A Little More Conversation

AYAZ MANJI wants you to ditch the self-checkout machine.

Ayaz Manji conversation fraud nectar points Sainsbury's self-checkout

Turning up to your supervisor’s office only to find it infested with bees is never the ideal start to a Friday evening. He reassured me that they were in fact pretty smart and would generally find their way to the window with a little guidance. After an hour of having to catch and dispose of them while criticising the role of functional explanation in Marx’s account of ideology, you start to feel a little bit like you’re taking part in a particularly surreal Japanese game show. I probably shouldn’t have found it too surprising then that we spent the last ten minutes or so talking about automated self-checkout machines. He felt guilty about being served by bored and tired looking people. I was a lot more worried about the machines.

In fairness I’d always been sceptical. Anyone who’s ever heard ten of those machines sing a dissonant round of ‘unexpected item in bagging area’ is probably more than aware of their Doctor Who villain potential. But there’s something deeper than that. Isn’t it weird how easily we transitioned into being able to do a whole weekly shop without even encountering another person?

Last year about half an hour before his exam, a friend stopped to stock up at the Sainsbury’s on Sidney Street. Without thinking he punched in ‘9’ when the machine asked him how many bags he’d brought from home. It’s hard to blame someone when there’s that much nectar up for grabs. For all I know he was well on his way to a free ticket to Madam Tussauds or half a toaster. But he got caught. By a real life human person who wanted to let him know that what he was doing was fraud. Granted, nectar fraud isn’t the worst of crimes, but it embarrassed him enough to send him sidling away from the bad situation in mock dismay.

I don’t think the fact that we try and get away with things when we’re anonymous is even really the point here. It’s that we’re starting to shop in a way that cuts out the need for anyone else to be involved. There’s money and there are products and that’s the transaction, that’s what’s going on. And if we see the world like that then of course it makes sense to go for the machine rather than the person. But we’d be missing out on so much.

Some people like to call it social capital but I don’t think it needs to be that abstracted. It’s just conversation. The last time I took my suit to the dry-cleaners I ended up spending twenty minutes talking to the guy about his son in Australia and how proud of him he was. Sure I probably didn’t have that twenty minutes to spend but it actually felt meaningful to be there listening to someone who wanted to talk. We’re living in a society where people are feeling increasingly alienated and alone and there’s something inherently satisfying about that little burst of conversation which brings you out of the bubble and your bubble. When you’re caught up in the latest essay crisis or friendship drama or just generally overwhelmed it can be nice to be reminded that there are other real people out there with real lives. Not revolutionary, but nice.

So maybe next time it’s worth choosing the human option. It probably won’t take any longer, it gives you someone to bitch about the rising price of Freddos to and it might just make you feel that little bit better about the world.