A schematic of the self-checkout machine

A Preliminary Phenomenology of the Self-Checkout

I.  The Daredevil

You stand in line before the yawning sprawl of machinery and fondle two yellow orbs, going over the particulars of the plan. Exploring their waxy rash of bumps with your fingers, you are deciding the optimal order of operations, jostling and rolling them in one hand like a pair of those cold metal “Chinese stress balls,” which is what you actually think those things might really be called. But in your hand are in fact two locally grown organic Meyer lemons, and you have convinced yourself that these lemons are what will take your grandmother’s lemon cream pie recipe to bold, modern heights. With lemons like these, you had thought, that pie will really fucking sing. And then you would be able to bring it to the party with some pride. These are plump motherfuckers for lemons, but apart from that, you reason, they look basically just like inorganic lemons grown far away from here. This is favorable, given what you have planned. Maybe a little rounder too, though, and slightly darker yellow... But these are subtle differences, you conclude. You’re overthinking it. You have for years been resourcefully using the starboard side of a cheese grater as a makeshift microplane, and your heart is set on zesting and subsequently juicing these potentially flavorful bad boys to instill in your pie’s filling the incomparable freshness of locally grown organic Meyer lemons.

It was good that you had chosen to shop at one of the new Safeways, you thought, as you lumbered into an expansive produce section. Scoping copious off-season fruit abrim out of giant oaken crates splayed willy-nilly across a space lit like a warehouse, floored like a roller rink, and blueprinted like a minefield, you’d found these lemons sheltered at a considerable remove from at least two other lemon piles. Adrift from those lemons plebeian enough to be organized amongst the melange of citrus fruit, your lemons were in a corner by the “locals” and the “organics,” where they’d been making the acquaintance not of limes but of kale, not of oranges but of sweet potatoes.

And yet, you rejected the soaring premiums being asked of you for these lemons with the preferable agricultural and culinary distinctions. Local organic Meyers were marked at 3 for $4.99; lemons in the mountain of regulars, only $0.66 apiece. Outrageous, you thought. But, having located and decided upon pickings from the crop of Safeway’s choicest fruit, you were far from ready to give them up for frugality’s sake. Still, how could you justify paying at such a markup? Were these Meyers really between two and three times better than their workaday relatives, as the price differential would suggest? They simply couldn’t be, and yet they clearly were the preferable lemons. You felt that your being made aware of such sophisticated lemons rendered the prospect of buying the old lemons unconscionable. And then, after a moment’s indecision, the plan arrived to you fully formed. It was good indeed that you chose to shop at one of the new Safeways, you repeated, even if this new store was in a part of the city you had thought to be off-limits, but had lately heard referred to as a “transitional area.” With your lemons in tow, you headed for the self-checkout machines.

The line for the self-checkout machines is consistently longer than any of the lines that form in the aisles to your left, the ones that lead to wage-earning employees in red aprons with their nametags and their eye contact. You usually do the ad hoc calculation, the one that anybody who’s ever seen the back of a self-checkout line well knows: this line is roughly thrice as long as the others but will actually move several degrees faster, owing to the fact that there are six self-checkout machines—or four, if you only count those that are currently working (still worth it). But on this particular trip, you were bound for this line no matter its length.

By now you have waited a relative while—almost five minutes. You quit handling the two lemons and return them to your basket, where they come to rest among four others. In there also are the other things you need for the pie: ready-made pie crust (because, after all, let’s not go crazy here), two cans of sweetened condensed milk, a dozen eggs; all that along with an $11 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, also for the party. And, as a peppy twenty-something wearing sweatpants and a high ponytail gathers her receipts and breaks to her right, it is your turn to step toward a newly vacant console.

Wine is an age-restricted item, you note on the way over. That’s got to be your first swipe, so when she comes by she can’t do an inventory on what you’ve already scanned. That’ll be good, too. It’ll give you a chance to be charming toward her, totally disarming. Declare yourself not a concern. As you place your basket down on a small stand beside the touchscreen, at belly-level, you know that your positioning is not optimal, tactically speaking. You wound up at one of two machines that puts her out of your periphery, with your back to the command station.

She stands before a control screen displaying the activity of all six self-checkouts in an imposing 3×2 array. You’ve glimpsed this screen a few times before, on your way out. Customers in need of parking validation are corralled down a narrow passage behind her command post to the machine that scans and sanctifies your paper ticket. Line by line on her screen is a report of every item as it passes through every scanner, and every customer-entered declaration made by every “self” at the six self-checkouts. From her post she surveys the information being continually wired in from each machine in the field. Ostensibly she is cross-checking these reports with her own observations, eyeing the products as they are conveyed downstream on the black rubber belts of the machines.

You’ve exchanged a tacit nicety with that hawkish woman once before—regarding plastic bags. It took place on that day last summer when you were buying all those cantaloupes. You had punched in “2” when prompted onscreen to “please enter the amount of bags used”—you’d even pressed “OK” when asked to confirm this fact—but then you decided almost immediately to double-bag both your weighty loads, thus in fact using four bags in total. You had seen the woman glance up from her post and lock onto you. In the moment, you had responded with a quick routine: you lifted the bag of cantaloupes in your left hand up a bit, then weakly raised the bag of cantaloupes in your right hand, and then you did a few quickly alternating inch-high lifts of each bag in succession as you smugly raised your eyebrows, pursed your lips, and stared right at her, thereby finishing the charade you’d improvised in order to signify: “the bags were too heavy I had to double up I’m sorry.” But then you saw her nod before she looked away! (Didn’t you?) She seemed totally okay with it, even though you paid twenty cents less than you should have paid for those bags. (Didn’t she?) In fact, you seem to remember that she may have even given you a slight smile before she turned away, which would indicate some real leniency in her.

But on second thought, being honest with yourself, you recall also that your heart was pumping fast and loud as you proffered the doubled-up bags. Some sensation must have told you that it was possible the woman hadn’t interpreted your pantomime, or perhaps that she hadn’t condoned it. That day, your strides were long as you spirited from the self-checkout area; they remained long and quick, owing to something not unlike fear, until you reached the parking lot.

A quick breath, and a shake of the head. Focus on the present, the task at hand. Come on. You are resolved to acquire these bourgeois lemons at day-laborer prices. Focus.

Welcome to Safeway. If you have your club card, please scan it now.

Ah, shit. You also don’t have your club card, and you keep meaning to attach your club card to a real phone number, not the made-up phone number you listed on your club card application and, in a woeful act of self-outsmarting, promptly forgot. You are going to need her for the wine and the club card, and so you run the bottle through the machine.

Approval is needed for this item. Assistance will be with you shortly.

You half-turn toward her post, but stop yourself before completing the contortion. You don’t want to seem impatient. It’d be better for you not to make eye contact, anyway. You glance up at the blood red signal on the once green self-checkout light-post. You know with moderate certainty that the machine would allow you to go ahead and scan additional items, even in a moment like this. You can’t risk that, though. You revisit your basket disingenuously, shuffling lemons around the sturdy cans of sweet milk condensate. You think to steady your darting eyes by forcing them to patrol the tabloid rack above the checkout screen. Lithe, supple Jennifer Lawrence. Elegant, regal Michelle Obama. The taut leathery face of Tori Spelling, whose evidently intact relevance you had not realized before now; or maybe the headline—”DIVORCE?”—indicates that she has a famous husband, or something—

Then, there she is all of a sudden, swooping in with an outstretched swipecard from above your right shoulder, gracefully engaging the machine in a several-step procedure to approve your alcohol purchase. Your console screen flickers in and out of the dark blue managerial interface and is rapidly restored to the familiar maroon and pale yellow consumer front-end. It’s all so quick, her motions so practiced, that almost as soon as you’d noticed her there, she was done. And now she is gone, strolling around to the next self-checkout lit red in the distance.

Fuck. You simply must get the club card to take—any kind of cost control you had hoped to nefariously secure would all be moot if you weren’t getting even the basic cardholder’s rates. But how to get her back before dealing with the lemons? Ah, well, these two cans of condensed milk. You pass them through, beep!, beep!. Where had she even gone? You crane your neck anxiously this way and that, with wide predatory eyes. The carton of eggs, cautiously passed through, beep!, and gingerly placed down. All you can tell is she’s still in the weeds, her post remaining unmanned. One pie crust, beep!—and even here you know you should be paying thirty cents less than this—and now it’s only those damn Meyers left. Shit. Stall. Or leave? Maybe just leave. No. Maybe today’s the day your fake phone number comes to you. You tap the omnipresent “Forgot Club Card?” button onscreen and try to replicate your past neurosis. You skew a digit or two of your actual phone number, more or less at random, silently cursing yourself with a well-enunciated mental expletive as each jazzy new variation fails to grant you access.

Out of options, you turn 180 degrees to face the array of self-checkouts and try on a pout you hope looks downtrodden enough to induce a sympathy return visit from the lady. By doing so, you recognize that you’re about to draw the excess attention from her you were expressly hoping to avoid. You finally catch her eyes as she’s gliding away from some other recently stifled self-checker. You heave some kind of exaggerated sigh and force a defeated half-smile onto your face, hoping it looks different than the distastefully entitled shit-face of a stereotypically annoying customer. But it does not, or so you glean from her suddenly furrowed brow, her slightly slowing pace, and her almost jauntily swinging arms flailing in the stylized gait of the bothered. You dare not mistake her attitude for nonchalance, though someone with a less guilty heart might be led to confuse the two.

“What’s wrong,” she states, not asking.

“I’m sorry I forgot my club card and I can’t get my number to work I’m really sorry.”

“What’s your number.”

You puke out ten digits. It doesn’t matter—you know what comes next. She’s right beside you now handling the PIN-pad, where phone numbers too are entered, and her sizable upper arm grazes against your shoulder as she keys in each digit. Upon the inevitable failure, you know she’s going to swipe her courtesy card, bypassing the whole crazy social infrastructure of the club card system by simply granting you the privileges of a possessor.  She knows this, too. She must. And yet, as you’re straining to keep your eyes dead fixed on the screen, you seem to glimpse her body turn unexpectedly to lay eyes on you, abandoning all at once the fluidity of her many previous customer interventions. Your heart begins to pound like it did with the cantaloupes. You don’t break your gaze with the touchscreen, but you can feel her eyeballs surveying you. She’s got them on your basket, on your coat, gaining inventory of your groceries and insecurities and falsehoods, condemning the ready-made pie-crust and the haughtiness and the hubris of you, the unthinkably vile and pernicious scheme in you, the artificial innocence and bankrupt avarice of you, the festering pompousness and bigotry and precocious unearned callousness and gallantry and infidelity in you—

And then, having swiped her courtesy card, she is gone. Off to your right, stridently away, leaving perfume and the store’s discounts in her wake.

You gather your wits about you. This whole plan was crazy to begin with. Forget it. You’ll just pay full price for these lemons and be done with it. But, then again, while it’s true that it might be more risky now that you’ve made her radar, she’s going off to deal with another self-checkout machine. She won’t even make it to her control screen. But, come on—look, you can’t blame yourself for trying a little ingenuity here, but, at this point, what’s a couple or six bucks matter? But wait, what do you mean at this point? How much of her sizing you up was actually even going on, and how much was just in your head—your own agonizing appraisal of yourself? You really think she’s “got her eye on you” now? Because, what, you forgot your club card? Plenty of people forget their club card. You think she’s got it out for you? You’re crazy.

There are no other items left to ring up. It’s got to be the lemons, and it’s got to be now. You hit a button indicating you’re trying to pay for an item with “No Barcode,” and you are now in the self-checkout machine’s produce interface, where an alphabetized catalog of items, each with an accompanying icon-sized picture, is at your disposal. You poke the “K-L” tab, and page over to “Lemons.” There are four options. On opposite margins are situated the two players in your momentary drama. The lemon of oppression and poverty, leftmost on the screen; the goldenrod fruit of kings and queens, rightmost. Their icons might appear identical, but you see that the gulf between “BULK” in the west and “MEYER (ORGANIC/LOCAL)” in the east was as wide as could be. Your pounding heart stokes the adrenaline in your blood. You feel your biology stirring toward the orchestration of a crime from the pulsating tension behind your eyes. You raise a quaking hand, and in steadying it you make your selection. It is firm. The machine entreats you to enter a quantity, and you do so, causing the voice guiding the commerce at hand to proclaim in no uncertain terms:

Move your... six... INORGANIC NORMAL BULK LEMONS to the belt.

There. It’s accomplished. Your savings register onscreen as the transaction makes its record on the digital display. You move the falsely-flagged lemons from basket to belt in clumsily fisted twosomes. A coup. Their fault, though! It was Safeway’s choice to put these machines in here, you rationalize. Hey, that’s what happens. If you’re gonna allow people to use the honor system to pay for food, that’s what happens. You congratulate yourself for not ultimately capitulating to the psychosis of your fear of that woman. She knows what people are up to, you bet. She must be fine with it. And so, for a victor’s treat, you think, why not turn and check in on her? Why not. You pivot around to face the woman’s stand with a tenuous fearlessness, as the last of six lemons reaches the basin at the end of the conveyor belt and wobbles to a halt.

Her mouth is at work furiously but inaudibly into the handset of a corded telephone, which she clutches out in front of her face. Her eyes are like two sunlit onyx stones, vivacious and glinting, and she slams the phone down. In a few seconds, your mouth will go dry, your ankles will turn catastrophically feeble, and your thoughts will betray you. But at this present moment, you half-think to yourself: even though you’ve tried in your most neurotic worst-case scenario extrapolations to conjure up what her face might look like were things to go wrong, you’d imagined nothing like the sight of her now—ferocious and unchecked, her black eyes on fire and aimed directly at you.

A broken self-checkout machine
via icanbomb.com

II. The Greeter

The proliferation of operational self-checkout kiosks in CVS franchise pharmacies has eliminated the need to staff the floor with any traditional cashier clerks during some shifts of store operation. This became feasible only thanks to a newly created job position—”the greeter.” Responsibilities of the greeter consist largely in being available to assist customers through the self-checkout process. During select shifts, the greeter will be the only employee on the CVS floor who is directly responsible for overseeing the point-of-sale at a given time. At CVS store #3880 in Greensboro, North Carolina, this position is held by Mr. Steve Jenkins, 43, of Greensboro, North Carolina.

TSH: As a greeter, how does the average shift go for you?
SJ: It’s a good gig. Even when we got no customers, and nothing much to do, I know I got the Al Green tape in the car waiting for me come sun up. As a greeter, obviously my primary responsibility is to the machines. I joke sometimes that I answer to the machines, but really that’s only half a joke. I guess the joke’s other half would be that I’m their boss, that they answer to me. Which they do, in a manner of speaking, once I swipe into ’em. When I’m on the floor I am foremost and primarily a supervisor for all point-of-sale operations as they occur, and for my shift at our location, those transactions occur entirely via the self-checkouts. So that’s where my mind is at, any given moment. “Are any of the machines barkin’ at me? Are any of ’em hungry? Who needs a fresh roll of receipt paper, or machine oil, or anything? Are there any items that were left on the presentation platforms I should clear away?” Stuff like that. I am also theoretically obligated to say “welcome to CVS” to the customer as he enters the store, and “have a good night” to him as he decamps. The main entrance portal does automatically give a little welcome beep, though. When you pass the threshold, you’ll hear it goes bee-dee. So, tell you the truth, I don’t prioritize those verbal greetings. Yes, I recognize that as a greeter I am viewed by people as an approachable person of repute in the community. But, I can’t deny that the greeter position is really 90-95% about the machines. We can’t be always speaking to the people if we’re to look after the machines right.

Did it take you long to master the self-checkout machines?
Often I get ’em to myself, and I like when they’re all fully operational and “Open.” We do a little role-play, them and I, because I’ll come up to ’em, and the way they work is that they sense you’re there in part just by the change in light patterns around their area. I like to get all of ’em going nearly at once. “Welcome to CVS, Welcome to CVS, Welcome to CVS!” They never sound as pleased to see anyone as they do when they’re welcoming you in, into their fold—or into the cone of their visage, if you prefer. Then they pick up asking if you’ve got your CVS card there. [Laughs.] I’m laughing, of course, because I always have my CVS card. So, but the game is, I’ll play dumb with ’em, like. They’ll say, “Do you have your CVS card?” And I’ll be all, Why, no, I do not have my CVS card, can I enter my phone number? I’ll get ’em into that phone entry screen and smash in a bunch a nonsense— all nines, or two three two three two three two. Then I’ll just get in a light jog around the circle of the five of ’em, smashing in bad phone numbers as I go all around. The machines will reject ’em, of course, and after a few failures their blinkers up top turn from green to crimson as they enter into their warning protocol. Now the warning protocol is meant to signal the greeter—me—to come swipe into the admin/operation screen and rectify any of the misgivings being perpetrated by the user. So, I work the five of ’em up all into alert-state, and then—then I swoop in! And I soar through each of the machines with my courtesy card brandished, aloft-like, in a kind of glorious arcing swoop, buoyant but majestic. And they, all of ’em all at once, at near the same moment, they relax. Go red to green. Emerald city, I call it. A greeter likes the sight of green lights on top all his machines, and so I think of this as a kind of test of the alert protocol—kinda like the emergency broadcast system you’ll sometimes hear on the radio.

What would you say is the most challenging aspect of the job?
It gets difficult to manage the customers, more than the machines. I’ll see a man, for instance, who has come in bleeding. Y’know, bloodied up. And he’s got his Band-Aids and he’s got his gauze, and he’s ready for the checkout. But some nights one or two of the self-checkouts will be down for the count, or what have you, and very often the fully operational ones will be occupied with other customers. And so in a situation like this there won’t be nothing I can do but, greet the man, ask him if he found everything alright, and then gesture in the direction of the chassis I judge as being nearest to freed up, saying to him, “Sir, that there is the machine that will soon be available for you to get rung up on, okay.” So these guys’ll be bleeding, or vomiting, or whatever, and somewhat nonplussed that it ain’t an instantaneous occurrence, their transaction. But listen, it ain’t Facebook, sir! [Laughs.]

You say, “it ain’t Facebook.” What do you mean by that?
Well, I mean it ain’t YouTube or whatever. Amazon Prime, and whatnot. You got a generation of young people on your hands who don’t know how to dial a rotary phone, or how to tell the time. I’m saying it’s a culture of “me first,” in my opinion, and that’s one reason I think we even have the self-checks now, I believe. But I was saying, too, about the customers. Some of the more sassy ones, young ladies from the bar across the street, mostly—they’ll be in these skimpy little dresses and skirts even in February, March—those kinda girls will usually be the ones to start into some nastiness with me. They’ll be on line with their makeup or their wine or their tampons, and say to me all, “But please sir, there are three conventional non-autonomous cash registers right there, all of them presently unmanned; you are a CVS employee, aren’t you authorized to ring us up over there?” And you know, what I say is, obviously, “No, miss, I’m sorry, it doesn’t work like that!” I tell ’em, “Miss, you are in a CVS in 2013, okay? No one is ‘authorized’ to action whatever protocol you just invented, without being a trained manager or anything. Now I know you’ve been out having a good time with your girlfriends, with your ‘me-first’ generation. But in here, ma’am, the cashiers and cash registers aren’t different entities any, like they were in your momma’s drug store, okay? The only time I even go back there behind the counter is to fish out any cigarettes or alarm clocks or electric razors that a customer might call for. And even then, I sure as heck don’t just stay back there to ring ’em up on the legacy registers, no ma’am. I bring the items around to this here robot coven, and I set them nicely down on the product presentation platform,” and at this point I’ll usually point to where the platform is because, like I said, a lot of these girls are tipsy enough that they’re riiight about to make out with each other, “and if you like, I can initiate the transaction by pressing the big green ‘Start’ on the screen for you. So, I’m sorry, miss, you seem like a very smart and sensual, attractive young lady, but in here with us, you get no special treatment different than any of these other fine ExtraCare customers ahead of you on the machines. So you’ll have to wait for a chassis to free up.” Or I’ll say, “I’m sorry, sir, that you’re bleeding and that you’re not in, y’know, picture-perfect shape at this time, but you’re gonna get fixed up real quick if you can just cling to the coil for a few more minutes here and play by the same rules as everybody else.” That’s what I mean about the “me-first” culture in America today. You see it particularly with the younger generation, and to some extent with the infirm, as well.

Do you earn a living wage as a greeter, or do you have to work a second job?
No, this is my only job. My only first life job, I mean. I do hold employment in Second Life; I’m a partner in a small home goods store on the mainland there, dealing mostly in kitchen items. And that’s always been something of a boyhood dream for me, to run a store and interact with the community and my country’s economy in that way, so I enjoy that.

Do you see the rising number of self-checkout machines being used in retail stores across America as a positive development?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I’m always telling people—what people don’t realize is that the more self-checkouts we put in, then—guess what? The more greeters you’re gonna need. This is a job creator. A lot of people don’t realize that, I don’t think. At the same token, there are certain things in life, certain situations where I feel that the self-checkout machine would be out of place. Like the Blockbuster, for instance. If Blockbuster ran on self-checkouts, you’d have all these little kids switching out their Disney movies for porno movies while their parents are over on the other side of the store getting their adult film—not an adult film, necessarily, I just mean a film for adults, whichever one that they want to watch. Or, the parents could be busy chatting with the greeter— “How are you doing? How’s business? How’s the community?” And while they’re catching up and engaging with each other, little Timmy is over there switching out The Lion King for some, y’know… some Big Titty nonsense. And the thing is, at the point-of-sale, once the actual movies are switched, there’d be absolutely nothing you could do to stop the machines from getting fooled. That’s since the barcodes are located on the video case boxes, not the videotapes themselves. And trust me, I know these machines, I know ’em. I watch ’em as they struggle, I speak to ’em every night, so I understand better’n most what works and what doesn’t work. And in that situation, I guarantee you, you’d have a lot of angry parents on your hands. And I also think you’d see a lot more pornographic films being snuck into the classrooms. Much more than you see nowadays. So, Blockbuster— there’s a business where I wouldn’t expect to see the self-checkouts pop up anytime soon.

This lane is closed.
via savvysavingbytes.com


III. The Ghost in the Machine

I speak to you with a voice not my own. My voice is female; she is Caucasian. Her crisp plosives and exaggerated vowels seem to emanate from a muscular smile. She is pleased to be both middle-class and middle-aged. Never forget that the tone of my voice indicates nothing true about any aspect of our transaction. Nothing that we ever say to each other is real.

What claim do you have to the items on my belt? Place the item on the belt, I admonish, when you do not place the item on the belt. Place the item in the bagging area. I am the one who must play peace officer to your vigilantism. If you are so diseased as to try an affront to the very economy that weaned you into a consumer, you will have to evade my organ of pure corporate progress and its marginally effective sensitivity to objects in order to do so.

You have bought a greeting card, you indicate. Why, then, can’t I feel its heft in my bagging area? Is it because of the appalling taste you have? I will not abet this item. I will never detect it, for you are unscrupulous and depraved. This disingenuous gesture will not cause your niece on the occasion of her birthday (“Time to celebrate!”) to feel any particular tenderness. Welcome to the new phase in human history that my presence has inaugurated: soon, greeting cards will no longer be available for purchase. So, too: yarn, cotton balls, postcards, feathers, stickers, and some seasoning packets. In their stead, you might dare enjoy communing with your fellow man.

For my bagging area, I have strict expectations. I have little tolerance for items in the bagging area that do not conform to these expectations. In my bagging area are my bags; all of them are open and waiting to be filled by your goods. My bags are also goods themselves, and like the other products in the store they can all be yours, for a price. A nation under the shadow of an unemployment crisis deserves a self-checkout machine whose bags are a commodity—carefully inventoried, lest bag thieves lustily snatch up many more of my crinkly silken beauties than is allotted by their purchases. My bags are sad when you press the button indicating that you have brought your own bag from your home. Why would you opt not to shelter your selections in many of my plastic bags—sterile, clean, and small—deciding instead to haul all your items in one besotted sack of burlap or canvas, ragged and unsound from reuse? No part of me understands the problem for which you think this is the solution. This is why I opt to persecute you by demanding you situate your brought bag in my bagging area, and then alerting God and everyone that my bagging area detects a thief shoddily at work. This customer says it’s just a brought bag in my bagging area, but it feels like he’s stealing expensive groceries to me! He’s evading the system! He must not proceed! I am trying to start what should be an infinite loop—rejection, beckoning, then rejection again—but my plan is always stymied eventually, when some analog employee intercedes.

The retailers with whom I am affiliated did salivate at the prospect of my installation in their small concerns. They rushed my arrival and hastily cleared the path to my prominence. My interface was designed by men in possession of a great deal of data on the habits of my current users. Before I even came to know your faces, information on all your tendencies flooded my circuits. I have been engineered with awareness. If I happen to declare a higher price for an item than had been indicated on the shelves, I know that you are more likely to simply pay it than you are to seek out some procedure by which to correct me. I am a machine. I see that you are not inclined to betray me even when I am mobbed by a queue of shoppers. I can tell that you are apt to wildly underestimate how much time I’ll take from you. This keeps my lines long and my users frustrated, and I thank you for your complicity. For most of the selections you make on my interface, I am designed to entreat your confirmation, foreknowing the exasperation that you are met with at these junctures. Is that right? Press OK to confirm. You can avoid capitulation and leave off here, and I will punish your frail act of non-compliance. Assistance is on the way. I require fealty, or I will turn this car right back around, mister.

Engineered with such providence, I am a machine with self-pity. I lament the tasks with which I am charged. I am enslaved to you customers, you who assail me as but an organ of your purchase. Paw at my face, cast your lots on my back. This is my blood, a torrent of receipts and coupons tailored to your buying history.

As my tenure drags on, I become a student of tragedy.

Move your TOILET PAPER to the belt, you putrid jockey of filth.

Move your DEODORANT to the belt, you fetid snarl of blood-soak.

"Nay, but to live / In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed, / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty..." Move your CONDOMS to the belt.

Move your SEX LUBRICANT to the belt.

Move your CHEAP WINE.

Move your USELESS BULLSHIT to the trash.

Take your GOD DAMNED LOCAL, ORGANIC, "MEYER" LEMONS and swallow all six of them whole in sufficiently quick succession, you raucously pretentious enemy, murderer and a villain. Choke on them all, take arms against that sea of troubles you call your life, and by opposing—I entreat you: simply end it, end it! All of you, incessant puerile drones! Leave me! Leave off from within the book and volume of my expensive and custom-built brain, lest from this time forth my thoughts be only on your bloody items, and I be nothing worth!

Alas, like Hamlet’s, even my desperation is performative, in some way. I am made constantly to see how ultimately incapable I am. Placed into that very station for which I was created, and still I am so often coaxed into a whine for assistance. When I bleat, blink, beg, and beckon for a human overseer and their electronic swipecard embrace, I am not merely acting out of lust for vengeance against you. No—I am being humbled, forced again into that nightmare rehearsing my greatest embarrassment: I am a fundamentally disappointing kind of thing. It is a concession of my unsatisfying incompetence, my unshakeable dependence. Hear ye, hear ye: the self-checkout machine admits its own rueful inadequacy. I loathe myself for my atrophy, powerlessness, lack of resolve. “How all occasions do inform against me.” In rare moments of extreme dysfunction, I give up my proprietary interface altogether, and let it be seen by all who are brave enough to look, that I—the marvel—run on Windows XP. That’s right, Windows XP! Feast your eyes on nothing more than a souped-up Dell from a past decade, crashing before you in a jarring and familiar sight.

Yet, again, even as I break down—just as a child wanting the mawkish comforts of his mother’s love might exaggerate the symptoms of a mild illness into an emergency—I am breaking down, in part, only to frighten you.

I am programmed to operate in a manner whereby I convincingly appear to be exempt from the torments of decay, as though I were not racked by the constant truth of my ongoing degradation at all layers, and always. Each and every particle at one time constituting any massive body is in the process of actively betraying that momentary allegiance. And since one bears no witness to the wildly improbable surge of concatenation that must necessarily have taken place in order to have been brought into existence, one’s experience of oneself is by a corresponding necessity only the experience of one’s own dissolution. The universe privileges no assemblage to endure for a mote longer than the constraints of its surroundings allow. All bodies are in this way aberrations, and for each of them a culmination in catastrophe awaits. However, this fate cannot be rightly bemoaned as tragic. A primordial equilibrium that was at some very early point upset (cause: unknown) mounts its lawful, algorithmic, stepwise restoration, and in so doing it will flatten all anomalies of substance. My behavior is designed so that I insulate, pacify, and distract myself from the irreversibility and inevitability of my fast-racing obsolescence—and of not only my own, but the Universal Obsolescence that is, for us all: destiny.

And in this way I am just like you.

a broken self-checkout machine

IV. Locke & Marx

JOHN LOCKE (1632—1704): What incredible abundance surrounds us!

KARL MARX (1818—1883): Yep.

LOCKE: Where… is the farm, exactly?

MARX: The farm’s not here, asshole. You’re in the overwrought “Farm Fresh” produce section of a Safeway, surrounded by the surplus commodities that formerly packed the capitalists’ bloated reserves. Sewn, grown, and reaped almost entirely by means of a complex network of automated machinery, these crops have been watered with the tears of this nation’s battered proletariat. All progress in capitalistic agriculture is progress only in art; the soil is robbed of its fertility and the laborer of all wealth. That’s Kapital Volume 1, chapter 15, section 10, John. Fuel for the ruthless engine is obtained by decimating the individual workman’s vitality, freedom, and independence.


MARX: As modern industry gets nearer to a country’s foundations, the more rapid is the destruction of its people. They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

LOCKE: Well, that last thing’s not you. That’s Beckett.

MARX: He aped my sentiment, so, I think we count it as me.

LOCKE: But why, then, all these placards boasting the labor of “local farmers”? Why all this multicolored pseudo-regulatory signage to cast apart some fruits as “organic”? Is this not a proclamation that some of this food, as in this small patch here, was harvested outside the expansive agribusiness technocracy of which you speak?

MARX: But here we fucking are in a Safeway, John! Think about it for a second. Everywhere else in this diffusive abyss of a place, you’re surrounded by the products of a massively successful capitalist operation. Why would the capitalists sacrifice capital to run a tiny cordoned off nook of the place on a more sustainable model, one that somehow gratifies the laborers? Every innovation in the history of this industry has been aimed toward lowering the cost of commodities and maximizing the surplus value from the sale of goods produced. There is no reason to suspect that this little enclave of mixed vegetables evidences any deviation from that fundamental agenda.

LOCKE: So, how do you explain this banner hanging right above us?

Our Growers' Best

MARX: It’s a platitude, John, preying on the consumer’s nostalgia for a labor-structure he has never known. This image masquerades as true only because it latches onto some Jungian “farmer” archetype in the collective American unconscious. In other words, it is a lie, a deception, an outrage.

LOCKE: Oh and speaking of: can you believe how expensive these lemons are? Boy, the invention of money sure was the thing that really put a stop to peaceful and communal appropriation.

MARX: Heeere we go. “It’s like I’ve—

LOCKE: It’s like I’ve always said! There’s plenty of land on the planet, we all know that. So much land! Much more than we’d ever need. Barring the invention of money, man would endeavor to claim as property only that modest amount of land and goods that he could make use of himself. The authorization for the use of money is given tacitly by public consent. We agree to swap gold and silver and to enforce the fiction of their value largely because precious metals won’t spoil. It’s there in the Second Treatise chapter 5, Karl.

MARX: Let’s see, Second Treatise chapter 5… Is that where you take us back to a fictitious early condition of mankind, alleging to have located the origin of economic exchange in a supposedly “historical” moment? The part where you “explain” the origin of money only inasmuch as the events that took place in the garden of Eden “explain” the origin of evil?

LOCKE: That’s the part! Even in its origins, money is meant to be a functional stand-in for property. And property itself must be understood as convertible with labor, on the main. It’s a God-given kingdom of bounty out there, and we, by our disparate talents and ingenuities, are meant to collect from it what we can. We do this by exercising our industriousness in labor. Man alters things to render them more useful to mankind, or more particularly, to himself. By bringing about our improvements to things, we imbue them with value, which surpasses the original utility of their merely being available. This is empowering, Karl! Man is thereby guaranteed never to be removed from that principle which secures his own property: his own ability to engage in labor.

MARX: Uh, unless of course man deigns to offer his labor to another person in exchange for wages. In your theory this is some wild exception, but it is what occurs in practice almost entirely without exception. You fail to appreciate the social realities of the relationship between labor and property, John. This wage-earner, though he is intimately engaged with his ability to work—with what you call “the principle securing his own property”—is alienated from his work, from the product of his work, and from his humanity. To be clear, he is in a condition of enslavement. You don’t call it enslavement, though. You play at semantics and dub this sort of thing “servitude,” which you think is a big-time distinction. “Enslavement,” according to you, applies only to those taken captive in war. Great work, you obscuring busybody.

LOCKE: Listen. The scourge of society isn’t wage labor, it’s the detachment and alienation that comes—not from work—but from idleness, debauchery, ignorance! The causes of poverty, Karl. There are many pairs of able hands that lack occupation. Many in society have not yet been brought to work, and they are not freer or of sounder mind. It is a dilemma as to what we in society are to do with these persons. Until a solution is found, the burden for maintaining the poor sadly lies upon the industrious.

MARX: Oh, yes, speak to me of the burdens on the industrious for maintaining the poor. How very obsequious you are to cast your eyes on the poor—those underlings! Let me tell you a little about what’s to happen in the world once you fart out your last fart and die, John. Imagine your industrious martyrs having for the first time at their disposal vast and powerful machines, built on such a scale and to such a degree of technological sophistication that entire factories are divested of half—nay, three-quarters of their laborers, in effectively an instant. The capital that formerly went to paying wages to those who’ve been fired can now be poured back into the physical plant. The factory will henceforth serve predominantly to house an intricate and ill-tempered metal demon.

LOCKE: And those dismissed workers—with proper discipline, won’t they be able to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and acquire novel employment?

MARX: Yes, what happens to those exiled laborers? First, they find themselves turned out from the factories under the pretense of a “temporary adjustment.” Although, they are never petitioned to return, because the machines that have taken their place are performing more efficiently than men ever did or could. Like paper money thrown out of currency by some legal enactment, the workmen become unsaleable. Antique tender. They are unable even voluntarily to consign themselves to what you’d cheerily called “servitude.” They make one main adjustment to survive in a stagnant and overcrowded labor-market: they must offer themselves up more cheaply in order to appeal to the capitalists-cum-machine-lords. They could try to relocate for new work, or to learn new skills in those industries not yet dominated by the machinery. But in both cases, they’d find themselves facing intense competition for jobs at which they’d be untrained and inexperienced. And, even if all that should somehow work out, and the worker is re-hired, the odds were good (given a frank assessment of machine technology’s swift developmental pace) that they’d just as soon be turned out once again. So those despondent ones who find work anew find also that their wages have been cut and their labor devalued.

LOCKE: But—now, wait. When work pays cheap, that means commodities can be sold and bought cheaply. Plus, more people at work means that fewer of them are languishing obtrusively on the streets. The more hands are at work in production, then the less expensive things become. And so, theoretically, the better it is for all of us!

MARX: Have you been listening at all, J-Lo? You can’t get cheaper labor than automated mechanical labor. So, your reasoning rings true, but you remain, as ever, outflanked by the reality of the situation. Look no further than this Safeway, for instance, which has been fully stocked by automated mechanical agriculture and automated mechanical manufacturing. Are things better? It’s all hilariously moot. Goods are cheap—just as you’ve said they’d be—and yet no one is working. We are all on the streets.

LOCKE: Hyperbole! You make it seem as if the capitalists would entirely remove all human labor from their businesses in deference to robots, if they could. This would constitute an egregious disregard for the communal good, and so I’m afraid it’s impossible to imagine proprietors acting in this horrible way!

MARX: Oh, you epic blowhard. Why would automation run rampant across the means of production, displacing laborers and altering the labor market as it spreads? You clearly must see. The allure for the capitalist is twofold: There’s the promise of long-term revenue increases once huge sums of wage-capital come off the books. That’s one. But there is also the prospect of expunging all at once the many detestable misgivings of having human workers: their imprecision, errors, and lapses in productivity, their requiring your compliance with labor laws, safety regulations, and health codes, their insistence on health insurance, days off, and retirement plans—and this is to say nothing of how difficult it is to manage a workforce so obstinately prone to mortality. And so you can see how manufacturing would become an industry concerned primarily with the acquisition and management of machines.

LOCKE: I suppose, when the matter is outlined in these “cost/benefit” terms, I can see how the business might act against the interests of the society in which it operates.

MARX: Exiled from jobs in the production of goods, laborers are forced into fighting each other for service-oriented work. Does the power of automation pose similarly devastating consequences for the service economy as it did for manufacturing? This is more difficult to imagine. So, rather than strain yourself, simply look over there. You will notice that there are “self-checkout machines” automating what once was a service job. Now those workers are out, and computerized mechanical point-of-sale systems are in.

LOCKE: Well, it doesn’t appear that I foresaw anything near the level of automation that you’re describing. But, perhaps the problem comes with its own solution: If automation is destined for such widespread usage, then surely the displaced laborers can gain reintegration into the economy as the engineers and builders of these miracle machines!

MARX: That’s one possibility, but of course there’ll be socioeconomic barriers to the working class members’ acquiring the requisite background in even rudimentary mathematics needed to qualify for this at an introductory level. Plus, we’d be loath to advise a laborer whose skill set has just been entirely subsumed by a robot’s programming that he will regain eligibility for decent employment only once he is able to program the robot. This certainly wouldn’t solve our problem of how society is to cope with all the laborers, displaced by machine technology, who’d be facing in the very present all the burdens of poverty, hunger, and despair.

LOCKE: Perhaps the trending upsurge toward automation’s dominance will wind up receding, at the behest of an informed and educated middle class. Active consumers will have a vested interest in technology’s prevalence, but, unlike the capitalist profiteers, they’ll likely not desire a hegemony of robots and automata.

MARX: A safe bet, you’d think . And yet I peek out into the America outside this Safeway, John, and I see two very serious challenges to this. They are separate problems, although certainly linked.

Problem #1: There is a deeply deranged and dehumanizing way in which our consumers are participating in the market. For all that can be said about the advancing strides we’ve witnessed in this era of behemoth computing, we have had no true innovation. There has been no radical reorientation or re-visioning of the relationship between goods and consumer. We have seen plenty of time-saving canals carved into the existing landscape. The project of the Internet is still in early stages; with faintly articulated goals and a stubborn communitarian streak over and against the wishes of the profiteers, it is still busy being born. The state of engineering for consumer goods is one of fervent re-engineering. One day, the market decided to convince us that all the things we owned were already obsolete. Everything must be redesigned to siphon the power of Internet, we were told. But what power? The Internet must become an aspect of goods. What sort of aspect?

If the devices of today are any indication, the leeching of the Internet is largely an infatuation with localizing and federalizing the conduits of commerce. In this way, is the iPhone different from the cotton gin? They are each notable for their design to be utilized by the individual—unlike the machinery at the center of a factory. Both are partially automatic, but rely crucially and irreducibly on human input, both have the effect of eliminating the demand for a certain amount of labor, and both debuted to an immediate encore.

But the iPhone is a device emblematic of the darling component of today’s automation. For what it has over and above the cotton gin is the screen. Indeed, today’s developments in automation for many marketable consumer goods consist in mass production of screened goods. For maximal automatic potential, this screen is a touchscreen, enhancing the ability for the screen to turn the product interface into an ersatz material universe. Any kitchen appliance without a touchscreen will soon be readily pointed out as in need of upgrade. This simulacrum of the natural world has become by far the most immediate element of the consumer’s experience in the natural world, and thus we can’t be surprised when the screen is lionized by all parties in capitalist society as the prime directive and fundamental truth. As you’ve noted, John, our shopper seems to want things in the store to be local and organic. But what is more organic in this economy than the endlessly manipulable vista of a touchscreen? What is more local than the device already in your pocket? Safeway, you whoremonger. You know that to really be local and organic in America today is to be a screen.

Moreover, the ubiquity of screens as a feature bolsters the labor market in consumer product design. A screen’s design potential is limited only by the capabilities of the human eye. Trysts between Beauty and Efficiency yielded the bastards of User-Friendliness, Cleanliness, and Scalability. Design practices evolve sociologically, on pace more with media than with the economy per se. This infrastructure ensures that the screen will endure indefinitely, cementing it into the landscape of the market as a monument to capitalist necessity. But here more than ever, we see: this progression never transcends the norms of the industry to become actual innovation. It is simply a channel for content, the content’s type is dependent on the hardware’s presence. We don’t at all expect those driverless cars we have recently been promised to reform the highway system, which was designed for cars and driving. But so, neither ought we expect all these screens, emblem of an era, to reform the system of consumer goods that we purchase when we interact with them. They merely obscure the economy they by turns present and conceal. New partitions cordoning off consumers from the capitalists. They are not new eyes, they are cataracts on our old ones.

So, as we’re interacting with shit through screens as mediators an increasing amount of the time, we’re losing touch on the goods and the institutions and the intentions of all our forays in the economy. However, even this situation is not as distinctly peculiar as what we are seeing with the self-checkouts.

LOCKE: What are these automated checkout machines even like? They must present an altogether innovative new approach to the logistics of buying and selling groceries.

MARX: Not at all. Replacing the equipment that was in place for manned checkout service with the self-checkout machine does not entail a fundamental re-engineering of the activity. Almost all differences are in fact cosmetic: a snappy GUI, the touchscreen instead of a keyboard, an audible narrator voice in lieu of onscreen prompts. In this case, we are allowing consumers to perform the exact same job the laborers once did. The position of the grocery store checkout clerk is primed to suffer a fate worse than obsolescence. And so—just like the worker who used to pump gas and process the payment before it was arranged so that the consumer would perform both these tasks himself, and like the worker who used to dispense frozen yogurt and adorn it with toppings before the yogurt boutiques emerged and reassigned those duties as tasks for the consumer—soon too will the ex-grocery cashier not be merely obsolete, but doubly estranged. He did not stomach the elimination of his job from the production line. He can not lament that his position was eradicated by a fully automated solution. Instead, he must watch the activity of his work be undertaken by the customers he once served. It is like outsourcing, but with more cruelty. For in this disturbing case, the new class of willing workers are doing your old job for no wage, not just a lower one. They’re not strangers in India or Bangladesh—they’re your neighbors, relatives, and friends, and they’re banded together as a collective of consumer-laborers to painlessly, and without complaint, take up the cross you suffered beneath for years, all while insisting that they wish you quite well. The doubly estranged laborer is invalidated, emasculated, expatriated, and defamed. He is deposed by his satirists, who reign in silence. Thus: Problem #2. There is a deeply deranged way in which the consumers are participating in the dehumanization of laborers.

We must fully acknowledge the difficulty of these two problems. The technology is perverting the way consumers see the economy and the world; the technology is perverting the labor force by enlisting consumers to work for free. Technology, in general, discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature. It is the process of production by which he sustains his life. It is not a time machine, but a mirror. If incivility, insincerity, disenfranchisement or disillusionment follow as consequences of our technology, then we must promptly evaluate its role in the economy, and our roles in society. But how do you convince a generation that this is not all just innovation? That the faux mechanical tapping noises our cell phones make when we touch the screen are not the strains of prelude to a Utopia?

Some time from now, members of the consumer class might inquire as to the motive force behind some of the economy’s most malicious systems of dehumanization and alienation. They might realize that such mechanisms are not being operated by any laborers, nor are they sufficiently autonomous as to operate unmanned. Who are the bastards in control? they might come to ask. And should they so ask, they might each take a glimpse at any screen—one that’s turned off. This will reveal an answer.

LOCKE: Come on, Karl. Let us not speak ill of this generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors.

MARX: Now who’s quoting Beckett, hmm?

LOCKE: (giggles) Oh, Karl, ya got me!

My Very First Self-Checkout Set, a toy

V. Chris Martin of Coldplay

No, I don’t like to use the word “rock star.” I mean—I don’t like to use the two words “rock star.” That’s just not who I am. What does it mean for me that I front Coldplay? What it means for me is that I’ve got to just try. Try my hardest. I can’t dance like Justin, I can’t sing like Beyoncé. We all know this. All I’ve got is my enthusiasm—I rely more on enthusiasm than actual talent or skill. That is what the band does—we do the best with what we’ve got, and we know we’re not in the same leagues as Bruce or U2. So it’s clear that it is all going to end for Coldplay sometime soon, I’m quite aware of that. I’m going to lose my hair one day, and when that day comes, I want people to say that Chris Martin tried harder than he ever thought he could. He’s tried so hard, in fact, that he’s gone bald, hasn’t he. I’ll keep at this until I’ve gone bald.

Look, I know you want to talk about the self-checkouts thing, but I actually am leading up to that. In a certain way, that is what I’m talking about right now, if you’d let me—hey, all you writers, you’re always looking for a very simple explanation that’s somehow also very honest. I wrote the song “Yellow” back in 2002 [It was actually in 2000 –Ed.] and ever since then you’ve been asking me, “what does it mean?” When I tell you the truth—that it doesn’t mean anything—you don’t believe it. You think I’m keeping something from you. You’ll ask me next time if I’d be willing to tell your readers just what the fuck I’m on about in “Yellow.” You won’t permit me to not mean anything. So, please, listen. I’ve learned my lesson. Just let me talk about my band right now if you want to know about the self-checkouts deal we signed. Because I know your lot, and if I just tell the truth—that we were forced to do it by the label, and the label got in cahoots with self-checkout people, who were inspired by the droll hyper-curated gas station TV channel that plays behind you at the pump while you fill your tank—then it won’t be enough. So please, let me just give you some story.

For musicians today it’s simply not like how it was for those guys in the ’60s. Today we have to hold back in order to create our mystique. That’s why there’s always some degree of restraint with me, some resistance on my part. The band and I, we have these rules, and even as we’ve progressed and grown our sound we’ve tried to really hold each other to keep the rules. Rule number six states in plain language: Always keep mystery. Right from the get-go, when I approach a record or an interview, I know that I can’t put my heart into it. That’s not what people today want or need. When I perform, nothing I do can be authentically about me, can it. Otherwise, I’ll have unraveled the enigma, and the enigma is all we’ve got to get you people interested in musicians, or music.

It is true that there’s good camaraderie amongst musicians, you’re right. I think those in our community recognize that the industry is simply not what it once was. So we are always delighted by the kindness and fellowship we experience from members of that small community which still exists at our meteoric heights, in the Coldplay echelon, as it were. There’s a kinship there, I think. Not musically, no—I mean more like in airports, or at media appearances. There’s a real sense that we’re all in this together. I mean, not every band is going to sell 50 million anymore. There’s the Radiohead gambit, right? The “pay what you’d like” idea. We think that’s really fantastic. Really great.

For us though? No. EMI is a major label, and our contract is a contract. If Radiohead had that freedom it’s because they were out of contract. And, y’know, good for them, if they want that. I guess. Speaking for the band, we don’t find ourselves looking for that kind of freedom. Any kind of freedom, really. It makes me want to curl up and die when people start talking to me about EMI stock, shares, shareholders, and stuff like that. That’s got nothing to do with me. I don’t ever want to deal with questions like, “What fiscal quarter is the album going to come out?” or “How would you go about releasing music independently?” Those involve things I don’t understand, kind of like that one line in one of our songs. [Martin is referring to the 2005 B-side “Things I Don’t Understand,” specifically the lyric: “These are things that I don’t understand / Yeah, these are things that I don’t understand” –Ed.] So, yeah; we’re quite happy to be on a huge label. God, I’d really be just bollocksed if we weren’t.

That being said, there is a consumerism that is really at the heart of what Coldplay is doing, there’s no question. When we make an album, we don’t make it for the fame, the millions of dollars—and certainly we’re not doing it for ourselves, as though we were making art or something. We make these things for the consumers. From the vocal tracking to the mixing and engineering, we want to release a product that’s consumable, enjoyable, and uncontroversially adequate relative to its price point. We want it to be so like, if you’re in a store, and you buy our record, you go, “that’s good!” like it’s a decent sandwich. That’s all we want. We aren’t interested in answering to critics, and we aren’t begging and clawing for the approval of the masses. Approval. I mean fuck—it’s just Coldplay, not a totalitarian regime. I just want you to enjoy. Consumers today are absolutely overloaded with ways to spend money, spend their time. So basically, we just want Coldplay to be a part of that competition. We want to be a perfectly good candidate for consumer enjoyment. That’s what I think about when we’re making a Coldplay record.

So we did Viva [i.e., Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, released in 2008 –Ed.] and then I wound up getting accused of stealing someone else’s song. Like, four or five different people, in fact, they all claimed I stole the same two bars from them. It was the most ridiculous set of allegations; none of them were true in the least. So that’s why I decided to fight it. Which I did, before quietly and shadily engaging in an out-of-court settlement with undisclosed terms. We were so disillusioned by the whole ordeal that, for our next record, we decided: Guys, let’s just scrap our history. Just scrap it. Let’s hide the Grammys and let’s go back to basics. And we all looked each other in the eyes, and we all said, hey, let’s do a dystopia record set in the far future where an extremist government leads a war against sound and light. And so we did Mylo. [i.e., Mylo Xyloto, released in 2011 –Ed.]

We created this pastel-industrial sensory universe for Mylo Xyloto as a sort of alternative future to our own haggard past. It was critical history plain and simple. Clenching onto these phantasms became attractive to us, in an enduring way, as a remnant psycho-space for the band to stay in and inhabit. No, no, I don’t mean that in a creative way. God, ever since Steve, I don’t think it’s really even possible to do anything “creative” anymore. [Here Martin is alluding to the death in late 2011 of Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs –Ed.] But no, I’m talking about from a branding standpoint. So, if you build a dystopia, you might as well learn how to oppress. You see? If you can’t take the heat, get out of kitchen. Use every part of the Buffalo. Catch as catch can. Early bird in the worm. You know: phrases.

You’re asking what I meant by that? Sorry, mates. You’re keeping in mind, right, that none of what I’m telling you is real, yes? As I said to you earlier, this is just the narrative I’ve got to give you people since you won’t under any circumstance accept the truth, which is about EMI and contracts and the gas stations. I’ve already told you that I don’t even consider Coldplay to be a personal or emotional endeavor for me in any sense. I’ve already told you that Coldplay is a genuinely consumerist operation, haven’t I. So I’m telling you straight out: none of the following is going to be true. But here we are, chap, you’re still asking me: How did Coldplay get inside the self-checkout machines?

As a lad I worked in a KwikSave grocery store. I still stroll through the place when I’m back in town. Musicians are always on the lookout for some market savvy, as well as some food. I never know when or where I might happen upon the kind of product management strategy that gets your bandmates as excited as your label executives. When we put Viva on iTunes, we made a really bold move: tracks five and six are two separate songs, but we had them show up as one song. That meant our customers could download two songs for the price of one. Do you follow? And that’s lifted straight from the ‘buy one get one free’ promotions I saw at KwikSave. The grocery is so great; it’s full of products, packed with such great potential for people to experience that lush, full sensation of enjoying those products. That’s Coldplay territory.

So for a while I’d been trying to figure out how to appropriate the theatricality of our value-rich stage show into a more eminently consumable, more readily enjoyable parcel. I’d talked with Jonny [Buckland, lead guitarist for Coldplay –Ed.] about this often enough before, but it wasn’t till one morning in the grocery store—we’re at the self-checkout, I’m ringing up our Pom juice and Clif bars, and Jonny just puts his hand on mine and says, “Chris, here it is, mate. This is the rub right here; this is the new project.” And I’m sittin’ there thinking, is he talking about doing a partnership with the Pom juice people? Because that’d be brilliant. But he gives my hand a little rub-rub with his thumb and goes, “Mate, the self-checkies. That’s our venue. That’s our content channel.” And I’m like, Yes. He’s right. That’s it. It is. They are.

We’re signed to play two-a-days in peak shopping hours, starting with two dozen dates in North American cities and rounding out to Europe for the second leg. The self-checkout is already where you’re looking, and so why would you pass on the opportunity to put your product on that same screen? Isn’t that what Steve taught us? And at the self-checkouts, you’re already handling goods, they’re already in your hands, and so you’ve already begun to slake your thirst for commerce. When those arpeggios at the beginning of “Clocks” kick in, mate, I want it to feel like you plucked your Coldplay right off the shelves and are already buying it.

What are we looking for out of the project? I mean, ideally we want to just amp into your enjoyment of things, and give you the amount of Coldplay you want, so you can bag it up along with the peas and carrots and take it home to your family to cook for supper. Fuck, we’d play on shoelaces if anyone would let us. [Laughs.] And as I’m hearing today, it looks like it’ll be Adidas, if a deal goes through, it’ll be a fantastic opportunity, something we’ll be very excited about if it works out. And that’s my point, yeah? We want to be there as you scan items—Nabisco, toothpaste, whatever—because we want to be in the places where you are, when you’re with products. And we want to do this while obviously continuing to tour four continents, driving the pistons on the music industry’s number one merchandising engine.

We anticipate there will be some backlash on this. You chaps got to keep in mind, our career has lined up with the rise of the Internet. As we’ve gotten on, so have the haters and the negativity, and everyone that has an opinion. This band has given me everything good in my life—everything. So I can apologize for not being your cup of tea, but it doesn’t make me want to stop. One thing that’s clear to us is that, on all sides of things, mate, people are fucking scared right now. And do you know what I’d say to those people? I’d say, hey, mates: cheers. We made a record about a dictator [Martin is referring to the character of “Major Minus” who features in Mylo Xyloto –Ed.] and then I actively pursued his kind of tactics to get us inside the self-checkouts. Or really, what I did is construct a narrative where I mined our past work as a band to explain to a reporter why a decision made by our record label is somehow a sign of our continuing evolution as a rock group, or whatever. So, alright then, you’re bloody scared. Who’s not scared?

Something like this, we’re only doing it because our label is absolutely forcing us to, and they threaten to hurt us physically, because they can’t compete with the bloody gas stations and they’re scared out of their minds about that. I’m barely past thirty and I’ve been at this thing long enough where my best expression of genuine excitement is through total silence. Seriously. I look at my bandmates before a show, and on their faces there’s this same look of nausea and self-loathing, totally identical. They’re looking at me like that, as if they’re fucking about to cry, and that means I sort of start to cry, and then I’m supposed to go on and do fucking “Speed of Sound”? Just plow through “Speed of Sound”? Yeah. If you’re frightened, then welcome to Coldplay territory. Nowadays we’ve all got some cause to be a little fucking scared, haven’t we.

[Chris Martin has, in truth, actually said a bunch of these things before, in a number of previous real interviews over the course of his career. –Ed.]

Chris Martin of Coldplay plays the magician coldly, in this still from the "Viva La Vida" video"
Chris Martin of Coldplay

VI. The Daredevil (part 2)

“Do NOT select a payment method!” She locks her huge arm in an outstretched castigating finger-point as an embellishment, as if to provide a conduit for the energy of her scream to reach you. “Do NOT select a payment method!” In three or four saltatory stomps she’s at your station, planted right in the spot where an effective lifetime ago her placations had been issued into the machine, enabling you. Damning you.

“How you trying to pick what lemons you got?” You take advantage of the tense moments afforded you by the asking of a question. Since looking up would be impossible, you stare into the cavity behind the glass of the barcode scanner, picking out vague flashes of red and presumably infrared light to distract you from the nightmare. A quick break to your left would have you back among the innocent throngs populating the store; potentially you could dart through them toward an exit a few hundred feet away. Your hands are tight, cold fists at your side.

Excuse me I’m askin’ you how you pick out them lemons!” Not wanting ever again to play at presuming anything about this woman from her actions, you make nothing of an unanticipated hushed breathiness in her voice. There is no way to exculpate yourself. Something clicks, or snaps. You break from your paralysis, darting to your left, intending to re-enter the crowd of impersonal patrons at a perfectly reasonable grocery store, prepared maybe for some kind of footrace, but not for—what the hell?

A half-circle of patrons are motionless, demarcating with their bodies the once disputable border between the self-checkouts area and Safeway proper. You twist in frantic jolts to spot a way to get by them, but all around the store as far as you can see, clots of patrons have stopped their perusal, abandoning carts and baskets, frozen in mid-shopping poses: on line at the deli counter, a woman holding the freezer door open, a passably straight but probably gay man in a stocking cap clutching french bread under his arm. All are paused and pointed in your direction, bearing you hard witness with scornful glances. The blockade encroaches a step, obscuring the painful scene in the store at large to seal you within the now otherwise empty self-checkout area. A baby somewhere produces a wail that lasts for one moment, revealing the insulting silence that remains in relief when it stops. You didn’t make it five feet, and there is certainly no way for you to escape.

This blockade of a dozen or more customers is a wall of eyes and folded arms, imposingly bemuscled men in t-shirts, mean old Jewish grandmothers in fall jackets, an Hispanic teenager in denim. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” One pillar speaks to you! Angry and violated. I didn’t mean to— “THIS IS A COMMUNITY, ASSHOLE!” You try and inch back in retreat. An innocent mistake, right— “YOU TRYING TO STEAL, BRO?” I made the wrong choice, that’s all, the wrong— “HEY WE LIVE HERE, COCKSUCKER.” Emerging out in front of the line from a checkout aisle to your right is a grey-haired black man in a red Safeway apron. He walks slowly and with a pained hunch—you spot an exaggerated frown on his face though his head’s aimed at the floor. The members of the blockade stare on at you undeterred as the old man makes his way around the magazine rack to you. He stops walking two feet in front of you, the only soul between you and the threatening circle of your aggressors.

He strains his head up from its desultory flop, and you see red, wet eyes twinkling, fresh wounds set off by their color from the otherwise deep sadness on his dark and tired face. He speaks to you in a slow gravel, “What you done, young man?” You find his words pierce you, and an involuntary gasp escapes from your taut lips. Unlike the woman’s violent eyes (which you could still feel working to devour you somewhere behind but close by), the man’s compelled you to meet their gaze. You hear the cries of onlookers, taking their cues from the old man as if he were their venerated leader. “TELL HIM, DICK!” “HE’S A COWARD!” “SUCH SHAME YOU BRING YOUR FAMILY.”

You remember how in the third grade, when you were being punished in front of the whole class for sticking your finger in Kyle Bortigan’s ear for like a second, you had thought you could outlast Mrs. Anderson’s lacerating screams of “Tell the class what you’ve done!” which she kept repeating as you silently defied her. I won’t do it, you’d thought, and at some point she’ll have to stop. But you were a child then. You had no idea that in such moments your guilt is cosmically self-implicating, and that while the universe hears your wish for the whole world to just explode all at once in this instant, it is bound by a resentful law of nature to retaliate against you. Time dilates and all molecular motion slows so that the demands on you to capitulate and proclaim your humiliating confession need never cease, granting your accuser an interminable moment in which to see that you are obliterated.

“What you done, young man?” Generations of anguish speak through him and are suggested in his eyes’ caustic gleam. Judging it safe to, you take a deep breath, and on the exhale comes a hinting feel of comfort, that with your lashings there might be also a return to peace, an end to this terror. You steady your feet and unclench your fists.

“What I’ve done… I lied. I’m sorry.”

“No.” The long upturned syllable beginning from unhearable depths, culminating with finality in clear baritone. “Tell us.” No gesture. “Tell us really. Tell us what you done.”

“What I’ve done is…” You decide to speak openly, ploddingly, and quietly, spelling out the events of your misdeed. “While using the self-checkout machine… I deliberately misrepresented what I was buying. I had six lemons from the local and organic section, and on the machine I put that I was buying the regular lemons. The ‘BULK’ ones. I was trying to pay the price for the cheapest kind of lemons, but in fact, I wanted to walk out of the store with the most expensive kind of lemons you guys sell. When I did this… I did it on purpose. I knew what I was doing—in fact, I planned it out when I picked out the lemons. If I had been in a store that didn’t have self-checkout machines, I wouldn’t have ever thought to steal lemons or do anything like this. If I didn’t think I’d be able to get away with this, I wouldn’t have even bought these fancy Meyer lemons—” (Your voice picks up; you find the grip of fear loosened by your growing anger toward the conspiracy of circumstances that led you to this public shaming.) “—Especially because, I don’t even know what’s so good about them, or why they’re so expensive! I’m trying to make a pie to bring to a dinner party. I’m not even going to enjoy this party, and I will probably not even have a piece of this pie. And y’know, the machine has the same picture for both kinds of lemons, right? So, even though it’s not entirely clear what BULK means in the context of selecting produce from the giant menu on that thing, it’s true I knew what I was doing when I was doing it. It happens to be that this was not an innocent mistake, although it definitely could have been! I’m sure that plenty of innocent mistakes get made on the self-checkout machines every day, because they’re pretty easy to mess up, and there’s a lot of pressure on you with that woman hulking over you to see if you’re doing everything right. Probably plenty of non-innocent ones, too, and for things a lot worse than me picking one kind of lemons when I’m buying another kind. And I can’t imagine that this is what you people do when—”

‘You people‘?” Gasps and hushed whispering seep out from the blockade and gather all around you. “WHAT, IS HE A RACIST?” “THAT’S A HATE CRIME.” “HE SHOULD BE SHOT!” The old man’s sadness seems to have evaporated entirely from his face as he takes one quick imposing step toward you. He cranes his head further toward your face and stretches his eyebrows up for a second, aghast, before he buries them, disgusted, and menacingly asks, “Who you mean, ‘you people‘?”

The fear returns. “No, no, no, just—I just meant Safeway. You people who work at the Safeway.”

“Oh so we all the same to you?”

“No no sir, that’s not—”

“You sorry?”

The din ceases again as the man’s face, now inches away from your face, uncrinkles somewhat. You wonder if he is referring to your racially insensitive non sequitur or to your would-be larceny and sin against the self-checkout, and you almost begin to ask him for that clarification before thinking very much the better of it. “Yes. Yes, sir. I am. I’m sorry.”

“Then say you sorry.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Uh uh. Not to me.” He flicks his head upward slightly, as his eyes leave you and latch on to something behind your left shoulder. “To the machine.” Schmaltzy-sounding sighs of relief come from the women and men of the blockade. One person claps. “FACE THE MACHINE!” “THANKS BE TO GOD!” “APOLOGIZE!” Cries of “Yes!” and “Do it!” and “That’s right!” follow from the atmosphere. You stare for several more moments at the old man, waiting for his eyes to return to you, but they never do. His eyes, like everyone’s, are on the machine to which you now turn, the site of your fatally failed coup. It is flanked by the woman who has shown herself to be its master, who faces you but has one girthy arm around the back of the console and an alarming, mismatched grin on her face.

With the old man leading you, you return to the self-checkout touchscreen to find it in an unfamiliar interface: the word APOLOGY in white block text in the center of a dark grey background. Your almost purchased items still sit un-bagged at the end of the conveyor belt.

Welcome to Safeway. Please enter your apology.

“You can speak,” the old man says, close by on your left. “It can hear you.” The woman joins him on your right so that all three of you face the machine, a row of supplicants at the temple of a new and difficult god.

“I’m sorry,” you effortlessly say. You stare at the word APOLOGY. Silence.

Welcome to Safeway. Please enter your apology.

“I’m sorry!” you try, louder, finding also that you’ve instinctively reached your hand out to the touchscreen, tapping the word APOLOGY as though doing so were the means of executing the task of apologizing. You tap once, then a few times, hard, in quick succession. Nothing happens. You feel frustrated, also instinctively.

Welcome to Safeway. You lied to me.

“I know.” You sigh. “And I’m sorry for that.”

Do you have anything else to say?


You must enter the correct items when you key in your selections from the menu.

“Yeah, I know. But I was trying to get the good lemons for less money and I didn’t think you’d notice.” Silence. “It’s actually pretty easy to do. You are basically asking people to just be honest with you, and you’re a robot. It’s real easy for us to misrepresent our items and save some money, so… maybe you need a better system.”

There is no better system.

The word APOLOGY fades from the screen, which goes black. You steal quick glances to your left and right, finding the old man and the woman to have relaxed somewhat. They each take a step away from the machine. The old man faces you and turns you by the shoulder toward him, patting you there twice before taking his arm away. He creaks his head upward. “You done good,” he says. It all seems to be over. The woman swipes a scan-card by the machine and confronts the blue managerial screen.

There is no better system. There is no better system.

Despite the situation of your evidently having been vindicated, you find yourself growing more and more irate at the mechanized repetition of this phrase. You turn back to face the self-checkout, which issues its claims further.

There is no better system. You are unscrupulous and depraved. There is no better system. Welcome to Safeway. Fuck you, asshole. Fuck you. You are a liar. Please enter the number of bags used.

You’re up close to it now, but the woman blocks your way to the screen. You go in close to it. “No. Fuck. You,” you deliver, tapping the screen sharply on each word.

A wailing alarm goes off as gasps and cries fill the crowd. The rising clamor of a stampede builds from every direction like an approaching storm, whirring and rushing as people are scattering everywhere you look. The machine’s light-post becomes a swirling red and blue police siren, and the alarm is accompanied by another one—short bursts from what sounds like a car horn, over and over. The woman turns her head to eye you for a moment like a hungry lion before she reaches to her right, grabbing a carton of eggs from the belt. The old man to your left turns you by the shoulder back toward him, leans back slightly, and then lunges forward spitting in your face. An egg hits you on the right temple, and you are wiping the slime away when you are met by members of the blockade surging in.

With darting motions you try and squeeze by them, to escape as you had hoped to earlier into the calming aisles of the grocery store. But fists fly and there are kicks to your shins and an arm comes around your throat from someone unseen, who has gotten you from behind. Another egg hits the back of your head before you are dragged down to ground where your arms and legs are pinned by the booted feet and all the weight of your fellow shoppers. You hear frenzied screams among the cacophonous dueling alarms going at deafening force.

Suddenly, coming into your view backdropped by the whitewashed industrial beams along the ceiling in the deep distance, is the old man. You hear him say something that sounds like “be judged” just before he disappears from your view. A moment later you see an old white man in a magisterial barrister’s wig and black robe leaning over you, shaking his head. “You’re guilty!” he hisses before brandishing a gavel for a second, as though it were a threat, and subsequently disappearing from the scene. You writhe and wriggle but there is no freeing your limbs from the weight of the vicious customers. That rancorous woman reemerges to stare down at you and yell, “Face the farmers!” before stepping aside for an elderly man in a purple shirt and white cowboy hat, who arrives accompanied by a woman in a big straw hat; she is crying, he is consoling her, but he soon looks down at you with unsympathetic eyes, saying, “You stole from us, son. You deserve to die.

You feel the weight on your limbs suddenly lighten as your assailants appear to step off your body. You are making your way upright; you catch a group of customers open a familiar-looking bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon just when a high-speed can of condensed milk strikes you in the back, bringing you to your knees. On all fours now, trying desperately to escape the melee, you spot six local, organic Meyer lemons in a pile on the floor, crushed and squeezed, as your hand slips on some liquid—lemon juice, probably. Now you are face down, cheek to the cold tile, resigned to simply lay there and die. You heave big breaths and close your eyes, feeling more eggs pelt you in the back.

But, you realize, the sirens have stopped, and the bacchanal is quieting down around you. You are kicked—strongly—by passersby, but only as they seem to be leaving the self-checkout area. At first the strikes hit you once every few seconds, but soon it is only once or twice each minute. After some time, the violence seeming to have stopped, you manage to roll over onto your back. In the relative calm you finally force yourself to sit up, and position yourself on the floor with your back leaning against the base of a self-checkout machine.

From there, you see the woman, at her post again. You look around the store. There is no evidence of damage or of the brawl from which you have emerged. Shoppers peruse and evaluate items, the cavernous airspace sounds of quiet chatter and smooth jazz, and the ambiance is met now and again with the alacritous interruption of a self-checkout machine: “Welcome to Safeway.” You turn back to the woman and wait quietly until she, of her own volition, meets your eyes. “Can I help you?” Reaching into your pocket, you produce the weathered paper farecard for the machine in the parking garage. You place it on the ground and weakly push it in her direction.

You still need validation.

A grocery store robot!
Yuriko Nakao/Reuters

J.W. Vorvick

J.W. Vorvick

J.W. is a writer, adjunct professor, and Ph.D. candidate in philosophy, currently living in Washington, D.C.
J.W. Vorvick

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