don't
posted by pyramid termite at 1:26 PM on May 15, 2016 [10 favorites]


a good chunk of what you're paying for isn't the food, it's having somebody who is, for a short time, by definition, unarguably below you, somebody that you can abuse and give orders to and expect to be obeyed.

I previously worked at McDonald's for over a year and boy howdy did it make me learn that people are terrible and I never want a career dealing with the general public. But this statement is rediculous. You may encounter a dick every once in a while (on average 1 a shift I would say) but people in general are polite and don't give you any trouble. People don't want someone to abuse, they want food.

I would say you do encounter more dicks as a server, it is probably a combination of people being literally served and also people who think they deserve to be served are going to self-select more often to places with servers.
posted by LizBoBiz at 1:28 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


Our current (US) economy is based on consuming stuff. Buy more stuff. Buy stuff for your lawn. Buy clothes. Buy stuff to store your stuff. Pay to have old stuff removed. Buy the cheapest possible stuff, but buy stuff. Buy horrible cheap fast food that wrecks your health. Buy it in bigger portions.

It could be Buy education. Buy experience. Buy culture.

I have too much stuff, at least in part because I hate waste and end up keeping too much stuff. I have worked in fast food; it's a job, but seldom a job with much satisfaction. My current corporate job tries to gussy itself up as having meaning in lieu of better pay.

I hate self-service. I love it when someone else pumps the gas, especially in winter in Maine. The self-checkout beeps and hectors me. I have to put my purse down *somewhere* screw off if I put it on your surface. Yes, I will pay more. I will pay more for food if workers can have a decent wage. I will be a loyal customer if you treat workers fairly.
posted by theora55 at 2:15 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


It seems like such a weird line to draw in the sand about losing all these fast food/store checkout jobs.
What about all the actual skilled and slightly higher paid workers that have lost their jobs of the last decades?

Way to make a stand about not using a kiosk, but what about buying cheaper stuff that is made in a robot factory? Only care to take a stand when it just costs you an extra 5 minute wait in line and not any actual cash?
posted by Iax at 2:25 PM on May 15, 2016 [5 favorites]


yes, what a shame that it is totally impossible to care about two things at once. for example the one permitted thing that i have chosen to care about is indigenous language death in the americas so literally everything else on earth is okay with me, including poverty and murder.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:36 PM on May 15, 2016 [19 favorites]


I've heard this a lot, and I'd respond that while this might have been true in the 50s and 60s, since the mid-90s at least these have been shit jobs that actually teach almost nothing....

I mean, what kind of job experience is this? It's not like it's going to impress someone on a resume.


I hire a lot of college students to fix Linux servers. The non-traditional students with previous work experience are great: sure, they they work more hours in general, but they also show up when they say they will, actually have the documentation they need to prove they can work (Id + SSN Card, or similar), and they generally understand the workplace dynamics of working with customers. They're dependable.

The ones without experience are a crapshoot. I have to train them on things like clocking in / out honestly (instead of filling out their monthly time card in one go at the end of the month), to have them call in sick when they can't make a shift they scheduled for themselves, to actually respond to customers when working on things, and to collaborate with the rest of the employees by asking questions, documenting stuff they're working on, and ask supervisors for additional tasks. Sometimes you get someone who naturally fits the role, but sometimes you get people who come into the office at midnight and start asking me questions on IRC while they're working, because setting normal business hours hadn't occurred to me as a thing I'd need to do.

It's true, the things that make flipping burgers or taking different than any other job aren't very portable. Almost by definition. But there's some fairly soft skills that can be acquired. I'd be happy if our hiring pools had more people who'd been through the basics of employee-dom before they apply with to work for us. And the reality is that higher minimum wages isn't likely to produce more.
posted by pwnguin at 2:43 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


I don't spend money at fast food places. First of all you get the feeling that because they are cheap, you can do it more often. Not really, it is more like doing it to yourself. I buy local whenever possible, I frequent places where I can plainly see employees are treated well, and I tip well. I love automated checkout, there is always a helper employee to make things work. I think automated checkout better serves people who are in a hurry, between obligations, while thinking and planning. Oregon, for a long time had no self serve gasoline stations. I am not sure if they still do that.

But, we are part of an awful and wonderful species. Just today I was talking with someone about how we as a group take advantage when we can, whether it is a dime or a billion. People serve their needs first, then their group, whether it is family, religious or political group. People who have a great deal of money, generally speaking did not get that by considerations for the welfare of others.

David Koch had a clinic right where the Ebola plague broke out. Those Liberians and Sierra Leone folks are farming on top of diamonds, and minerals. I don't think minimum wage or automation is an issue in Africa, no, the powers that be, have them slaughtering each other right and left. Now we have Zika to clear out the pesky rain forest people of South America, who are holding up agriculture, water dams, and whatever mining is in the wings. This is hell, with pretty clouds and amazing bio-diversity. They have been working on how to make money without us, so where is us gonna go?
posted by Oyéah at 2:59 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


I have been dealing with some order-takers who are supposedly more highly skilled and (I hope) more highly paid. They are selling building products at the lumber yard and supposedly we need them because they know more than we do. Probably they even do! But frankly after choosing the windows I wanted, explaining what I wanted to the window ordering guy, and then spending two months going back and forth, proofreading window orders and never getting a list that was correct, I longed for a computer kiosk to do this. If the window company would take orders online, I'd have been on their website in a heartbeat, even if it cost more that way.

But the fast food people, I try to be kinder. They have a shitty job and mostly seem to be doing their best. When I get a surly one I cheer inwardly because that means the economy is improving. I haven't met nearly enough surly fast food workers over the last ten or fifteen years.

I was kind to the windows order guy for a while, too. But it turned out that the only way to get him to listen and do his job, was to put on a show of having a huge snit. I should not be forced to perform emotional labor in the form of tantrums, to order windows. I want to buy them with MONEY, rather than with tears and screams and threats.
posted by elizilla at 3:01 PM on May 15, 2016


But the fast food people, I try to be kinder. They have a shitty job and mostly seem to be doing their best. When I get a surly one I cheer inwardly

So does David Mitchell.
posted by Paul Slade at 3:35 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


elizilla: Probably they even do! But frankly after choosing the windows I wanted, explaining what I wanted to the window ordering guy, and then spending two months going back and forth, proofreading window orders and never getting a list that was correct, I longed for a computer kiosk to do this.

If it helps, guys I work with have had exactly the same experience, multiple times, with the professional sales division of a major computer manufacturer, even though and even when we've filled out exactly the specifications we've wanted on their website. I suspect that there's a step in the process where a human has to manually enter the order into another system, and that's where it all goes wrong. Inevitably.
posted by clawsoon at 4:01 PM on May 15, 2016


Basically if they could simply turn each one of us into a kiosk we'd be all set.

Is what I'm hearing anyway.
posted by spitbull at 4:06 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


it's always slower when people do it themselves.

there'll be "an app for that"
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 4:19 PM on May 15, 2016


Basically if they could simply turn each one of us into a kiosk we'd be all set.

I think I'd be a very helpful kiosk, maybe one in a park or something, where you could order breadcrumbs to feed the ducks. It wouldn't be the worst life.
posted by the uncomplicated soups of my childhood at 4:56 PM on May 15, 2016 [16 favorites]


There's a McDonalds on 6th off 14th that has something like this, they had much more interesting options that the usual menu board so I tried to use it, but it only took credit cards, but i wanted to pay cash, so I ordered the same burger options from the counterperson. It was tasty.

Make of this what you will.
posted by jonmc at 5:05 PM on May 15, 2016


The biggest wage inflation in American coporations has been at the top. They should replace the CEO and VPs with a kiosk.
posted by eye of newt at 5:09 PM on May 15, 2016 [14 favorites]


I see more unkindness in a week of Metafilter comments than I suffered in my entire time working fast food. And Metafilter is a nice place. And as a customer, I can see how rude other customers are and they're almost always decent. When someone is a jerk, everyone else rolls their eyes and the next customer in line says something kind to the cashier about it half the time. Bringing this up to counter the idea that people are so awful and also to say that I learned a lot about working with coworkers and customers when I had that job, and though I learned more from the other minimum-wage jobs I had, I'm thankful for all my early employment experiences.
posted by michaelh at 5:37 PM on May 15, 2016 [8 favorites]


jonmc, that particular McDonald's is famous for drug dealing.

Now there is a kiosk I can get in front of.
posted by spitbull at 5:40 PM on May 15, 2016


I think I'd be a very helpful kiosk

I'm sure you would. Me, I'd be an ornery kiosk prone to cynical pronouncements, so I'd wind up on a subway platform or airport parking lot or something horrid like that, pure drudgery, no scenery, everyone who interacted with me in a bad mood before we started.

I am taken back to my youthful days as a professional top 40/rock/country musician, where what got you paid was sounding just like the records on the radio. We used to refer to ourselves as "human jukeboxes," playing the same songs night after night with little to no variation (except when we made up filthy lyrics and slipped them in and the like). I suppose winding up as a jukebox kiosk would not be the worst fate for a musician.
posted by spitbull at 5:44 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've got seventeen submenus but they're all about breadcrumbs. Don't worry, I left you a trail.

Little bit of kiosk humor for you there, consumer.

Have you seen our ducks this year? Wonderful plumage. Not like last year, not at all. Terrible menace. One lady got a severe

*ERROR 61 BREADCRUMB NOT FOUND ABORT/RETRY/FAIL*

posted by the uncomplicated soups of my childhood at 6:09 PM on May 15, 2016 [7 favorites]


I'm afraid I'd be some unspeakably weird kiosk, probably in Tokyo.

Please wipe off the kiosk after you have completed. Arigato gozaimasu!
posted by rokusan at 6:33 PM on May 15, 2016 [5 favorites]


that particular McDonald's is famous for drug dealing.

Are there any McD's in NYC that aren't famous for drug dealing?
posted by praemunire at 6:34 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


GLaDOS: The Kiosk
posted by indubitable at 7:02 PM on May 15, 2016


jonmc, that particular McDonald's is famous for drug dealing.

I've only ever used it to grab a burger for the subway or take a quick piss, myself, but thanks for the tip.
posted by jonmc at 7:05 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


the uncomplicated soups of my childhood: "Is it an intuitive interface? Are all of those interfaces (McDonald's/Wendy's/A&W/etc.) going to be the same or do I have to relearn each one? Am I going to get frustrated if I don't know how to tell the machine to make my burger? Can the machine take requests that it doesn't know how to do? (I like BBQ sauce to dip my fries in, say) "

90% of people order the same thing every time they come in. 90% of those order a straight meal or combo. It's possible that one of the benefits of kiosks to fast food places are discouraging the 10% of customers who aren't ordering normal items. Getting rid of expensive customers is a good way to help the bottom line.

Paul Slade: "just that standing in a queue for an extra five minutes really isn't that big a deal when one considers the wider issues involved."

If 1 in 3 Americans saves five minutes a week collectively they save 374K days a year not waiting on line. Heck each 1 in 3 saves 4.3 hours a year. Over their life time they'll have wasted a couple of weeks.
posted by Mitheral at 9:04 PM on May 15, 2016


I'm genuinely surprised at the pushback at automation. Do you guys feel the same way about atms replacing tellers? Email replacing the post? Vending machines etc? In an unremarkable society, innovation, productivity improvements and development is always happening. This has been the case for hundreds of years both in an economic and hegelian sense. Shifts in skills demand and the labour pool are a normal part of this.

Wendy's used a shitty right wing justification, sure. And crappy America lacks the infrastructure to support disenfranchised menial workers, definitely. Neither of those things has anything to do with automation.

Productivity is important in our global, and yes, capitalist, world economy. But it helps people, not hurts them.
posted by smoke at 12:03 AM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


Me, I'd be an ornery kiosk prone to cynical pronouncements, so I'd wind up on a subway platform or airport parking lot or something horrid like that, pure drudgery, no scenery

"The first million years were the worst. And then the second million, they were even worse. It was all downhill from there."
-- Marvin the Paranoid Android (paraphrased)
posted by Diag at 3:15 AM on May 16, 2016 [2 favorites]


I love the conceit that you can just replace all the low-wage workers with robots, and blammo, the invisible hand of capitalism has once again defeated the dread spectre of socialism! It's not like you'd need to have people on site to handle the inevitable barrage of problems users have with kiosks that were designed by the lowest bidder, or to handle tasks that don't automate well (who's refilling the hamburger buns in the BurgerMatic5000? I'm guessing it's not the RefillErator2000).

I just got back from visiting my sister, who works for the WHO in Geneva. Switzerland has a living wage, so hiring someone costs the equivalent of just over $21/hour. The McDonalds we walked past does indeed have a dining room full of kiosks... and behind that, a kitchen full of workers preparing the food, runners bringing it to the kiosks, and managers overseeing the workers. Probably fewer staff than they would have at an American one, but not appreciably so. This jives with what I've seen at grocery store self-checkouts, where for every three cashiers you remove from scanning groceries, you need to add two back to handle the constant torrent of "Price mismatch. Help is on the way," and keep two extra lanes open because customers are a lot slower than cashiers at finding PLU codes for arugula.

Granted, the Big Mac Value Meal at the Geneva McDonalds is $18. But that's consistent with the prices of every major chain I saw... and wildly more expensive than the donner kebab we got down the street at a little family-owned place with no kiosks.
posted by Mayor West at 5:10 AM on May 16, 2016 [4 favorites]


Any job with well defined, routine, tasks will be automated out of existence in the coming years. The jobs that are a little more unstructured will start to go soon too. There's a computer that beat one the world's best Go players the other day. Chess computers have been beating humans for years now. Taxi drivers, truck drivers and couriers will be gone by the end of the 2020's. Anyone whose job is reviewing large datasets, like a researcher, or a paralegal, will go the same way. I run an IT department and I feel like I've been automating parts of my job away for years. I plan to work another 20 years before retiring, but I don't know if there's going to be a market for my skills that long.
posted by IanMorr at 2:25 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


"It's true, the things that make flipping burgers or taking different than any other job aren't very portable. Almost by definition. But there's some fairly soft skills that can be acquired. I'd be happy if our hiring pools had more people who'd been through the basics of employee-dom before they apply with to work for us. And the reality is that higher minimum wages isn't likely to produce more."

This is the boss's logic, and I don't find it super-compelling.

First part boils down to "I'd be happy if other people had already trained our employee pool by the time they applied to us." Herein lies a longstanding cliché for hopeless job-seekers - "you gotta have experience to get experience."

Why shouldn't someone's first job experience, the one where they learn those "soft skills," be as a college kid setting up linux servers? I assume they're getting paid a lot less than an actual sysadmin. Maybe that's not the world we live in, and those fast food jobs are really the only place people are going to learn those soft skills. To me that sounds like a shit deal, and I think we should try to make it better, instead of just farming out soft skills training to low-wage, automate-able diabetes-vendors.

Second part - Um sure, I guess? Not sure that's a net good; see response to first part.
posted by aspersioncast at 3:43 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


The one thing I will say for McDonald's specifically and probably fast food in general is that they will hire ANYONE. I worked with a population of people who had a hard time getting ANY kind of work at all due to mental illness, extreme poverty, criminal history, etc. And the local McDonald's hired several of them no questions asked. Most places, including locally owned businesses would pre-judge these people and never consider giving them work. Now, they would also quickly fire them if it turned out they couldn't do the job or didn't show up or whatever. But they seemed to always give people a chance. So, you know, there's some good there. Because having SOME work experience is better than nothing but being in jail or whatever.

Personally I can't imagine that having ordering kiosks is going to actually eliminate many workers because someone is still going to have to deal with the angry people who don't know how to work the kiosks and get the wrong order and can't blame the cashier.
posted by threeturtles at 11:08 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


Why shouldn't someone's first job experience, the one where they learn those "soft skills,"
be as a college kid setting up linux servers?


To me that sounds like a shit deal, and I think we should try to make it better

Look its not a shit deal for a teenager.* The people who need those soft skills are people who have never had a job before, which is usually a teenager. Its not an awesome life-changing career, but its not a bad way to learn those skills. People should be learning them (and be able to fuck up before there are serious consequences) when they are teenagers and have their parents to fall back on, not once they're out of college and depend on the job to survive. If we are talking about an economy in which people are forced to do fast food work in order to be able to inadequately survive, no one is going to hire a college kid to set up servers, they're going to hire professionals and probably overqualified ones who are having trouble finding work in other places.

McDonalds jobs suck. But when you're a teenager, you learn to come into work on time, how to work on a team, how to perform a task that is given, how to perform emotional labor for customers. Hopefully they also learn not to trust that management has their best interests, proper boundaries between a boss and subordinate, and what rights they do have as workers.

Automation is not the problem. The lack of decently paid unskilled labor, lack of training for skilled labor, lack of education funding, lack of healthcare, lack of worker protections, all the things wrong with the labor market. Those things cause something like automation to have a bigger impact than it should.

*I totally understand that minimum wage fast food work IS as shit deal when you're trying to raise a family, working 2+ jobs, barely scraping by. I also totally understand that the majority of those earning minimum wage are not teenagers. That is not a good strategy for long-term health of our economy and the quality of life of our people.
posted by LizBoBiz at 6:05 AM on May 17, 2016


Honestly, if you're a capitalist and act like automation only makes sense for dodging wage hikes, you're not very good at capitalism. And if your restaurant can't exist without paying your employees a livable wage, why does your business have a bigger right to exist than your employees' right to earn a living?
posted by mccarty.tim at 10:45 AM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


Eye of newt, do you want an AI that creates millions of shell corporations in a terrifying fractal tree? Because that's what you'll get.
posted by mccarty.tim at 10:50 AM on May 17, 2016


". . . those big machine dispenser things with a touch screen . . .

In my experience these are a giant bottleneck. For one thing, only one person can use them at a time, so if someone is slow/indecisive/wants to try every goddamn flavor/vision impaired, they can grind the whole operation to a halt.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:19 AM on May 24, 2016


mcarrty.tim wrote: Honestly, if you're a capitalist and act like automation only makes sense for dodging wage hikes, you're not very good at capitalism.

Indeed, a slightly more interesting argument I've run across recently suggests the assumption that automation replaces labor isn't always correct. I'm sure there's cases where it is, but I'm interested to see how the data & experiments go on this one.

The basic idea is simple. If you and I each have a factory where workers produce 100 widgets an hour, and I purchase better equipment for my factory, improving productivity to 110 widgets per hour. I now have a choice: I can fire some fraction of my workforce and pocket the profits, or I could lower my price a smidge, and not only attract all your customers, but new customers previously priced out of the market. It's not a given which of these scenarios is more profitable. If moving the factory towards the lower price, more orders scenario is more profitable than layoffs, then you can end up in a situation where automation leads to more employment.

And if your restaurant can't exist without paying your employees a livable wage, why does your business have a bigger right to exist than your employees' right to earn a living?

I don't think this is quite the rhetorical question you think it is. Presumably workers with a hypothetical thin margin employer are choosing the optimal employer for their circumstances. Closing down the employer just limits their options by removing their best choice, and seems unlikely to actually improve their lot.

aspersioncast wrote: Why shouldn't someone's first job experience, the one where they learn those "soft skills," be as a college kid setting up linux servers? I assume they're getting paid a lot less than an actual sysadmin.

The reality is that for many students, it is. Sure, I could set up stronger pipelines to recruit from helpdesks. But we had 30 applicants in the fall for three positions. I don't set up any sort of 'previous work' screen. But it's bitten me in various ways:

1. literally soliciting the sale of drugs to coworkers
2. coming into the office at midnight and pinging me with questions on IRC
3. entering timeclock hours for the past month all at once the day before payday
4. disappearing for months without saying a word (drug rehab?)
5. lying to a customer about the cause of an outage to save face
6. surprise family vacations
7. taking 50 percent of the open tickets, completing half of them, but leave them open and provide no comment to the customer or coworkers regarding the state
8. hiding a favored graphic novel inside the textbook we asked you to study to familiarize yourself with a client's problem domain
9. leaving your social security card required for I-9 forms in another state
10. sleeping in and missing a scheduled recurring 10am meeting

Every lecture (or police report) I have to give about the above topics is one I'm not giving about HAProxy, RAID6 syndrome calculations or OpenStack deployment. There's plenty of training going on. But Oregon minimum wages are going up about 50 percent over the next few years, and one way to compensate for corresponding budget shortfalls might be to start hiring more productive people out of the gate.
posted by pwnguin at 12:41 AM on May 28, 2016


octothorpe: "I'm pretty sure that when I've used then, I've had to have a manager come over and reset the stupid automated checkout systems more often than not. Now I mostly don't go to stores that have them."

I was in a hurry today with a handful of item and foolishly used the self-checkout at the Giant Eagle and once again it freaked out and popped up a modal on the screen saying "Please wait for a store associate" and flashing the overhead light until someone came over and reset the damn thing. I said that the screen didn't even say what I'd done wrong and she just rolled her eyes and said that it doesn't like people.
posted by octothorpe at 7:04 PM on May 30, 2016


Fourteen cans of soup at a self-checkout:

"please scan item"
I scan
"place item in bagging area"
Kiosk thinks for a while
"please scan item"
-- repeat 14 times.

Fourteen cans of soup with a human checker:

Checker types in 14@, then scans one can, I pay and am done.


You shop at stores with better-trained cashiers than the ones I encounter, then. In my experience, very few people scanning items at checkout seem to have stumbled onto this, which suggests that either (a) they believe every can of soup/box of breakfast cereal/loaf of bread ever packaged has an absolutely unique bar code, or (b) they have never troubled their heads about it.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:48 PM on June 5, 2016


Well, there's also, like ... It's just a lot easier for the cashier to scan things individually with the single-motion scan-n-move maneuver 14 times than to count how many cans of soup there are and make sure they're all the same kind of soup and all that. They've still gotta get the cans from the one conveyor belt to the other, and scanning them while doing so doesn't slow anything down, whereas stopping to count and type does. So the cashier is even more more efficient than self-checkout when they don't do the count and type thing.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:01 PM on June 5, 2016


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