All's fair in love and war when tech treats you like an infant

No way you're never gonna shake me... Ooh darlin' cause you'll always be my baby

Baby

Something for the Weekend, Sir? I fell in and out of love yesterday. It was a wild, stormy relationship that could never last, and it's only now by relating to you the sequence of events that I will feel ready to move on with my life.

We met while out shopping. I saw her from across the store: her, standing proudly yet nonchalantly by the exits so that everyone could see her; me, carrying two heads of broccoli and a packet of Poptarts.

I approached warily, hoping not to be noticed, praying not to be ignored. She remained immobile where she stood, dazzling, shiny and alluring, almost inviting me to touch.

I fixed her with my best steely stare, strode right up and tried to appear collected, confident, commanding even. I gave her a long look-over from top to bottom. I checked around the sides just to be sure, admiring her sleek lines and imagining sordid opportunities for frenzied interaction. She stared back emotionlessly, no doubt secretly admiring my manly stubbled chin and gauging the supple firmness of my thighs.

She spoke first...

Do you need a bag?

So considerate, I thought. "No," I replied, trying to raise one side of my mouth into what I hoped would be a wry smile but just made me look like that bloke from Hi-De-Hi! "No," I repeated, leaning closer, adding in a barely audible murmur: "Look, I've brought my own."

Our hearts beat as one. Romantic music arose in a swirl. Waves crashed ashore. Time stood still.

Place your bag in the bagging area.

"What? Oh yes, yes of course, my love."

Remove your bag from the bagging area.

"As you wish. But, heh, enough about me. What about y-"

Place your bag in the bagging area.

"Fine. Done that. Now do tell me something ab-"

Remove your bag from the bagging area.

"OK, OK. It's gone. This is very distracting you kn-"

Place your bag in the bagging area.

At this point, our relationship began to break down – irretrievably, in fact, when I shouted something along the lines of "make your fucking mind up, you daft bint" as they dragged me away. A young man in blue overalls came over to calm things down with the help of a master reset code and invited me to pay at the Customer Services desk instead.

Given that I have prior history with automated till machines, you might wonder why I was so easily suckered in once again.

I wondered this too as I emerged from the supermarket into the windy outdoor car park. Was it a man thing, perhaps, in which I felt I needed to conquer my demons in order to avoid emotional emasculation by previous failure? Was it that I am simply dim and know no better? Am I perhaps too old to use a payment robot?

Then it hit me. An empty cider carton. Jolly windy today, I thought.

By the time I reached the car, another explanation wormed its way into my reasoning. Consider this: automatic till machines are unnecessarily bulky as if ruggedised against violent treatment. They are bleepy and blinky, and even have a flashing beacon on a pole. To readers of a certain generation, this description will be all too familiar: they are styled like games arcade machines.

Also, instead of a single input-output interface – here's the produce, there's your money, thanks for my change – they present the user with a bafflingly complex and illogical arrangement of controls: a touchscreen at the centre, a numeric keypad at one side, a laser scanner window down at the left, a weighing plate in the middle, separate to-buy and just-bought detection areas, note payment slot just under the screen, coin slot at the front, change tray jutting into your groin, and so on.

Basically, this is the till equivalent of the driver's controls on a steam engine. It's not a payment machine, it's a Casey Jones theme park ride. Just add that twirly wheel thing, a shovel of coal and some bellows, and it would be perfect. Maybe they could replace the robotic "help is on its way" voice with a steam whistle operated by pulling on a string. Fantastic.

Well, not so much fantastic as infantile.

Now it all makes sense. You don't have to be an old fogey to notice the general infantilism that increasingly determines western culture. Yet each generation tends to slide further back into nappyhood. Grownups go on quite seriously about Star Wars today apparently unaware that George Lucas intended it as a kids' film. You'd think the fucking teddy bears might have been a giveaway, but no. Nothing appeals to adults today more than treating them like children.

Modern grownups think nothing of eating chicken nuggets, getting upset at Secret Santa, learning the moronic lyrics of the same three-note songs that dominate the music charts, competing in mini-golf tournaments, smoking candy floss-flavoured e-cigs, drinking blueberry cider and openly reading Harry Cunting Potter. Infantilism is everywhere.

Do I need to mention popular media and entertainment? When I was a child, tongue-in-cheek TV science show Tomorrow's World was regarded as a bit of a laugh, featuring robot-operated pencil sharpeners and socks knitted out of paper. By the standards of today's popular science coverage, TW's black-and-white reruns play like Pulitzer Prize-winning reportage.

The late French TV celebrity Guy Lux made the most apt observation in this respect. Through the 1960s and 70s, Lux became famous for presenting the kind of cheap game shows and ghastly variety performances that viewers pretended to enjoy back then. His face was never off the telly, such that Goscinny & Uderzo gently mocked him as the slimy Roman game show host "Showbusinus" in Asterix: Mansions of the Gods.

Towards the end of his life, Lux was asked for his opinion on modern TV entertainment compared with the cheesy programmes he compered back in the day. He replied that he used to think at the time that his shows were just artless crap but now, in comparison with reality TV, "I get the impression I was something of an aesthete."

So the next time you are tempted to put money in the arcade machines at the supermarket exit, recognise infantilism.

When you install an app (disruptively) branded with a name reminiscent of a baby's first gurgled word but achieves nothing that you couldn't script for yourself in 10 minutes, recognise infantilism.

When you believe everything Facebook tells you and disbelieve whatever mainstream media journalists have risked their lives to report, recognise infantilism.

And with that, I'll leave you with Guy Lux and Johnny Halliday embarrassing themselves in glorious SÉCAM while I nip out for more Poptarts.

Youtube Video

Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He insist there is nothing wrong with releasing the child in your heart, other than the likelihood you learnt that cliché from a 1980s Tom Hanks movie almost certainly aimed at children. He also apologises for the poor quality of the music video at the end of this week’s column. Here’s an antidote. @alidabbs



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