Technobile (techno-bile) – Guardian column what I've written

The first Thursday of the relaunched Guardian, and hence the first revamped Technology section, and I've got a humour column bit in it, called Technobile – although that reads to me like “Tech Nobile”, like a misspelling of mobile rather than “Techno Bile”, which is, I think, what it is supposed to be.

Anyway, I wrote a ranty piece about a battle I had in my local Sainsbury's over these new chip-and-pin cards. I was delighted btw to note this morning that the shop will be shut down from Sat 24 Sep to Fri 30 Sep for refurbishment. Maybe I can train myself to go elsewhere. It really is the most repulsive supermarket, almost entirely due to the staff. Horrible management bullying culture and a hiring policy seemingly determined to make shoppers' lives a misery.

But back to the new technology section. I like it. And I have to say the lead story “From hi-tech to my tech“, written by the section editor Richard Adams is a great piece – a sort of technology manifesto, pointing out the enormous impact technology is having on society and reminding people that fear and distrust of new technology is nothing new – and a waste of time.

This, however, is my piece (which you can also read on The Guardian website here):


Even the simplest technology tussle can turn us into monsters

It's a good job credit cards are tough or the Sainsbury's zapper-woman would have torn it in two. We were fighting, literally, on the latest technological front: chip and pin. Confident with this handier method of payment, I had tried to put my card in the slot. She was having none of it and grabbed it. Within seconds we were wrestling for control of the card, much to the bemusement of other shoppers.

In years of sitting and waving barcodes over lasered glass, she had always taken the card, inserted it and pressed the required buttons to put the cost of shopping on it.

Technology was again demeaning her. The bit of power she had, working all day for just enough to live on, was that card. Now some punter was doing it himself. She would soon be relegated to picking goods up and waving them over the glass. How long before the shopper does that, too?

Some already are. Marks and Spencer now has zap-your-own booths. But people don't really like them. I join the far shorter queue, determined to learn my way out of fights with till attendants. Cartoon pictures tell you how to press buttons and insert cards as if you are an idiot. Which, faced with unfamiliar technology, you are.

There is no doubt technology is destroying human interaction. But then, faced with the increasingly tedious nature of such interaction, is that a bad thing? The hideous “have a nice day” recorded message from the lips of junk-food sellers has been replaced by an interactive survey of mindless tedium. You buy a pint of milk. The item is zapped, the price appears on screen. Then it begins.

“Would you like help packing?” “No thanks.”
“Do you have a Nectar card?” “No.”
“Are you collecting vouchers for schools?” “No.”
“Would you like …?”
“Just give me the bloody change!”

What is this? A plan by management to drive us all toward the DIY machines so they can downsize yet more staff? Is it a rearguard action by shop assistants intent on forcing human interaction? Or have people become dysfunctional computers?

The march of the machines is inevitable. Colour screens, stupid swirling PC animations, pressing buttons, waiting for data to be sent via satellite to a computer that will recognise that last week you also bought bananas but not butter, are infuriating, even demeaning. But if it means you don't have to deal with a poor soul reduced to being a mechanical arm for eight hours a day and willing an equally miserable existence on every person that passes by, who wouldn't take the plastic and microprocessors? You never pity a machine.

So the vicious circle continues. Technology makes people miserable, sparking technology to avoid the miserable people.

I returned to the store a fortnight later and carefully avoided the woman. None the less, I couldn't help but notice she had given up grabbing people's cards. She had been bent to technology's will.

Having placed my card in the slot, put in the pin and removed the card when told to, I glanced at the broken woman and proudly thought: “I did that.” The Great Satan of technology must have roared approval.

I don't know yet whether the column will become a regular thing. Hope so.