It’s official: fully driverless taxis, with no human on board as backup, are hitting the streets. Self-driving fleets have been approved in China and are under consideration in San Francisco and other US cities. So we have to ask ourselves: did the world just get better or worse?
Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of driverless cars. Who doesn’t find it tedious and annoying to navigate crowded freeways and hunt for urban parking? Much better simply to tell the car where to go and let it find its own way. As for taxis, Uber has automated much of the process already, so shifting gears to fully driverless cabs should be a no brainer, one of the count-your-blessings inventions of the modern era, like cell phones with GPS.
And yet, I keep remembering the old saying, “To err is human, to really foul things up requires a computer.”
History is littered with the charred remains of small computer errors with big consequences. Take the $8 billion Ariane 5 rocket project. A tiny piece of software that tried to slip a 64-bit number into a 16-bit space caused the unmanned rocket to explode thirty-nine seconds into its initial launch. Oops! Then there was Knight Capital Group, whose new, high-priced trading software ran amok in a thirty-minute buying spree that cost the company $440 million, leading to its demise. But hey, stuff happens. Just ask Chris Reynolds, whose PayPal account was accidentally credited $92,233,720,368,547,800 (that’s $92 quadrillion, in case you’re wondering). Sadly, he didn’t get to keep the money, although PayPal made a nice donation in his name to the charity of his choice, as their way of saying “Thank you for not making this worse by throwing a social media hissy fit.”
Tech glitches are a fact of contemporary life. Which raises the question: could I trust a computer to make sure I get home safely after a night on the town (that would be my night on the town, not the computer’s)? History says, “Yes, probably, at least most of the time.” So maybe the real question is whether I feel lucky when it comes to technology. Right now I‘d have to say not so much, given my latest run-in with the world’s most powerful online retailer, which bungled a simple canned tunafish delivery.
I’ll get to the tuna story in a moment, but in order to fully appreciate it, you'll want the bigger picture of my latest series of shopping debacles.
As my regular readers know, I spend half the year in Seville, where I do all my purchasing in person, on foot, as if it were the nineteenth century. Having returned to my native California for the summer, I am doing my best to keep e-commerce to a minimum. I’m old fashioned enough to want to feel a sweater before I buy it. The packaging waste makes me cringe. And returning unwanted merchandise is the worst, knowing 25% of all newly returned goods wind up in landfills because it’s too expensive to repackage and resell them. Nearly six billion pounds of returned merchandise go into America’s trash heaps every year; I don’t want to add one more sweater or can of tuna to the pile.
So why don’t I just buy what I need at actual stores in California? If only. My attempts at in-person retail shopping have proven dismal and demoralizing.
Look what happened when my old Melita pour-over coffee maker broke, as they tend to do every ten years or so. Could I find another? Nope! I drove to four stores and finally gave up and settled for a Chemex knock-off, a sort of glass beaker with a metal mesh filter. It was a horrible choice. The beaker was so fat it required an awkward two-handed lift. Cleaning the metal mesh wasted amounts of water that were shocking in a state suffering through the worst drought in 1200 years, so I had to add ill-fitting paper filters. I began to loathe the wretched thing and found myself snarling at it every morning. That’s when I realized I either had to replace it or give up drinking coffee altogether. Two weeks ago, I ordered a Melita online. Shortly after it arrived, I drove the despised off-brand coffee maker to Goodwill, trying not to think of how much of our planet’s precious resources had just been squandered.
The Melita purchase left me feeling a bit more kindly towards online retail, so I placed an order for a number of small, difficult-to-find household items plus an eight-pack of tuna to restock our Apocalypse Chow emergency food locker. (Californians are urged to keep two weeks’ supply of food on hand to prepare for the next earthquake, fire, flood, or tsunami.) The online seller offered to deliver the stuff — for free! — by ten o’clock that night. But as a climate-conscious consumer, I opted for consolidated delivery the following Monday with fewer boxes. Monday came and the stuff didn’t. On Tuesday I was notified it had been returned as “undeliverable.” Really? Why? Had my address changed when I wasn’t looking?
I re-ordered, and everything showed up but the tuna. “Supposedly it’s coming soon,” I told Rich at breakfast. “But now the website says that tuna eight-pack takes two months to deliver. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed the apocalypse doesn’t hit while we’re waiting.”
Online or in-person, it seems shoppers just can’t win. Last week at a pharmacy I watched a guy get into a fight with a self-checkout machine. He was frowning at the screen, muttering curses, furiously tapping keys, listening to automated beeps, stomping his feet, and tapping harder (because that always works). Finally he grabbed his purchases and stomped out without paying the $13.26 he owed. That’ll teach the darn machine!
Despite optimistic articles about new stores opening, it’s pretty clear who’s winning the battle between online shopping and brick-and-mortar retail. A giant mall near me is being converted to housing. Sears and JC Penny filed for bankruptcy. Macy’s closed 131 stores. Bed Bath and Beyond shuttered 237 locations. CVS terminated 900. And have you been to a department store lately? Empty shelves, shabby dressing rooms, broken escalators, dispirited staff … it’s like a nature documentary where the hippo gets mired in quicksand while buzzards circle overhead and jackals lick their lips. Everyone knows this won’t end well for the hippo.
In my more optimistic moments, I don’t see this as a battle of human vs. machine but rather our species’ cleverness at sticking robots with the dangerous and boring jobs we don’t want to do, like toll collecting, bomb disposal, coping with rush hour traffic, and tracking down stray cans of tuna. However we feel about automation, machines are clearly going to be taking over more and more of our lives, and we have to make the best of it. “If you can’t change it,” Maya Angelou said, “change your attitude.” So I’m determined to make friends with with the microprocessors in my life, including the new human-free taxis. And if there’s a glitch and I wind up someplace unexpected, I’ll follow this wise advice I found online: “When something goes wrong in your life, just yell ‘Plot Twist’ and move on.”
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5/4/2022 06:09:43 pm
I wonder when Americans are finally going to make the connection between their (seemingly limitless) anxieties and stress and their equally (seemingly limitless) desire to eliminate human contact from their lives.
Karen K McCann
5/4/2022 08:01:08 pm
So true, Traci! When you look at the longest-lived, healthiest, happiest old people on earth (those in the so-called Blue Zones) it's all about community and spending time with others, preferably over good food and wine. It's not about spending more time interacting with machines!
5/4/2022 06:35:08 pm
'Plot Twist!' That's a great idea. We love that here and at least two of us will be trying that next time plans go awry.
Karen K McCann
5/4/2022 08:02:36 pm
Rich and I are adopting this phrase too, Polly. It kind of takes the pressure off and puts things in perspective. Let me know how it works out for you and yours.
5/4/2022 09:58:18 pm
I just toured James Madison University in VA and they had the cutest little robots delivering food to the students who were studying for finals.
Karen K McCann
5/5/2022 02:27:07 am
Where were those robots when I was in college? The students must love them. And what a good way to foster good human-cyborg relations!
5/4/2022 11:59:42 pm
Wow, what a shock. We've been hunkered down in the third world for almost three years, where one might easily expect the empty shelves in your photos. Nope, the retail shelves here are packed, although, I admit, I do sometimes encounter broken escalators.
Karen K McCann
5/5/2022 02:33:06 am
It's all what you're used to, isn't it, Alicia? I read one article that talked about Americans "scrambling to buy food." Not really! The main difference now, with all the supply line disruptions and staff shortages, is that shelves aren't restocked as quickly and I can't always get the exact same brand of every product that I'm used to buying. A first world problem for sure! Panama sounds like a great place to be these days, with fresh local produce and more. Enjoy your time there!
5/5/2022 07:16:27 pm
Even Fido is going to have to adapt to changes! Here, store shelves have been running out of dog food for a while now.
5/10/2022 01:49:24 am
Yes, the world is rushing by so fast it's a blur these days, affecting everyone, even our canine companions. Like you, Faye, I'm doing my best to move with the times and somehow keep my head thorough it all. I keep reminding myself at least I can't complain about things being dull!
5/6/2022 01:34:49 am
I too cringe with all that unnecessary packaging coming from online the superstore and avoid it most of the time. And when I try to order directly from the company I sometimes get it sent from the superstore instead. Challenging times we live in. Trying to make a environmentally sensitive purchase is difficult. You might do a future article about the darkside of solar energy and cellphones. My choice to electrify, go solar and get an electric car comes with the moral consequences of mining for minerals that are rare and are stripping much needed resources from local communities and often use child labor under difficult and dangerous circumstances. Kind of takes the joy out of having the so called perfect solutions to counter climate change. I appreciate the lighter tone you bring to these serious issues and appreciate your raising them. Since my sister Ann and I met you two in Lesbos I have introduced several of my friends to your delightful posts! I gave some of my okra to a former refugee from Bosnia and we bonded over a conversation about Bey soup.Thanks, Linda
5/10/2022 02:02:09 am
Yes, the hard truth is, as you point out, Linda, there are no perfect solutions, especially when it comes to climate change and the way each of us uses energy and resources. I do my best to be a conscientious citizen, as I know you and Ann do. On days when I feel I've failed, I remember the Benedictine's motto: Always we begin again. On a cheerier note, I'm glad your friends enjoy the posts and am not surprised okra and the soup story helped you bond with someone from Bosnia. Everyone there is crazy about Begova Čorba (Bey's soup); they call it the "ultimate comfort food of the Balkans." And I can see why! No wonder the recipe has been passed down for 500 years.
5/20/2022 07:29:27 am
Hahaaaa, "Plot Twist", I love it!!! I'm really going to try to remember that the next time I need it, though I've noticed that those things tend to slip my mind at the moments I need them the most!! 😄
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
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