Saturday, 17 July 2021

The check-out

It is a sketch from countless comedy shows.  A man goes into a supermarket.  He lingers oddly over the carrots, he inspects carefully the boxes of soap.  His whole body speaks unease; he is shifty and continually looking over his shoulder.  Finally, he judges the moment to be right: he boldly seizes his prey and half runs up to the check-out till.  Just as he lays the article on the counter, from nowhere a woman appears and queues behind him.  The cashier decides to savour to the full the process of ringing up the price and finding a suitable bag.  All this while, the man's small package lies there accusingly, naked to the world; it seems to glow with obviousness.  Even in the age of AIDS, buying condoms is still not easy.

Our delicacy in purchasing intimate items such as these is purely vestigial.  For the most part, individuated goods have been reduced to abstract commodities: when you load up a trolley in a supermarket, it is almost as if you are buying generalised objects, things shucked of any purpose except to be bought, a fact underlined by the meaningless brand names and bland packaging which de-emphasise the good's real function.

So it is that we happily buy personal goods like expectorants and toilet paper without making the embarrassing connection with their final use - as we do with condoms.  Standing in the queue with these goods for all the world to see, we can pretend to disown them and their revelations, if only because everyone else tacitly agrees to do the same.

And yet that basket and each of its goods says something completely specific about you, your habits and your tastes.  If sociologists were to watch you at the check-outs, they could re-construct your daily life as an archaeologist reconstructs the past from its rubble.  Each item represents a line in the multi-dimensional space of consumerism; where all those lines intersect, is you.

This is not as abstract as it sounds.  Sociologists may not be hiding behind the sliced bread to carry out their research, but the statisticians are there.  One of the main reasons for the introduction of bar-coding in supermarket chains is to define who you, the public, are in precisely this way.  It is certainly not to speed up the process of checking out: the bottleneck is merely displaced from the pricing to the packing.  Instead it gives the stores employing barcodes in-depth and instant knowledge about purchasing patterns.

Hitherto, data on sales has been obtained by stocktaking - a slow and inefficient process.  Now, stores can see a snapshot of what is being sold at any instant by downloading the information from the automated tills and combining the data.  Moreover, if you pay by some form of identifying credit or debit card, an alternative picture could be built up, of your purchases over time.  From that it would be possible to make good guesses at your income, your family size, your tastes - even your sexual habits.  Imagine now a cashless society, and one where all such sales data were linked together: total information on every individual.  Governments are doubtless checking it out at this very moment.

(1989)

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