If Your Barista Has Too Much Attitude, Replace Him With This Machine

Is the "robots are never snotty" approach to selling products a portent of things to come?

Modern Luxury describes itself as "the preeminent luxury lifestyle publisher in the United States." Its media kit pegs the median net worth of its readership at $815,200. One of its titles, Riviera, serves Orange County, California. And over the weekend, as I perused a copy with Rob Lowe on the cover, I happened upon this advertisement:

A few things are going on here. There's a "zing" factor that grabs you. They're playing on the stereotype of snotty baristas (one I haven't generally found to be true). Since it's in a magazine that also has an advertisement for a $6 million house and features multiple watches that cost 6 figures, playing on this particular stereotype can't help but have an "it's so hard to get good help these days" vibe.

And while all that is very provocative, what I found most fascinating about the ad is the notion it's selling: that machines can save you from having to deal with people.

Is it a portent of things to come?

Typically, we hear that technology is replacing human labor at a rapid pace and are warned that we may all end up in the service industry one day unless the trend abates. This ad combines a dig at a subset of service industry workers with the suggestion that people could avoid them too... if they buy a machine to make their Cappuccino at home. It doesn't say that the machine will perform better than the human. The conceit of the add is that it makes drinks exactly as good as a barista. The ad doesn't say the machine is cheaper either. All of the ostensible value added is the opportunity to bypass human contact.

For me, that's a counterproductive pitch. The idea of excellent coffee drinks made easily at home sounds appealing. But mentioning baristas makes me think of the coffee shops that I frequent. As longtime readers know, I often work best at those places, and I almost always get to like the people with whom I briefly interact, whether at the best independent shop by my house, the name of which I'll never reveal, or the Starbucks location in El Segundo that's my favorite in that chain.

On the other hand, I'd much rather purchase a car, register for wedding gifts, or buy electronics without a salesperson there to upsell me, patronize me, or slow me down. And I always feel uncomfortable when someone wants to carry my suitcases.

All of this is to say that I recognize service industry tradeoffs exist, and that they're a factor that will shape which jobs get automated. I am nevertheless mildly surprised to see a company come so close to explicitly employing a "machines are more pleasant than people" argument. Even if most consumers aren't baristas, all consumers are people. How much human solidarity do they have?

In coming years we're going to find out.