Rage Against the Machines

The crisp salmon-colored 10RM note slid into the parking garage’s autopay machine with a mechanical whir, which turned sour, like a cat’s distressed cry, as it spat the note back at me. In went the note again, and back out it popped. I flipped the note over and tried again. Same thing. I reversed it. Same again. I grumbled and fumbled for a different note, but before I could get one ready, my girlfriend was already feeding the machine, and it was gobbling them up gladly. I felt my eye twitch. Maybe, though, a 10 was too big a denomination, and her feeding it 1RM notes was the key. When the machine spat my ones back at me, I threw my hands up and cursed the malevolent robot. When the parking fee was paid, the machine offered us our card, and I snatched it away.

Next in line, our friend retrieved a rumpled 10 from his pocket, and placed it in the machine’s maw. “Aw, fuck you!” I groused loudly as in one fluid motion, the machine made a meal of his bill and produced his updated parking card. To an outside observer, it may have appeared that I was making an enemy of a friend through strong language and dismissive body language. But this is wrong.

I have a long history of conflict with technology. About a year ago, I was taunted by an order-taking machine at Boloco. I just wanted a burrito, and as I navigated through the slick touchscreen environment, the machine kept asking me if I wanted all sorts of extras, and just kept piling on the requests. The answer was no. I just wanted a burrito. But the torrent of questions was clearly there to teach the machine about me. It was there to learn.

On one hand, smart machines would be a great thing. I’d probably fight with them less if they knew what I wanted to do. But what happens when they get too smart? I imagine the same machine, after a year’s worth of orders, might get a bit judgmental. “Extra cheese?” Yes. “Are you sure?” Yes. “Really, do you think you really need extra cheese? I mean look at you.” Seriously, what kind of monster would give italics to an intelligent machine?

It’s not as if I beef with technology all the time, though. I write this blog on a machine, and I hardly ever yell at it. I drive a car, and it’s pretty much safe from misdirected anger. I need these things, or at least I think I do. I need them, and when they break down or go insane, it’s maddening. Perhaps it’s that a repeated automated response feels like insanity or taunting, neither of which is easy to respond to when your adversary has no face.

Machines and I have a complicated relationship. I don’t like to fight with machines, but it just happens. Scanning a can of beans at a self-checkout station can quickly escalate into a colorful floorshow. It’s not that I think calling a robot names will hurt its feelings–I’m not some kind of dumb ape–but it’s generally considered gentlemanly to let loose an insult before entering into violence. It’s the glove slap to the cold, unfeeling face of technology.

Pistols at dawn, you metal bastards!

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