Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Education and the Self-Service Thunderdome

While the Institute Staff was on vacation, circumstances required me to visit one of the Walton Family's Money Collection Sites. It was... something.

The Walmart was nearly empty of employees. I felt weirdly on my own, unable to ask for help in locating the product I was looking for, unable to determine of the sparse offerings on the shelves were in fact all the store had to offer. Had there been product choices available, I certainly wasn't going to find anyone who could help me navigate those choices. And of course at the end, I could check myself out or wait for the aid of the single cashier on duty. 

It's impossible to know how much of my experience was the result of the current labor holdout situation and how much was the result of management policy. But it was weird to be basically on my own in a store.

Of course, we know that my experience is what Walmart has in mind for the future. A store in Fayetteville is going cashier-less, with just a few self-checkout "hosts" to help customers chip in on the process of reducing the Walmart human labor force. I've had friends and family report cashier-free experiences in the House that Sam Walton Built, but this seems to be the first official floating of this ominous boat.

Of course, Walmart says this is going to be wonderful. "Speed up the checkout process." "Serve customers more effectively." "More choices." This PR from the company tries to spin it as a new kind of checkout, with all cashiers becoming hosts who now offer face to face help--a "relationship." Raise your hand if you believe that in a well-entrenched self-service Walmart world, the number of humans employed as hosts will be comparable to the number currently employed as cashiers. 

There are other less obvious side-effects of the move to self-service. In particular, Walmart has been working on heavy-duty surveillance systems to deal with theft, like an AI system that "uses cameras to read the movements of customers, and determine if an item was bagged but not scanned at the self-checkout kiosk."

I'm not opposed to self-service on principle. I do not, for instance, miss gas station attendants at all (you youngsters can go ask your parents or grandparents what they were). Rather than explain to someone what I want and then wait for them to do it, it's far simpler to just get out of the car and do it myself. But what value is added by having me do my own swiping across a bar code reader?

In fact, as we're having the chance to view across many businesses these days, "self-service" is a pretty euphemism for "reduced service." 

It's the dawn of retail thunderdome, in which the retailer provides customers with virtually no service at all except for a building, a marketplace in which to hunt, as best your able, for what you are able to find. Need help? Holler fruitlessly at the surveillance cameras. Can't find what you want? Not their problem--you're welcome to choose from whatever they decide to put on the shelves. Customer, you are on your own.

If this model seems vaguely familiar, that's because it's the same model at the heart of modern school choice. It is self-service education, an "ecosystem" in which customers are on their own, without aid or assistance or even anyone to make sure that the available options are safe. Nobody around to watch out for their interests but themselves. Caveat your own emptor, buddy. Here's a tiny voucher to help you feel as if the community hasn't abandoned you entirely, but once we hand you that voucher, we wash our hands of you.

The Waltons like the newest iteration of their money gathering operation because employing humans is expensive and annoying, even if you do manage to keep union talk squashed. Choice is appealing for the same reason (in fact, literally to the same people) because dealing with humans is expensive and troublesome and especially when it involves paying taxes.

There are people who like self-service checkout, because it works for them and, so far, they still have their old options if they need it. And Walmart is a private business, not a public and community trust, so that's different from education. 

But one principle remains the same--when someone gives you less and tries to convince you that they're doing you a favor, that is not only baloney, but baloney you have to assemble yourself.

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