Things That Make You Go Boop: Self-Check and Engels’ Pause

We order most of our groceries online in our house, but when we’re short on something or have forgotten a vital ingredient, we go to a Sainsbury’s supermarket ten minutes down the road. There are two tills staffed by cashiers and three of those machines that make you go boop: you have to scan the items for yourself, passing their barcodes over the laser light, and the machine lets you know it has logged the item with a “boop” sound.

I work a fair bit with public libraries, which also have things that make you go boop these days.

First they got rid of the old date stamp which would blam down on your book when it was issued by the librarian at their desk. Then they replaced the stamp with a scanner that could be wielded by a library worker to read the book’s barcode and issue your loan from the online catalogue.

Those scanners can just be plugged into laptops and even tablets, depending on the software, which makes it even easier for librarians to issue books and offer services outside their buildings.

As far back as 2013, we were making use of this technology at Auckland Libraries to offer offsite services like librarians embedded in comic book stores for Free Comic Book Day. We even piloted sending librarians out to bars, which evolved into the ongoing Reading Between the Wines Book Club.

Beyond the librarians’ quick-draw laser scanner, however, is the thing that makes you go boop: the self-check machine which lets people issue their own books, meaning they don’t have to go up to the issue desk at all. The librarians are free to do other things, including moving more freely around the library space and finding new, more effective ways to help people explore information, knowledge, and culture.

Some librarians are wary or outright hostile to the things that make you go boop. They fear job cuts, emphasise accessibility challenges, find anecdotes of users who are confused or put off by the self-check machines, or who are nostalgic for the days of the big old desk. Change is ever thus.

Even Russell T. Davies’ TV show Years and Years had a go at the things that make you go boop in a supermarket context, with the show’s matriarch pointing out that none of us complained when the women at the tills were replaced by machines.

I was thrown, because I love RTD’s work, but I’ve never felt bad about things that make you go boop. In 2019, most people are capable of grasping the tech to scan an object for themselves.

Organisations are not daft – they know they’ll need to provide some support and accommodation for users who are challenged by self-checkout, and they will provide it, because the librarians want their books to go on loan and the supermarkets want their goods to be sold.

You could even argue that the things which make you go boop speak to a transformation in our understanding of trust – the way we trust strangers to stay in our home or host them in ours via AirBnB; trust people we don’t know to pet-sit for us, and trust strangers to be our drivers or passengers on a ride share. Technology has created new possibilities for interaction, with new opportunities and new dangers to replace the old ones.

Whatever happens, though, if users are capable of going boop for themselves, it’s silly to waste time and effort going boop on their behalf.

Great public libraries are exploring what it means to free staff up from issuing loans, ensuring they have the skills and understanding to fulfil a new, more proactive and creative role. I’ve run workshops in Australia where we’ve helped staff of all ranks to brainstorm ideas for what they could and should be doing if they don’t need to be doing the boop. It has been a chance for front-of-house and junior staff to look at their organisation’s strategy, draw on their own experience of people’s needs, and come up with better ways to serve the community, more fulfilling for the staff as well as the library’s users.

But for public library services in some parts of the world – and I see this above all in the austerity-stricken UK – self-check machines are the enemy. The fear of losing your job, rather than being liberated to do it in more exciting ways, is too great.

And this is where that blistering speech from Years and Years comes in. It’s not that it’s bad if you go boop for yourself. It’s bad if you don’t want to look the people who serve you in the eye, if you don’t want to acknowledge the worth of people whatever they are paid, whatever kind of labour they do. It’s bad if you don’t find work that is more exciting, useful, and fulfilling for the person who used to spend their days going boop after boop after boop.

“This is the world we built,” Davies’ matriarch tells us. She’s right. That means both public library leaders, the bodies that fund libraries, and, yes, all of us, need to have a clear idea of what the library does, why it’s worth paying for, and what else library staff could be doing that doesn’t involve the boop.

Great public libraries like Hillsboro in the US are exploring new metrics focussed on the second-order impact they have on their communities, the lasting difference they make beyond people through the door and items out on loan. Knowing what they do, and the difference it makes, lets them create better and more fulfilling opportunities for staff to help and serve their community.

Dealing with life after the boop means dealing with “Engels’ pause” – the lag between a new technology arriving and workers getting higher wages because of it. We need to get serious about surviving and even thriving during the short-term of an automated society, when old tasks are lost but the new tasks and benefits haven’t arrived yet. Organisations need to think systemically, and compassionately, and with an eye to ensuring that innovation doesn’t equal injustice or exploitation.

It’s important to get this right, and ensure that automation frees us up to be more highly skilled, not less. The truth is that it’s not just the people at the issue desks or the supermarket cashiers who face this challenge.

Automation may start to encroach on ever higher cognitive domains, such as legal work and accountancy, meaning that more and more of us could be subject to Engels’ pause. My work for the Supreme Court Library of Queensland highlighted the extent to which even lawyers and the judiciary need to be mindful of this. No-one can be entirely certain of their long-term immunity from automation. Society, from government to the grassroots, had better get focussed on what we are going to do in the sudden space which may be created.

You’ll have seen the debate around automation articulated elsewhere, with varying degrees of expertise, but I think it’s especially important for us to understand what it means on the battleground of the public library. This civic space grants us access to knowledge, information, and culture, the freedom to explore rather than be lectured to or preached at.

The future of the public library experience will look ever less like the loaning of books across an issue desk and more like those new interactions which the digital society has already begun to explore, with new challenges and pitfalls but also new opportunities.

It’s a shocking feature of the information age that public libraries in some parts of the world have been so brutally buffeted by changes to the economy and society, precisely when their domain has become the most important in our everyday lives.

But ensuring that information professionals thrive alongside the communities they serve, and that our society navigates the coming changes with wisdom and compassion, begins with making the best of the things that make you go boop.

2 thoughts on “Things That Make You Go Boop: Self-Check and Engels’ Pause

  • “Technology has created new possibilities for interaction, with new opportunities and new dangers to replace the old ones.”

    I loved this whole piece, especially that bit. I love what technology is doing for libraries and how it can free up staff to explore. The big part is the next step: we need to have leaders in libraries that understand that staff need the freedom to explore. Self check out machines are so scary to me because they take away that critical moment where library staff connect with their community. It is so easy to just put that self check out machine out there and forget about that interaction. It takes great leaders to recognize that moment of interaction is so important and that it needs to happen in another way.

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