If anyone’s looking round for a symbol of modern capitalism, I can think of nothing better to suggest than self-service checkout machines. With their robotic pseudo-friendliness and meaningless recorded “thank you”, they sum up a society in which people exist simply as consumers for the benefit of faceless corporations. Allowing large companies to lay off staff, they require customers to do a job for which they are not paid with tools that do not work.
Both the absurdity and inhumanity of self-service checkouts are regularly on display at WH Smith’s in Euston station. Usually, a harassed-looking member of staff is spending much of the time helping customers to use the machines. But – presumably because of the machines’ existence – the staff member has to work there on his or her own. If Smith’s got rid of the machines, and employed more staff, the workers would be less stressed and the customers would be served more quickly.
The term “Luddite” has come to mean someone who is against technology, but this is unfair. When the Luddites were active two hundred years ago, they campaigned only against the use of technology for purposes that were socially and economically harmful. Let’s take our inspiration from them. Unlike them, we don’t all need to risk imprisonment and death. But we can refuse to use self-service checkout machines.