Tech & The Web

Over-Dependence on Computers Only Bites Us All in the End

A self-checkout terminal at a retail storeDeposit Photos

A fast food giant suffered a major outage and retailers are being robbed blind. Blame their over-dependence on computers.

You can’t escape one big fact of 21st century life: computers run the world. There was a time we expected computers would help us run it. But thanks to our ever-growing over-dependence on computers, the “help” is quickly taking over.

No, I’m not talking about artificial intelligence. I hate to even think what that’ll look like when we rely too heavily on that. I think there’s still enough fear about AI to keep that from happening for a little while.

I’m talking about how much we rely on computers for everyday stuff already.

Let me give you an example

At my real job, we have a mini-studio from which we can cover breaking news without having to tie up a full production crew. The mini-studio allows an anchor to do it all by himself or herself. On paper, that’s a great idea. In practice, it’s a tough job anchoring, directing, running sound, and adding supers all at the same time. It’s tough for anyone.

This is made possible, as you can probably guess, because of a fancy computer system and software that powers it. The other day, for a couple of hours, that mini-studio was down. Engineers had to reboot what I had already rebooted. Then they had to reboot and reset a few things I didn’t even know might need a reboot. (I’m a Mac guy; my goal in life is to sit in front of the computer and just do what I need to do. The reboot/reset/tech support stuff isn’t my forte.

At one point, while hearing about an upgrade, there was talk about replacing a physical audio board that has slider bars and buttons with a computer interface incorporated into the software.

I told the engineers I thought that was a spectacularly bad idea. My engineering team, fortunately, agreed.

As I put it, sometimes life is easier when you can reach over to a physical device and press a single button. The alternative, clicking here, then clicking there, then opening a window, then clicking there, then clicking to drag down a virtual slider bar seems far more complicated to me than a single button click.

Higher tech, yes. Lower efficiency, however.

McDonald’s suffers major outage

This past week, McDonald’s suffered a system failure. This system failure was apparently big enough and seriously enough to halt operations. At some locations, people couldn’t order food!

As far as I know, McDonald’s doesn’t employ robots to fry the burgers and fries. But without a working computer system, the fry cook apparently can’t cook a burger.

Many moons ago when I worked at a Kmart store, there were occasional times when the computer system would go down. It happened very rarely. If it looked like it’d take more than a few minutes to reset, we’d have to write up receipts on long, cumbersome purchase order forms and use calculators. No one was happy. But customers were served. We didn’t close the store because the fancy-schmancy computerized cash register went offline.

I recently stopped going to my nearest McDonald’s. It’s a block from my home. But despite all sorts of computer-printed labels on the bag and on the sandwich container, and a computerized ordering system that is supposed to track exactly what you order and make sure that’s what you get, the human side at that particular location either doesn’t care or can’t read the printouts. After several times in a short span of getting the wrong order, enough was enough.

Oddly enough, a Chick-fil-A sits next door to that McDonald’s. They have all of those computer labels on everything, too. The difference is, Chick-fil-A apparently reads them.

A computer system failure shouldn’t stop a restaurant from being able to serve food. You don’t need a microchip to drop a patty on a grill or to dunk fries in a vat of oil.

Big retailers are rethinking self-checkouts

Then we heard that some major retailers are changing how they approach self-checkout systems.

Customers either really love them or really hate them. And I can tell you which is which: the customers who love them shop in stores with slow human checkers or humans who talk among themselves, ignoring the customer as if they’re merely an inconvenience. The customers who hate self-checkouts either fear computers or shop in stores where human checkers treat them like they matter.

Having worked all those years ago at a Kmart store, I learned how to quickly “scan and bag” the items when I rang people up. I can move a lot faster than the average cashier these days.

Dollar General announced it was removing self-checkout stations in many of its stores. It cited theft as a reason. When you allow shoppers to ring up their own purchases unsupervised, some actually don’t ring up everything. Well, who couldn’t have seen that revelation coming?

Walmart and Target shoppers reported some self-checkout stations were closed. Both stores say they’re taking a new look at the practice. Walmart claims it’s giving its store managers a license to experiment. Target will limit self-checkout lines to customers with 10 items or fewer. Target also says it may close self-checkout lanes periodically based on “foot traffic.”

At the nearest Target, there might be two or three lines open with a human cashier. More people will lineup for the self-checkout options. Human cashiers are invariably slower. Add to that the folks with a full buggy of items tend to go to the human checkers, which further slows down those lanes.

Even if you have more than 10 items (but fewer than, say, 20), you can almost always get through a self-checkout faster.

There’s a cause and effect at play

In both of those stores, their over-dependence on computers prompted them to open more self-checkout lines and fewer human-run lines. That meant that in some stores, there might be one or two human cashiers but six or eight self-serve lines.

Target says the self-checkout option was born out of the pandemic when shoppers wanted a “contactless” option. But the pandemic is over and yet self-checkout lanes stay popular.

If these stores expect to operate with just two human cashiers and no self-checkouts, they’ll lose customers.

Now that we’re used to being able to ring ourselves up, taking that option away means they’ll have to make the old alternative more attractive. That means having more people so the wait time less.

Otherwise, I’ll be dropping the items that takes me over the 10-option limit back on the shelves.

As for the theft problem, Walmart and Target have a supervisor present when people self-checkout. I’m sure a dishonest person could easily slip something by without scanning it. But with a human stationed right there, it would take more subterfuge. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that a store like Dollar General doesn’t have any watchful eyes.

Maybe rather than over-dependence on computers in a case like this, hiring another human just to monitor things might make the difference. That way, customers could still check out faster and the way they want, but the extra person might help protect store profits.

Computers can definitely make things better

We all like to complain about computers these days. Sometimes computers do complicate things, no matter how much they’re supposed to simplify things. But once you allow yourself or your employees to rely on computers so hard that they can’t operate without them, you’re setting yourself up for an embarrassing failure.

A classic example is making change. When I started as a cashier at Kmart, the computerized cash registers automatically figured out change when a customer paid by cash. It was convenient.

But if you knew how to do it in your head, you were so much better off. And even a computer that can tell you how much change to give back won’t count it for you. The human still has to do that.

If you’re a cashier and you couldn’t figure up change if the cash register went out, you’re in trouble.

For every function you perform at home or at work that you couldn’t do without a computer, those functions are the ones that will be your worst headaches the next time your computer crashes.

If we’re smart, we’re always looking for a way to do something the “old-fashioned” way. Sooner or later, a computer will go down…even if only for a short time.

If we allow a computer failure to paralyze us, then we’re working for them, not the other way around.

And we should be ashamed of ourselves.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

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