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TODAY

Monday, November 20

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Detour

Technology advances. Things are lost. These are givens and often lamented. But rather than talking about "Metropolis" or Henry Ford now, I'll instead take an opportunity to laud one of my favorite manual labors. Mopping is a quirky task. First, there's the selection of the mop. The range, from the traditional cotton looped janitor's or a Michael Graves-designed sponge, is staggering. And I eschew them all in favor of a scrub brush, bucket and my knees. I love the meditative swirl of the brush as I make tight circles, the smell of Murphy's Oil Soap thick in my head. The hands-and-knees method is arduous, but it's the method that gives the best result and the most satisfaction. It's not for everyone, sure, and other methods give plenty of shine. This past weekend I went to the supermarket and was introduced to a new system for shopping. It's shiny for sure, but I'm not quite convinced it's for me.

My favorite Dominick's squares off across the street from my favorite Jewel at Roscoe and Western, like heavyweights with just the street to keep them from each other's throats. We pulled into Jewel's parking lot, avoiding Dominick's hurt eyes. A food fair targeting Hispanic customers had been set up in the heart of the lot. The center of the festival was an empty stage studded with powerful speakers blaring painfully loud music. The top of the stage was capped by a giant soccer ball. It was gorgeous and perplexing and totally surprising. We wove through the crowd and towards the store.

Our first breath of AC kicked right in the solar plexus. After we regained our footing, we saw the display of plastic guns and the words "fast" "new" and "future."

The future? Oh, yes. I want to join the party. Please take me! I want to learn more.

08182003_rack.jpg

Fig1. Scanning guns all ready to go.

The young clerk who explained the process was barely out of high school, but would have done well as a carnival barker, salesman, or PR flak. The store is testing a new "scan-as-you-go" technology and would we like to try? He swiped our Preferred Customer card, we filled out a form, and he led us over to the four-side display laden with scanner guns. We scanned our card again and one of the holders glowed bright. The clerk grabbed the gun in a hand wearing a very large class ring and twirled it like a six-shooter.

"It's like that game Duck Hunt," he said. "You just point the gun at the bar code on each item and pull the trigger. The price and quantity will show up on the screen." He showed us the gun's display. Buttons allow you to delete or edit items you've scanned and it keeps track of the price as you go. "When you're done shopping, just go to one of the self-checkout aisles and pay. Then you're done." I shy from gadgetry, but I am a sucker for efficiency.

Scanning regular items is child's play, but produce presents a challenge. He took us to the produce section and showed us how to deal with nature's lack of barcodes. A lemon, the juiciest, shiniest lemon ever, waited on a scale with digital display and keypad. "See this sticker?" he said, pointing at a dime-sized white sticker on the fruit. "It's got a code and when you come over here to weigh something, just punch the code in. Then the computer will print out a bar code. You scan that and then bag up your produce." We smiled and nodded as if in a haze. The future is shiny. The future is clean!

We gingerly took the scanner from him and started discussing the process as soon as the clerk was out of earshot.

"This process, it will save Jewel in labor costs."

"That guy just trained me how to do his job."

"Is this right?"

But we roamed through the artfully lit produce section anyway, the smell of the in-store Starbucks filling our nostrils. As we weighed fruit and scanned bags of salad, we felt terribly modern and noticed the awed gazes of our fellow shoppers. That's right, we are fearless users of this new technology and should be feared! We shot items all over the store, but it was far from hunting. Items simply surrendered. Shampoo fell like Belgium.

08182003_scan.jpg

Fig2. The basil goes down in a blaze of glory.

We purchased alcohol, a self-checkout don't. The point of the technology is that it is faster than the line, but the process is slowed down when a clerk has to come to your aisle and check your ID. The gun does not like these restricted items either; we scanned a six-pack of Hornsby's and it made this "game over" sound. The verboten cider huddled in the corner of the basket until we got to the checkout.

We aimed the gun at a bar code by the register and the list of our purchases immediately appeared on screen, complete with Jewel card discounts. A pleasant woman's voice guided us through bagging, but then we scanned our alcohol. A red light began rotating and a man's voice boomed, "Forbidden item." This stern daddy voice sounded until a nearby attendant checked our IDs and punched in a code. The woman's voice came back and shepherded us through paying.

And within twenty minutes we were back outside, heading to the car. After silent anesthetized shopping, we warmed slowly back into reality. The soccer ball stage was still empty and still blaring out music. People were crowded around a booth and kids bubbled around with new helium balloons tied around their wrists. It looked fun and alive and I stared at it for a minute after we closed the back of the station wagon. We drove off, leaving both the music and the technology behind us.

Scan-as-you-go was fun, I must admit. It gave us a sense of empowerment but no actual power. The process wasn't cheaper than the line. It was faster, yes. But it's the human element I missed. The clerks constantly complain about their jobs at the Jewel in my neighborhood. As an avid eavesdropper, their candor is as appealing as the food I buy there. It's this refrain that sounds in my head during the walk home, not a soothing digital tune. I like peeking into other shoppers' baskets for either ideas or mockery. I enjoy being called sweetie. And at the produce market I frequent, everything's ripe and gorgeous, musty and mysterious. What computer will call you sweetie? And even if it could, its voice would lack the light and shade of a besmocked clerk.

I guess it's not so much the new technology I still feel strange about where it's being employed. Supermarkets already remove so much humanity from food. It's wrapped in plastic, waxed or boxed. It's so cold you can't smell anything. I'm learning how to cook from scratch. I finally understand what I've heard home and professional cooks intone - "Food is a spiritual thing." Food is fuel, emotion, salve, and so much more. And the vastness of a supermarket isn't so much a cathedral as a warehouse. Personally, I like wandering the grocery store, reading boxes, smelling items, poking stuff. When we shopped with the scanner gun, we grabbed, shot, and moved on.

Maybe it's not smart to take all humanity away from food. Maybe it's kind of creepy to wander a store with a laser gun. Or maybe it's just the future.

 

About the Author(s)

Shylo Bisnett prefers doing things manually at Use Your Hands.

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