The Impersonal Touch

In the food biz, technology trumps humanity

Creative Loafing Tampa

TAMPA, FL, April 13, 2005

By Laura Fries

The aisles loom, lit with the glare of a flickering fluorescent light. The refrigerators hum on and off, keeping the packaged food safely within USDA-required limits. It is night, and there aren’t many humans around … just the pale, washed-out clerks piloting the box pallets, filling the gaps in the walls with replacement boxes. Select something for your meal, and walk to the front of the store. Swipe your card; the computer will subtract the number of credits that the meal costs from your account. Get back into the car and drive home to the TV and the microwave, where no one has to see what you’ve guiltily chosen for your midnight meal alone.

It sounds like a doomsday scenario: post-apocalyptic grocery shopping. But it’s a standard scene in any modern grocery, where 24-7 and self-checkout are becoming de rigueur. Across the country, the way we eat is increasingly controlled by technology – and food producers are looking to remove even more humans from the equation.

In Beaver Falls, Penn., a computer named HyperActive Bob orders your food for you. Bob has big eyes to see you with, my dear. He has surveillance cameras outside of the McDonald’s where he works, and when he sees you coming, he sends messages to the kitchen: “More Big Macs! More Fries!” These messages are transmitted to the humans, who no longer have to talk amongst themselves to figure out what to do. Nope, as Nation’s Restaurant News reports, the kitchens where HyperActive Bob works are dead quiet.

I’m imagining a future where marketing data and HyperActive Bob come together. Driving an SUV? You must want a McSalad, with a few Happy Meals for the kiddies. A bunch of teenage girls in a convertible? McNuggets, pronto!

A McDonald’s in L.A. has experimented with outsourcing the voices that take your order at a drive-thru. Right now, the call center is based in North Dakota, but how long before that too gets shipped overseas? When the computer is telling the staff what to cook, and someone miles away is taking your order, the need for human interaction becomes virtually nil.

A planned drive-thru supermarket in Albuquerque would take things even further. Just pull up to the slot, take the computer touchpad into your car, and begin ordering. A team of 65 “product locator specialists” with headsets will rush through the store, picking out the items you’ve requested. Theoretically, you could place your order online at work before you left, and just pick up the food when you got to the market. Forget looking through a bin of fragrant winter citrus, noticing the first tender asparagus stalks of spring, or getting inspired by the gorgeous display of freshly ground bison. Just click on the boxes that correspond to the packages you’ll be needing, and continue to e-shop from your cell phone as you wait for your order.

It’s just progress, right? But progress comes at a cost. I honestly think Americans are going to forget what food really is. I’ll never forget the first time my youngest sister saw a bulb of raw garlic; she was 14, and she had no idea what it was that I was holding. For her, garlic was a powder, a flavor of butter, a type of potato chip. I’m imagining a generation of kids for whom food always comes in some sort of box, who can’t imagine preparation beyond microwaving, who get irritated at those old-fashioned places where you have to get out of your car and sit at a table.

Eating is and should be an art, but we keep trying to make it a service, and just like everything else in our country, we keep trying to make it faster, more convenient and time-efficient. But the simple truth is that all of these technologies only work in big, mega-chain stores with deep pockets; independents simply can’t afford them. If, by employing these technologies, companies like McDonald’s can shave even a little more off their operating costs and add to their profit margin… well, I don’t have to tell you that things like HyperActive Bob and the outsourced drive-through orders will become industry standards, and in order to compete, other businesses will soon have to follow suit.

How long will it be until we become dependent on these technologies? Will the next generation of kids think it’s bogus to get out of the car? Will they be unable to tell the difference between real bread and processed WonderKrap? Will they recognize garlic? And what, pray tell, will future generations be doing with all that precious time they’re saving by staying safely in their cars, waiting for their packages to be delivered?

THIS STORY

presaged my lifelong obsessions with things food and technology. In 2005; I was concerned with automation technologies in industrial food production – by 2009 I was working at Georgia Tech on an alternative concept that asked farmers to imagine sustainable technologies for organic farming.