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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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California.
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