I’m in Chicago at my Mom’s place for Christmas, and over dinner last night we were talking about Race Against the Machine and the steady pace of automation (because what else do I talk about these days?). She and her husband Gene told me that the Walgreens in their neighborhood didn’t have any human cashiers any more.
I told them they must be mistaken. I’ve seen plenty of self-checkout stations, but they’ve always been accompanied by at least one human cashier to accommodate customers who for whatever reason — unfamiliarity, techno-fear, the desire to chat, whatever — don’t want to deal with a machine. I assumed the same would be true at this Walgreens. Mom and Gene were adamant that it was 100% self-checkout, so we got bundled up and walked over to get the straight dope.
They were right and I was wrong. There are six NCR self-checkout kiosks at the entrance / exit, and no cashiers at all there. There are human cashiers at the photo lab and the pharmacy and customers can take their purchases to these two locations if they want, but at the main checkout area you can’t get rung up by a person any more.
This goes back to something I wrote about a month ago. The tendency in the free market is for labor to become of an increasingly higher order. Note that this is not an immutable economic law so much as an ex post observation. There is no reason to believe that this trend will continue, save for the purpose of thought experiments.
At any rate, the historical trend demonstrates two things. First, as intellectual capital increases, humans have a tendency to mechanize labor. The cotton gin and mechanical harvester are early examples, and the robotic assembly line and aforementioned cashier are more recent examples. The problem with machines, though, is that for all of their advantages they still aren’t perfect. They generally need maintenance of some sort and occasionally fail. Fixing machines, for the time being, requires human involvement.
This problem is generally solved first by increasing pay for those skilled at maintaining and repairing machines and then eventually simplifying the operation and maintenance of said machines so as to tap into unskilled labor (which the machines initially replaced). Basically, then, machines are a net benefit in the long run because they enable humans to capitalize on a broad set of intellectual capital via higher order labor. As such, one need not be a Luddite for economic reasons, as the market generally does a good job of solving the problem of labor displacement.