Sometimes, this can result in an awkward dance between the human world and the automated one. At many supermarkets and big box stores, for example, space once allotted to a checkout station has been replaced by a row of self-checkout systems. The cashier, who previously had a designated spot behind the counter, now stands at the end of this row, ready to assist when customers get confused or if the machines fail. At stores such as Target, the staffer often has no dedicated workstation. A position once tied to a physical location has become unmoored.
At parking lots, this detachment is even starker. Parking decks and lots used to contain shelters near their entrances. They housed a parking attendant, who took a customer’s fees and raised the gate. Automation has resulted in the removal of that shelter, since a machine now purportedly does the task. Yet, in Los Angeles, where I live, you nonetheless regularly find attendants standing by the exit, helping customers navigate the machines or serving as manual override on glitchy technology.
“There always has to be someone there to fix it when it breaks,” says Rory Hyde, a London-based curator of contemporary architecture and urbanism who co-curated “The Future Starts Here” with Pestana. “There has to be someone there for the exception to the rule.”
The person may be there, but the architecture that once contained them is gone. At the parking lot of a medical building I frequent on Wilshire Boulevard, I always find the same middle-aged Latino man standing on a narrow strip of concrete feeding customer’s payment cards into the automated machine.
“Don’t they give you a little place to sit?” I ask him.
“Es automático,” he responds with laugh and a roll of the eyes. It’s automatic. (He and other checkout workers I approached for this story, declined to be interviewed on the record.)
Automation is often lamented in the context of job loss—when machines can do the work that people once did, their jobs can be eliminated. A report issued by McKinsey & Company last year shows that 39 million jobs in the United States could be “displaced” by automation by 2030. Though, during that same time period, it is estimated that roughly 30 million jobs will be added to the economy—requiring many workers to shift duties or industries.
Some companies claim that automation has simply allowed them to reassign workers to other duties. Joe Perdew, vice president of store design at Target, told me that the company actually increased its headcount in 2017, despite the growing presence of self-checkout. “Approximately one-third of our guests choose self-checkout, so we’re adding self-checkout stations to give more guests a fast and autonomous alternative,” he notes. “In fact, we’re expanding self-checkout beyond the 1,500 stores that offer it today—adding to 150 more stores this year, with plans to be in all stores by end of 2019.”