Luddites or Humanity’s Saving Grace?

  ‘The Waitrose of the North’ hit the headlines last week when it announced that it intended to ditch self-service checkouts. On one level this news did not concern me greatly for I treat food shopping rather like a fighter pilot might approach a bombing raid. I am most definitely not there to enjoy the ‘experience’ or admire the view. My shopping trips are designed to be ruthlessly efficient missions. The no-thrills pragmatism of Aldi or Lidl suits me well enough. I would imagine that those who shop in Booths do so because they want to feel a little pampered and tend to place a good deal of value upon the quality of their shopping experience from a holistic perspective. I do not doubt that Booths sells fine food but it is not uncommon to hear someone say in a whisper, ‘he shops in Booths’ as if it is a reflection on the person’s true standing in the world. It is a sign that he or she has ‘made it’ and no longer needs to mix with the rest of humanity; a bit like those who frequent the services on the M6 Toll. ‘Darling, we simply cannot buy a house here…the nearest Booths is almost ten miles away’. 

   Why is the removal of a few of the country’s 80,000 self-service checkouts such a big deal? At first sight it appears a somewhat regressive step. After all, only last week, Elon Musk told Rishi Sunak that artificial intelligence will eventually mean that no one will have to work. Certainly, the rise of the self-service checkout is difficult to reconcile with Booths’ founding philosophy which promised, ‘the best goods available, in attractive stores, staffed with first-class assistants.’ Admittedly, that was written in 1847, so the bit about first class assistants should be read in context. However, few could argue with the fact that the rise of the self-service checkout has been accompanied by a dismally automated and transactional approach to customer service. A bit like working from home, it encourages a depressing insularity that only serves to diminish the frequency and quality of interactions that we have with one another.

   The atomisation of society is enabled by machines. Internet shopping, click and collect services and internet banking have all led to the demise of the high street. The rise of the achingly bland out-of-town superstore or the ghastly ‘retail parks’ that blot the landscape are not developments that we should necessarily applaud. Convenience and operational efficiency often robs us of character and charm. If Elon Musk is right, then it will one day rob us of our jobs. I know that I sound like a cross between King Charles and the sort of Luddite who might smash a loom but my nightmarish vision of hell is the Tollgate Retail Park in Colchester; Brent Cross, Lakeside and the Trafford Centre all come a close second.

   One of my favourite photographs of Caitlin is a black and white image of her emerging from the bakers in the small town of Gort, in County Galway. She is clutching a cardboard box containing a cake. The box is all tied up with string and the image seems like a nostalgic glimpse into a bygone era. 

   Booths’ managing director, Nigel Murray, told ‘The Grocer’ that ‘we pride ourselves on great customer service and you can’t do that through a robot’. Another spokesman said, ‘Delighting customers with our northern welcome is part of our DNA and we continue to invest in our people to ensure we remain true to our ethos’. Perhaps this most middle class of rebellions will lead to a revolution that will stop the relentless march of AI in its automated tracks.

   It is easy to get carried away with talk of teacherless classrooms but we lose something magical when we attempt to replace human relationships with AI. Our desire to connect with one another should not be trivialised or abandoned in the search for greater efficiency. Driving to hockey last Saturday morning (we missed the bus), Alicia asked me if I thought that humans would still exist in the year 3000. I attempted to give a reassuring answer but this was rather undone by the conversation that followed. Nuclear conflict and environmental damage ranked highly on our list of threats but so too did artificial intelligence and our desire to atomise or disassociate. Insularity and self-interest might be our undoing.

   Of course, we should embrace the potential of artificial intelligence but we need to be mindful of the fact that increasing automation comes at a cost. I applaud Booths for they have been the first major retailer to realise that customer service is not something to be entrusted to a robotic machine and perhaps the battle to save humanity will be fought amidst the exquisite selection of cheeses which I am told are to be found in Booths’ Poulton-le-Fylde shop. 

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School