Tag Archives: needless technology

Too Much Technology: Tableside

I was at the Olive Garden today and I saw the latest incursion of technology into daily life.

Image stolen from techcrunch.com.

Each table is outfitted with a tablet on which the patrons can browse the menu, order items off-the-cuff, request drink refills, even pay the check — without the need for a server to visit the table.

And I thought, wow, that’s cool, for about five seconds, before I realized, wait, that’s actually kind of messed up.

It isn’t hard to see what’s cool about it. And the server I asked about it was quick to sell me on the fancy features of it, all the neat and nifty things the customer can use it to do. Got kids whom you want to get a plate of food in front of, like, immediately when you sit down? Use this tablet for that. Had a rough day at work, and need a refill on your glass of wine right this instant? You can place the order yourself without waiting for the server to place it, then wait on the bartender, then run it to you. Movie’s about to start, and you need to pay your ticket right now if you hope to make it in time for the previews? Swipe your card right at the table.

Convenience! Ease of use! Instant response!

But. (There’s always a but, isn’t there?)

I quickly realized that I feel about this pretty much the same way I feel about self-checkout lines at the grocery store. Which is to say that the restaurant is now forcing me to do some of the work that I take as a given will be done for me as part of the social contract of visiting a place of business that, I thought, was in the business of serving the customer.

What I mean is, I have a job. I go to work for eight hours every weekday (and often eight hours is just the beginning) to earn my paycheck so that I can buy for my family the things we need. You know: roofs over our heads, clothes on our backs and shoes on our feets, little toys with a hundred detachable bits for me to step on in my bare feet at five in the morning when I sneak downstairs for a run. When we have a little left over, we like to splurge by going out to dinner.

And a not-at-all-insignificant part of the going out to dinner experience is the fact that we do it precisely to get a break from the reality wherein my wife and I have to do everything. Who’s cooking the meal? We are. Who’s filling the sippy cups and rushing to the sink to rinse off the toddler spoon that fell on the carpet and is now sporting a hunk of cat fur and carpet schmutz? We are. Who’s cleaning up the table afterward, doing the dishes, and in short doing everything that makes living unlike a band of complete savages possible? We are. We go out to eat to avoid all that.

And now this tablet. It pretends to be there for our convenience, but it’s not. Okay, maybe it kind of is … many are the times I can recall sitting at the table for minutes (entire minutes!) on end, waiting for the server to come round again for any one of the services outlined above. (Come to think of it, I think we get avoided more now that we have kids, but maybe that’s a post for another time.) But I have a sneaking suspicion that while this tablet pretends to serve the customer, it’s really to serve the restaurant, in that it cuts out the middle man. It eliminates a link in a chain, and any time you can shorten a chain, sheer probability dictates that you have less likelihood of encountering a weak link in that chain. And the weak link in this chain is … the server!

Far be it from me to say that servers are by definition weak links. I did my time waiting tables in many a restaurant, as did my wife. It’s a difficult job. Thankless. Much more complicated than a lot of people give credit for. Believe me, I have respect for the good servers out there (and we tip accordingly … none of that “your reward is waiting in heaven!” crap from my pocket). That said, there are some really garbage servers out there, and they can ruin the experience for the customer … and a customer who has had his experience ruined is likely to take it out on the restaurant vis-a-vis not coming to the restaurant anymore. So: install a tablet to take the place of a server descending on your table like a hummingbird every couple of minutes (or, maybe more like a migrant goose, every couple of months). Drinks are low? Need to pay and skedaddle? You don’t have to wait on another person to handle these things for you; just push a few buttons. In fact, with the tablet, you could really eliminate dedicated servers altogether and just staff the front of house with food runners and busboys (or busgirls, it’s the 21st century after all, although busgirls doesn’t sound quite right). I could sit down, tap up my drinks order, tap up my appetizer, and even tap up my entree (complete with preparation instructions that I now know will definitely make it to the kitchen — so when they serve me my chicken with fargoing mushrooms on it I’ll know it was the kitchen that screwed up and not my server). Why bring another person into the mix?

Monkey, Buttler, Operation, Waiter, Control

Because, as I said before, we go out to dinner so that we don’t have to do it all. I go out to dinner so that I can have a stranger kiss my butt a little, serve me with a smile, come around and fill up my water five or six times. I want them to do these things for me so that I don’t have to do these things myself. And yeah, this tablet means just pushing a few buttons to get these things done, but sharknado, if I wanted to push buttons and have it happen that way, I’d order online and bring the food home to eat. I like the interaction with a person. I like getting to boss somebody around for a little bit. And I will gladly pay for this service in the form of the gratuity we add on to the check at meal’s end.

Of course, as I said earlier, I don’t think this service is about me, the customer, at all; I think it’s much more to the benefit of the restaurant. No longer will I be able to complain: “well, I didn’t order that.” If I put the order in myself, then yes, I bloody well did order that. No longer will I be able to leave angry reviews on Yelp that we had to wait fifteen minutes for the server to collect and process our check: if I have the option to pay right there at the table, then it’s my fault I sat there like a dunce with my card in my hand and my elbow in a puddle of orange Crush that my toddler expelled through her nose. The tablet protects the restaurant from all these complaints you could theoretically level against a server, and it gives the customer more control over their dining experience.

Thing is, though?

I don’t think I actually want that much control over my dining experience. I want it to be good, but I want it to be good because it’s orchestrated by people that care enough about other people to make it good.

I dunno, man. The robot revolution is not that far enough. I know this is a road we’re going down sooner or later. Maybe I’m turning into a curmudgeon. But this feels like yet another thing we’re removing the human element from when, maybe, it ain’t quite time to cut people out of the picture just yet.

Am I wrong? Is this the wave of the future, or does this unsettle you a little bit?


Terrible Reviews: Activity Tracker Edition

At some point in the past several years, trackers have gone from the stuff of spy movies and government conspiracies to the latest tech-slash-fashion-slash-fitness-slash-self-absorption craze. Being somewhat concerned with fitness, consistently fascinated by tech, not at all interested in fashion, and supremely selfish, I decided over the holidays that I might want one of these.

And I didn’t get one.

But that’s why God invented gift cards, innit? So a few days after Christmas, I had done some research with my wife looking over my shoulder, and we went and bought a Jawbone Up Move for each of us.

I’m pretty sure I hate the name. “Jawbone,” meh, whatever, that’s the name of the company, and I think they made headsets or something originally, so that gets a pass. “Up” is the name for their line of trackers (they make enough models to consider it a line now). I can’t say I endorse using an adverb as your product identity. Adjectives, sure. Speedy! Flamboyant! Hoopy! But an adverb? As an English teacher, I can’t say an adverb stands well on its own. Then there’s “Move”, which I don’t really have a problem with, as that’s what the gizmo is designed to get you to do. Plus, it’s in that authoritative imperative mood, so it sounds like an angry gym coach shouting at you to GET UP THAT ROPE COSTANZA. But you put it all together — Jawbone Up Move — and it sounds a little ridiculous. But you have to put it all together; you can’t just say “Up” or “Move” on their own because Google doesn’t know what you’re talking about, and other humans look at you funny or punch you. I’m just going to refer to it as the “JUM” herein, because that sounds a little like gum, and who doesn’t like gum?

In a world of Fitbits and Garmins and wrist straps and belt clips and skull implants and constant satellite monitoring, (you didn’t get the skull implant and satellite monitoring with your soy half caff? [I have no idea what a soy half caff is]) why the JUM? I’m not gonna lie, it was one of the cheapest options available, but it still boasts access to the Up app, which was highly favored by a slew of online reviewers, and which, after three weeks, I’m pretty fond of. What the JUM lacks in visual appeal and features it makes up for in simplicity and battery life — unlike most of these gadgets, it runs off a watch battery and doesn’t have to be plugged in every few days. Considering the veritable snakepit of little dongly things choking the drawers in our kitchen, this was no small selling point.

Look, it’s not my goal to actually review the thing, as I’m not an expert. All I really want to do is talk about my experience with it, which is equal parts insightful, amusing, and hilarious, and I imagine this experience would be more or less the same for any of these trackers.

Let’s start with insightful. The JUM perches quietly on your wrist or in your pocket or at your waistband or clipped to your earlobe or embedded in your spine (technology pending) and it counts your steps.

No, really, that’s about all it does. Like a sweatshop gnome hunched over an archaic adding machine with the tape spilling out onto the floor and his knobby knuckles hammering at the “+1” over and over again, it logs your steps throughout the day. More correctly, it counts step-like-movements, which can be gamed a little bit by swinging your arms around while you talk on the phone, for example. It also purports to track your sleep by the same metric (tracking movements while you lay in bed under the premise that you hold exceptionally still while asleep). That sounds cool, but I have my doubts about how accurate or reliable that information can be.

In short, all of this is built around the premise that 10,000 steps a day can help you lose weight and get healthier, which is probably true, because as it turns out, 10,000 steps is actually rather a lot.

But it’s more impressive than just counting, because it also syncs with your phone to track the time you took all those steps. So it can tell you, for example, that from seven-thirty AM until eight-fifteen AM, you took 300 steps as you milled around your apartment getting ready for work, from nine until five you took thirty steps as you parked your donk in your cubicle all day, and from five-after-five until five-twenty, you took seven thousand steps as you chased down and murdered your co-workers with an axe. The JUM then aggregates this data for you and pushes it at your face through these bright and cheerfully colored graphs.

So you’re left with collections of numbers and pages upon pages of graphs that describe what you were doing and when and for how long, which probably has useful implications in case you’re ever questioned about all the suddenly axe-murdered employees at your job. And that’s interesting and insightful because it allows you to pinpoint the times of day when you are active and the times of day when you could use a bit more chasing and stabbing and digging and burying to get your heart rate up.

It’s also where the JUM becomes amusing. Because, if I’m honest, I don’t need the step counter to tell me that between 5 and 9 pm I don’t move that much, or that I get a bunch of steps in every day at work without even really trying. But the amounts are amusing. Turns out I walk about 2-3 miles daily at work, most of it in a thirty foot square classroom. And while that 10,000 step goal seems lofty and hard to reach on some days, on other days (and especially on my weekend long run days) it gets shattered. I put in (checks a big orange graph with a smiley face) 16,000 steps last Saturday, which brought my daily step average up to a little over 12,000. So the app now thinks that I need a challenge and it wants me to do 13,000 steps a day. And maybe I could do it, but the app slides it my way like a high-roller palming a twenty off to the valet, like it’s no big deal.

Then there’s the sleep tracking. The JUM supposedly tells you not only how many hours you sleep, but how long it takes you to fall asleep and how many times you wake up in the night. This is well and good and cool as long as you take into account that the thing isn’t measuring your brainwaves or anything, so it doesn’t actually know you’re sleeping or not; all it knows is that you weren’t moving very much, and this it interprets as sleeping. But my wife and I have kids. Two of them, under three years old. They wake up in the night, sometimes often. (Don’t talk to me about how nonsensical the phrase “sometimes often” is. I stand by it.) As a result, when we view our sleep data, we wind up with these deep canyons of orange (wakeful activity) in between the scattered cliffs of blue (various “stages” of sleep). Like a river-carved monument to our ongoing sleep deprivation.  The amusing part is the concept that I might need the app to tell me I woke up in the night. As if the raccoon eyes and the fact that I can’t keep my head upright during the day would let me forget. (And the centripetal force from my wife’s eye-roll just literally knocked me from my chair.) (She wakes up with the kids WAY more than I do.)

Speaking of my wife, that’s where the JUM gets hilarious. We try to be health-conscious: it’s the whole reason I started running, and I think the JUM feeds that in a quantifiable and productive way. And if the aim of the product is to get people off their butts and moving their feet in an attempt to better their health, I think that’s admirable.

But now, things have taken a whole other turn. My wife and I have both hit 10,000 steps every day for almost three weeks now. That doesn’t, however, mean that we’ve each had full, active days every day. It means we’ve managed to place our feet on the floor in an alternating pattern 10,000 times every day. It’s not an uncommon sight to find my wife walking laps around the living room or the kitchen, listening to podcasts while the kids are napping or asleep. I’ve jogged in place in my pajamas next to the bed on a couple of occasions to get a final 1000 steps in. Even now, my as I type, my wife is stomping a moat into the carpet around our coffee table while my son chases her in advance of his bedtime. We’ve become walking robots. This little gizmo on our wrists has made us competitive to the point of absurdity, which I suppose means the product is working as intended, though I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me feel like an idiot a lot of the time.

All told, the JUM (and, by extension, probably just about every other tracker on the market) therefore falls into the category of wholly unnecessary but nonetheless delightful little devices that are now a part of my life, next to my keyless entry for the car, my smartphone, my bluetooth earpiece (say what you will, I know they’re douchey as all get-out, but I love that thing for the car and while doing chores around the house), my GPS watch, and any number of laptop peripherals. This is one of those things that if you think you’ll enjoy it, you probably will, and if you think you won’t, well, there are certainly better things to spend your money on.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I somehow have to find 3000 more steps before the bedtime my JUM has set for me at 9:57.

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