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The Rise (& Fall) of the Machines March 1, 2013

Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics, Uncategorized.
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Making my journey back home to Wales last Friday, because I didn’t have time to explore the rich culinary paradise that is Praed Street, I found myself buying a sandwich in Sainsbury’s Paddington store. Like its competitors and indeed WH Smith’s cheerless outlet at the same station, Sainsbury’s have replaced most of its human cashiers with automatic scan’n’pay machines. Having a train to catch in ten minutes, I nevertheless ignored the two staffers who urged me to use these machines instead of the lone person manning an old fashioned till, because I prefer to deal with humans wherever possible, and also on the possibly misplaced moral grounds that machines like these deny jobs to people who need them. Indeed it was instructive that it required two people to shepherd customers through the vexatious, time-consuming process of using the computerised facilities, although my principled stance meant waiting ages for a woman who’d apparently done her weekly shop to depart the sole humanly-helmed check-out.

So long, in fact, that I had to leave my sandwich in the rack of chocs and crisps in the checkout area and bugger off to catch my train muttering to myself that had all those three staff been working the tills, I might’ve not ended up lunchless. But I doubt Sainsbury’s management would give a toss as they’re obviously in the thrall of expensive technology that dispenses with troublesome human beings even if the customers might not like it. And as they’re in fact deliberately trying to limit or replace staff with machines, it also renders hollow the supermarkets’ claims about job creation when they’re bribing local councils to allow planning permission for new stores. And then…

My journey home involves changing trains at Newport from the amusingly named Inter-City 125 to a usually cramped, draughty bus-on-rails through some stunning Welsh countryside and last Friday, for reasons involving dentistry, I had to break my journey at Hereford whose gaunt, freezing station I later returned to only to learn that a freight train had broken down outside Abergavenny, thus for an indeterminate period blocking anything else from chuffing north. The dread phrase ‘replacement buses’ had been invoked but the admittedly helpful station staff knew not how long they’d be and having to run the local film society box office that night I couldn’t wait indefinitely: long story short, after 90 mins shivering wait I paid £30 to get to my car parked at the next station, but not before one of said staff admitted that broken down freight trains “are a regular bloody problem.”

A little light internet research, albeit involving many incomprehensible trainspotters’ bulletin boards, revealed that the goods train in question was pulled by a Type 47 diesel owned, like most of the UK’s rail freight business, by the German company, Schenker. The Type 47s were built in the 1960s and designed to last perhaps 30-35 years, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that they keep breaking down. But like America’s Northwest Airlines who, until they started falling out of the sky, continued flying a fleet of creaky old Boeing 727s produced in that same era in the belief that it was cheaper to endure escalating maintenance costs rather than buy newer ‘planes, no one at Schenker seems to’ve done a cost/benefit analysis of that. (Aviva Trains Wales, from whom I’m demanding a refund and taxi fare, probably wished they had). And of course if and when the penny finally drops, Schenker will probably buy replacement engines from a German company, not least because by then our last remaining (Canadian-owned) train builder will have gone bust.

These two admittedly unrelated events happened the same week that we learnt that lack of investment over the past 15 years means that our power stations, one of which the Schenker train was delivering coal to, must be de-commissioned well before enough coal-, gas- or nuclear-powered replacements have been built and the regulator, PowerGen, warned that prolonged black-outs can soon be expected.  And then…

I recently took a friend to see Rust & Bone at Belsize Park’s Everyman Cinema, one of a small chain that charges 50% more than the average flea-pit for the luxury of having over-priced drinks brought to your comfy sofa seats by girls called Clarissa. Having already seen the film in the course of my day job, I was surprised, then annoyed to find that the aspect ratio was all wrong and part of the image area was obscured by the curtains which evidently the projectionist hadn’t noticed. After complaining to the callow youth who purported to be the manager, I was told that (of course) there wasn’t a projectionist because the Everymans only use digital projectors and no-one there could do anything about it. And a phone call to an absent ‘technician’ at head-office yielded no remedy, either. So we walked out. (An angrier, more informed treatise on the death of the projectionist in the name of cost-cutting can be read in Mark Kermode’s excellent book, ‘The Good, The Bad… and The Multiplex’). I was going to cunningly use this cinematic debacle to segue into some movie and other cultural recommendations, but as I fear it might unduly test your patience, I’ll leave that ‘til next week .

Instead I’ll conclude from these recent misfortunes that cost/benefit analyses aside, our captains of industry and politicians can’t grasp that by putting people out of work – skilled or otherwise – who are not able to find jobs in the thrusting new industries we were told would be our economic salvation, they are de facto reducing the nation’s ability to well, buy stuff. And since buying stuff is supposed to be what it’s all about, then where does that leave us?

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Comments»

1. Peter Silverton - March 1, 2013

oh, mark, what splendid anger – now is the discontent of your winter . . .

markswill - March 1, 2013

You always did have a way with word, Pete!

2. Dick Pountain - March 1, 2013

“And since buying stuff is supposed to be what it’s all about, then where does that leave us?”

Well, possibly with irreversibly damaged infrastructure Mark. The capital invested in our roads, railways and power grid took over a century to accumulate – if our current incompetent/positively malevolent governing class let it decay far enough, then as you point out there won’t be enough people employed to afford to repair it. I’d judge we’re close to that point now. The result will be some kind of a breakdown, but no-one in our current de-politicised state knows exactly what kind. Probably not a very nice kind.

markswill - March 1, 2013

No, it won’t Dick. Elysium, a forthcoming film by the director of the brilliant District 9, is an only-just fictional account of where it might end up. Depressed the shit outta me.

dick pountain - March 2, 2013

Oh boy, look forward to Elysium then.

3. Steve Kane - March 1, 2013

Ha! Going into my bank to make my annual N.I. payment so as to get my diminishing and receding UK pension – (and yet good value for money in these low-interest times) I was asked by the friendly and long known clerk if I didn’t have internet banking. I said I did, but didn’t trust it – and beside I valued the human contact – and his job – even if he didn’t. He smiled – plainly he did – and trying to do himself out of it by getting me onto the internet was part of his instructions from on high.
I exited pleased. Buying something otherwise unavailable over the counter locally on the web that morning I had noticed the fine exchange rate because of the purely symbolic loss of the blessed AAA rating from a ratings agency who had long ago proved the miserable meaninglessness of their opinions. Thinking to myself “Oh shit that clown (one of them at least) might get elected in Italy today and the euro will tank – so time to act.” I left the bank thus 30€ richer than I would have done had I not – thus paying for my earlier internet purchase.
There seems to be a kind of “Kung Fu” or maybe “Feng shui” of this dance between the ancient and modern. One can acquire it.
Be not downhearted Mark.

4. andy tribble - March 1, 2013

I may have banged on about this before but our tax system is all wrong. Designed in a time of much stronger employment, it taxes jobs through the farcical National Insurance and income tax, while leaving raw materials and equipment almost untaxed. In short it is designed to discourage employment, and to encourage industries to do everything they can to replace people with machines. It would be possible to maintain the same tax position by abolishing National Insurance and at the same time increasing raw material taxes.But the idea has not occurred yet, and even it if does it won’t happen until we exit the euseless eu. I’m counting the days.

markswill - March 1, 2013

An idea whose time has come, but not for our blinkered servant/masters, Andy. And see below…

5. WTK - March 1, 2013

Andy has a strong point. When the EU was a gleam in the eye and limited to facilitating cross border trading, modifying punitive and protective tariffs, and easing travel restraints, it was a reasonable idea—sort of like “states” within a Republic. So much for that idea. The knuckleheads that decided to wrangle sovereign nations to agree on a common currency were lunatics. Uhh, what does sovereign mean, boys?

Now, if the damage was limited to the EU nations and the Euro, fair enough—it would just prove the global chuckles when it was first proposed. But, no, the idiocy has effectively stifled employment, growth, and is still sending shudders through the global economy. Not to mention the idea of encasing dozens of sovereign governments with a hard shell of yet another governing body, which made as much sense as establishing the UN. Grrrrr…

markswill - March 1, 2013

I’m right with you on this Terry, and yet America seems to want the Euro-nations to stick with the plan? Duh?

6. Neville Durward - March 2, 2013

As an infrequent visitor to the Capital Mark, yet retaining a sentimental fondness for the old Screen on the Hill of 30 years ago, I wonder if your preference while watching is to keep your handbag on your knees infront of you or place it beaneath your seat?

markswill - March 2, 2013

Well Neil, I am actually heterosexual so don’t sport a handbag (although I have a very fetching bright orange ‘man-bag’ to keep my skin-cleanser and David Beckham cologne in). However I assume your point is that cinemas other than those following Everyman’s (Everymen’s?) business model are too cramped? If so, you obviously haven’t visited most of the capitol’s cinemas these past few years because even the dreaded Odeons seem to’ve got over that.

7. Russell - March 3, 2013

Those of us fortunate enough to have come of age in the hedonistic profligacy of the mid to late sixties may remember our widely espoused derision of the Protestant work ethic as the basis for any opportunity for a fulfilling life, particularly as on the horizons of science could be discerned the tantalising shadows of gadgetry and gimmickry that would free the human race for ever from what we condemned as menial and mind-numbing tasks that paid a pittance and offered little more than a lifelong sentence of servitude. We didn’t want to do those jobs then (at least not for more than a few weeks), and were indignant that anybody at all should be so encumbered. Now, when a significant proportion of us are too old, too ill or too rich (OK, I’m kidding about the last one) to do them anyway, we appear to be yearning for their return. Of course, this is nothing to do with our irritable nostalgia for what we now seem to perceive as “those good old days”.

‘Twas ever thus, I think.

markswill - March 3, 2013

‘Twas ever thus indeed, Russell. However apart from the thrill of the golfball typesetter, twin cassette decks and Japanese motorcycles, I never really looked forward to the mechanical liberation you speak of. My criticism of technology as and when it takes over human jobs is nowt to do with the dignity of labour (hah), but a realisation that puts people out of work who many never find it again, consigns them to unrewarding and/or degrading jobs and/or puts economic and thus political power in the hands of a few global corps.

BTW, Caitlin Moran in Saturday’s Times (I know, I know) was brutally brilliant on other consequences of this.

8. Paul Blezard - March 4, 2013

I hope you’ve sent the train débâcle section of the above saga to Private Eye, Mark. It would be grist to their well-stocked mill of crap and crumbling railway stories. I seriously considered taking the train up to the NEC for the Trade Expo in January when snow threatened to shut the M40, but ended up taking the trusty Tmax superscooter as usual, and didn’t regret it. It was still a lot quicker, and more reliable than letting the ‘train take the strain’ from the London suburbs to our second city on what should be the fastest train connection in the bloody country! Heated jacket and grips ensured that no pain had to be endured either! PNB

markswill - March 4, 2013

Oh alright Blez… your persistence had paid off: I’ll go and buy a so-called ‘super scooter’ when I get back from Transylvania.

9. julesbollocks - March 5, 2013

So then I had a sandwich, well not as it happened, and caught a train, well not as it turned out, and tried to see a film which I had already seen but walked out on, and then I felt more grumpy.

Have I tuned into your twitter feed by mistake? Sorry Mark, I enjoy reading your posts, usually… but I may nominate this one as the most tedious in the coming Bloggies Awards.

xj

markswill - March 7, 2013

Sadly Jules, I may be a twat, but I don’t do Twitter. And it’s the underlying message that supposed to count… but of course often doesn’t.

10. Andie McGrath - March 11, 2013

so tescos automate workers out of employment and into volunteering at poundland? so what happens when poundland get automatic tills, which given their pricing structure they sure will. perhaps we will all be forced into volunteering at DSS offices run by private companies in order to deny ourselves benefits and cajole ourselves into unpaid voluntary work. i think i need to re-read marcuse.

markswill - March 11, 2013

We’re obviously of the same mind, Andie, except that I haven’t read Marcuse. Oh the shame of it.

11. Peter Dunn - March 16, 2013

Delighted to have tracked Mark down after many years absence. Running Out of Road was one of the best columns I have ever read, and I did have the two compilation books, now sadly lost ( where can I buy them now ? ). Reading ‘Bike’ about 30 years ago was an inspiration, even though I am now reduced to my Yamaha scooter.

Keep on writing !


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