What I think of Self-Service Checkouts

Want your shopping trip to feeld empowering? Want it to take more time than it’s worth? Don’t like looking at people? Use the self-service checkouts at your local supermarket.

There’s this snazzy term banging around the scene of useless academic pursuits known as posthumanism, basically describing a possible dystopian period where everything that defines a human – free will, thinking, social animal etc – will come to an end by way of technoloigcal, pharmaceutical enhancement. To correct a common misconception, rather than describing what the world will be like post human, or after human, this part of the biosciences/philosophy actually aims to work out what life for humans will be like post humanism, or after humanism, the loss of humanist values.

Well we do still wonder exactly whether we have all of those ‘humanist’ elements anyway, for example how much of our ethical compass’ are determined not by free will but by ones environs. Perhaps posthuman society already exists, albeit post. Donna Haraway’s classic example of the cyborg, mediated by technology, that disavowals its Edenic origins, her notion is that as soon as tools replace flesh, the cyborg is coming into being. So her theory delves deeper into the philosophical appropriateness of humanism than the posthumanists such as Nick Bostrom. In other words the hardwiring of the brain (David Chalmers), the ability to download a completed version of the human body onto a computer (N. Katharine Hayles), and the transcendence of the human (Robert Pepperill) are all late, possibly non-existent stages in the end of humanism, but the cyborg denotes that even the replacement of the Rousseauian utopia with industrial villiages, corporate gardens and robotic landscapes are examples of the absence of humanism.

In enterprise, it is clear how they might utilise properties of the posthuman, hypertechnological to increase growth. Cutting out labour value by employing automata to do the legwork (trade unionism has ensured that, though unemployment is a necessary characteristic of the capitalist economy functioning perfectly, a nation’s workforce are not reduced to automata) not only secures growth, it potentially eleviates the value of labour based on labour time used.

Is this not the case with self-service checkouts? For a row of 6 of these “capitalist inconveniences” takes only 1 overlooking worker, a loss of 5 forces of labour power, thereby slashing labour costs. A large supermarket – lets say the one next to central middlesex hospital in North West London, the name of which we shall call SADA for purposes of anonymity – can have up to 12 of these, reducing labour power from 12 to just 2, a saving of £57.30 an hour, based on minimum wages of £5.73. That’s a saving of around £458 a day based on an 8-hour shift, £3,206 a week, £12,824 a month, and £153,888 a year. If the supermarket had any backbone, they’d destroy the self-service checkout and replace it with jobs, for the technology might be exciting, but full employment must not be sidelined, and since our, and other countries, have chosen this lot to secure employment, useless measures such as this, that serve little more than to make shopping slower, and reduce employment possibilities, should be scrapped, detroyed, binned, put to sleep, shelved, bye-bye.

The self-service checkout stands as a kind of microcosm of capitalist economics anyway, the brutal pursuit of profit and growth that disregards full employment, reduces the remit of trade unions (since robots are not yet unionised, and the AITUC is a distant fantasy) and is a smack in the face to the kind of economic plan Clem Attlee had for keeping employment and public services afloat in times of desparate economic misery. Furthmore, it is at once a game of techno-fascist muscle, and a concerted effort to make redundant an entire workforce, namely the McJob workers, or unskilled labourers.

Supermarkets don’t create jobs, they reduce jobs, they replace technology with the workforce, they hold automata in higher regard than a loyal human workforce, and they view growth as labour-saving, and unlike Thatcher, who also tried to reduce the industrial workforce without ever giving them any other employment options (though arguably this was the genesis of the McJob, that took from a share of the newly unemployed skilled worker, and the unskilled worker fit for the McJob) these most unphilanthropic of managers remain faceless, invisable, unaccountable.

Other anarchist and leftist blogs request a boycott of the self-service checkout. I say go further, steal one, organise twenty of your mates, and mates’ mates, and go in to an SADA and steal one, take it to a nearby marshland, douse it in petrol and set fire to it.