Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

Where Will it End?…June 2006

A few weeks ago, I arrived at the Atlanta airport after a busy day of meetings. It was late in the day and I was getting seriously hungry. Since I had only a few minutes before boarding my flight -- and knowing that I would not be getting anything more than a tiny bag of salty pretzels for the next four hours -- I decided to get a quick hamburger. All I wanted (and had time for) was a simple hamburger with no onions and no cheese. I walked up to the Burger King counter, and to my surprise, I was greeted with -- “new technology”.

Instead of a clerk behind the counter, the new “ordering system” required that I place my order using a computerized kiosk that appeared to be a modest modification of the ones that we have all by now been taught to use to check in for our flights. There were several people ahead of me and they were all struggling with this new computerized ordering system. A Burger King employee was there to help and basically had to show everyone how to enter their order.

To my dismay (and without having to fill out any kind of employment application) I realized that I was about to be trained for a new career as a minimum wage Burger King order taker; Except that I wouldn’t even be paid the minimum wage. The company would simply keep the amount that they saved from my unskilled efforts at order entry.

I was pretty sure that I could figure out how to order the basic hamburger but what would I have to do to delete the cheese and the onions? I watched the people ahead of me. They were trying to get additional items such as fries and drinks. Everyone was confused, but seemed to be trying very hard to make it work. No one could quite figure out how to work through the many possible combinations of food and drink items. And given the short time I had, neither could I. Why did I have to put up with this inconvenience? What was in it for me? Out of frustration and anger, I insisted that the “helper person” just enter my order. This she did quickly and by watching her I could begin to see how, with a bit of study and practice, I too could learn the methodology.

Once the order was entered, I asked her how I should pay. “Simple”, she replied, “just put your twenty-dollar bill into the slot and the machine will give you change.” And it sure did! I received back sixteen one-dollar bills and ninety-two cents in loose change. Was the machine training me to never do that again? I guess I was supposed to either use a credit card or have more dollar bills handy. The total transaction took about three times as long as it would have with a person behind the counter – even one who doesn’t speak English very well. And I just proved that, without training, I’m not very good at doing minimum wage work.

We are in the middle of a significant transition, and I’m not so sure that I like all of what is happening. We’re all being trained to do work that others used to do for us. When this shifting of responsibility provides something of value to me, then I don’t mind. However, if the change is only for the convenience – and to increase the profits -- of the companies, with our lives becoming more difficult as a result, then I think we all have a legitimate reason to resent and rebel.

It seems that this transition started not so many years ago with just a few “minor” irritations. Receptionists began to be replaced by automated phone systems -- with multiple layers of menus. Computer help-lines became more difficult to access. Getting knowledgeable sales help in stores became harder. Other seemingly minor changes took place – such as all the fruits and vegetables in grocery stores acquiring little identifying stickers on them because the check-out clerks apparently no longer could identify what kind of apples or oranges we were buying.

A few of these changes did prove to be of real benefit to us as consumers. ATM machines allowed us to get money even on weekends, or evenings, when banks are closed. Internet access to product information and the ability to order on-line, with the quantities in stock being shown in real-time, provided an added convenience. These new automated ordering systems are clearly superior to having to wait for a mail order to process, or having to wait to ask our questions by telephone during normal business hours of a vendor, perhaps in some other time zone.

In other cases, staff reductions have led to long waiting lines, such as at airports, government offices, and with increasing frequency, other businesses and service providers. That has made it worthwhile to learn the computerized access methods simply to regain the conveniences lost.

But in many other cases, why do I need to be forced to learn a system that is still in its clumsy infancy? Automated checkout at a grocery or hardware store is fraught with all kinds of potential errors. Some products don’t scan correctly, others such as vegetables and small loose items simply aren’t so easy to package for scanning. And why should I be doing the work that, with modest training, someone else can do more efficiently? The cumulative effect of all this is that our average earning capability is decreasing. We are spending more time each day doing the work that used to be done by lower paid workers for us. And we are not benefiting from this shift. Lower prices you think? Are you sure that we are the ones getting the savings? Could it be the companies instead?

I suppose one indirect benefit from all of this is that the display industry gets to produce more displays. As people are eliminated, the information they used to provide must be provided to us instead on display terminals of various kinds. As this trend to eliminate the human interface from our business transactions accelerates, we will more and more be looking at, and interacting with, video screens instead of people.

Is there a future for us where we will go shopping and never encounter a human being to help us make our purchases? Maybe the only other human beings we will see are other shoppers. So if we take this trend to its ultimate conclusion, factories will be fully automated and there will be no production workers, stores will not have sales personnel, and all services will be obtained via computer transactions. Wow! Does that mean that we will only continue to need people during this transition period while we create this new world-order? And then are we all done? If no one is needed afterwards, then who will pay us so that we can do the shopping? This new economy is really going to be interesting – with no workers, just shoppers. Will anyone be needed to install and maintain these computerized systems, or will that become automated also?

Do you have an idea or two to offer on how all this will work out in a future bristling with RFID tags and computerized transaction terminals? Let me know your thoughts. You may reach me directly from this site, by e-mail at, by telephone at 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.