Saturday, December 29, 2012

New and Improved

I have arrived now in Adelaide to spend some time with my parents, my sister and her family. My sister, her husband and I have spent a pleasant evening discussing the evils of the modern world. We have been indulging in the privilege of being grumpy old men and women. English and Australian readers will probably be familiar with the television show of the same name (more or less) in which older men and women bemoan some of the aspects of modern life. There is, indeed, a wealth of material to draw upon. Much of this centres on technological “advances” and “improvements” in life – suitably served in quotation marks, of course.

Although I indulge in this pastime light-heartedly (I do actually enjoy many of these technological advances) I think it is fair to ask whether all of the advances that are presented to us are really improvements. For example, at Melbourne airport (at least in the domestic terminal) it is now possible to check in one’s own luggage, without waiting in the normal queues. This has been the case for at least 18 months. When I was in Melbourne 18 months ago the system had been in operation for only a short time, and there were several staff members helping people to use the new system. This is understandable, as people were naturally unfamiliar with it. However, today, eighteen months later, I couldn’t help but notice that there were still several staff members assisting people. I could not quite remember how to use the system at first myself, and, in the end, although I didn’t ask for help, two staff members were kind enough to assist me through different parts of the process. Now I was happy to accept the help, but it struck me that only one person would have been required in the old, traditional system. It also occurred to me that I now had to join two queues, one to get the ticket for the bag, another to actually check the bag in. There would be a third queue if my bag was overweight and I had to go to yet another point to pay excess baggage. These queues will only grow as more people come to use the new system. So will this system, in the end, actually save anyone’s time, either that of the passengers or that of the staff? I think it is fair to say that there is reasonable doubt about the matter.

My sister was also telling me about a new self-checkout system operating in some of the supermarkets. I haven’t yet used the system myself, but on my sister’s account it is a little challenging to use, at least initially. I’m sure in time people will get used to it. But will it ultimately save time? Will it result in reduced prices? (Here, I struggle to contain my laughter.) Probably not. We, the consumers, will be paying the same, if not more, for a reduced service, while companies increase their profits. I can well imagine that checkout rage will also increase as people wait behind others who are struggling to use this new “convenience”. Every customer will soon be their own checkout operator; very convenient indeed, but for whom?

In these two examples, the store and the airline are getting us to do their work for them, while selling this to us as an improved service. Perhaps they will want us to fly the planes ourselves next? Perhaps soon we will enjoy the privilege of stocking the supermarket’s shelves for them? If these changes were also to result in financial savings for the consumer, I might be more impressed. But I don’t think one has to very cynical to believe that it will be the companies that pocket the savings (if any) not the consumers.

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