Rage against the machine: the trouble with self-service

From swiping groceries to printing boarding passes, companies increasingly make us do more for ourselves. But who benefits from self-service, and is the aggro worth it?

by Oliver Bennett

Buying a stamp at the post office used to be simple. You queued (and queued) and finally made it to the counter. Now, at my local branch there's a fiendish self-service machine. 'I preferred it the old way,' the frazzled clerk told me, as he corrected customers' problems. 'It took less time, was less complicated, and I could sit down.'

Well, you and me both pal - and most of the country. Recent research shows that some 60% prefer to visit a till staffed by a real person rather than one of the UK's 42,000 self-service checkouts. Rueful jokes about 'unexpected items' and 'bagging areas' permeate public life. The Daily Mail is currently running a campaign against self-service tills, harnessing all the outrage that's fit to print. It's likely to get worse. By 2017, tech research consultancy Gartner reckons that two-thirds of 'customer service interactions' will occur without human-to-human contact. The key problem is that it makes us do the heavy lifting, which is why American academic Craig Lambert has just published a book on the subject called Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day. 'I define shadow work as the unpaid jobs that we're all doing: not just in supermarkets, but also in schools, hospitals, tax offices, airlines; pretty well everywhere,' says Lambert. 'They used to be done by employees. Now they're done by us.'

Lambert's eureka moment came at his local supermarket. 'So, it's 2011 and I'm waiting in line,' he explains. 'I see an attorney that I know is on $300,000 plus. She's swiping her own groceries and getting nothing for it. Not even minimum wage.'

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