Friday, April 27, 2007

Flying Cars

U-scan waits quietly at your local supermarket, a living symbol of societal unrest.

I like to imagine that some forgotten 1950's "World of Tomorrow" article included a story on self-checkout, and how it would someday revolutionize the way we buy things. In my mind, the article includes an elaborate drawing of happy customers zipping though "payment pods" while a single employee conducts their purchases from his trusty "hover-dome". Everyone in this picture is wearing shiny, silver clothes and the hover-dome appears to be steam-powered.

Fast-forward to a few years ago, and I can see the same picture made into sliding points of an executive's presentation:

-Increase customer satisfaction by providing faster checkout for low-item purchases
-Raise profits though cost-efficient use of personnel
-Embiggened consumer awareness toward shiny pants

Words like "wifi", "secure-id", and "HD-ready" would be sprinkled in there, too.

I wonder about that executive and his giant list of securito-tech-fi sentence fragments. And I wonder about that 1950's magazine artist drawing little armies of future-happy-white-people. And I wonder what they'd each have to say about the idiot in front of me in line right now.

At least I think he's ahead of me in line. It's hard to tell. See, he's pushed his shopping cart so that it's perfectly side-on to the U-scan aisle, just far enough that the front of it partially blocks the "Stop here and wait" graphic on the floor. And he's turned away so he can browse the tabloid rack, which is why I can't see if he's even looking for an open U-scan register, or just idly standing there. So there's no way to determine if he's even a part of this whole "line" thing, or if he's just really that interested in Ben Affleck. Either way, he doesn't seem to care that he's causing a societal roadblock. This, apparently, is the person who's been buying "Us Weekly".

But even Mr. Side-on isn't quite as bad as the guy who has formed his own line at U-scan station number 1. What's his problem anyway? Is it that he doesn't understand the idea of one line feeding into four registers? Did he think the rest of us were waiting for something else? I'd hate to believe that he just figured no one would call him on jumping ahead. Ah well, the joke's on him anyway. While I'm next in line for any of the other three registers, he's waiting behind a woman who doesn't seem to have bought anything, anywhere, ever before. She keeps looking at the register in an exasperated "why are you doing this to me?" way. It's such an abundantly emotional reaction toward a piece of technology that I can almost hear her complaining about "the internets" as soon as she gets home.

Technology, as a study, is defined as "the application of tools to solve problems." It's a good definition, but I think it downplays the roll that people play in the technology equation. Tools don't get applied on their own. For a tool to be used, there has to be a user. That human element, the implied applier, makes technology a more fundamentally humanistic study than most people would ever imagine.

Consider your cell phone. It seems like a tool that solves a problem, the problem of transmitting audio remotely. But that's not exactly true. Making a device that simply "transmits audio remotely" would be easy to do. It wouldn't require that the device be small, or have an address book (plus a memory chip to store the entries), or a back-lit display, or a call-timer. Those features are all dedicated to the user experience. Most of the cell phone in your pocket, it's resources, power, design, and interface, are focused on you and the tool, not the tool and the problem. The closer you look at technology, the more you realize that it's about people more than anything else.

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