Rumination 61: Automation Visualised

Something that we hear about frequently these days is how we need to prepare for the future of work. With the growing use of automation, artificial intelligence and online services, many different jobs that are currently performed by humans will continue to be taken over by efficient machines.

People will apparently have to focus on developing soft skills and creativity—the very things that make them human and superior to a machine. That is, at least until machines are so advanced that they can replicate or outperform humans in creative endeavours. Really, nothing is safe.

We’re already in the midst of this seismic societal shift and for those who are unfamiliar with the terminology, it’s generally referred to as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ or ‘Industry 4.0’ (I cringe at the second moniker).

As far as I’m concerned, although many of the technologies that are replacing (and will continue to replace) humans are new, the trend of replacing humans in general is not. There’s a reason that it’s referred to as the fourth revolution: this has all happened before. Humanity survived the earlier march of mechanisation.

Still, while I try to retain some optimism for the future and remember that history does tend to repeat itself, it does feel strange and somewhat unsettling to see tangible examples of this societal shift in person. This isn’t just a future thing; it’s happening now.

One instance of such human replacement presented itself when my wife and I went to see a movie on the weekend. Upon entering the cinema with our tickets in Apple Wallet, already booked online, we expected to go to a counter to have a human scan our barcodes and let us through the foyer. This was not the case; we were confronted by a normal counter, which one would expect to see manned, but instead had automatic scanners and printers ready to receive us in front of where a person would normally be standing.

To be clear, we are accustomed to seeing automatic checkouts at supermarkets; the difference there is that it is a new kind of space in the supermarket, with a series of computers and scanners arranged appropriately with a human stationed nearby to provide assistance. In the case of the cinema ticket counter, machines had been installed into the very place where a human being would traditionally stand. This was not the creation of a new interface or service context; it was the presentation of pure human replacement, an awkward transition into what the company clearly envisages to be the future.

All in all, the movie was most enjoyable and we had a great evening. That being said, there was something strange and lacking about going into a cinema, which is fundamentally a public place, and not having to deal with a person in receiving a ticket. There was no one there to rip a ticket, scan a digital equivalent or simply say, ‘Enjoy the movie’.

Yes, this is one small example of automation out of many possible situations, however it is a noticeable change that can affect how you understand and move through such a space. It alters the experience. Cinemas should be competing with automated alternatives in the home like Netflix by providing a human-service experience, not falling into the trap of dehumanising their service offerings and ultimately losing their point of differentiation.

We should ask ourselves: in the quest for incredible efficiency over ‘slow’ human interaction, what are we losing in the long run?

Rumination 60: CAPITALISEm

Perhaps the simplest of all grammatical concepts is the noun. If you went to an Australian public school, as I did, teachers often gave a very clear and concise explanation for what constitutes a noun: it is either a person, place or thing (notice that each explanatory word is a noun itself!).

Of course, it’s much more interesting than this. You can have general nouns, concrete nouns, abstract nouns, gerunds, collective nouns… the list goes on.

What I find confuses people most however, is the difference between common and proper nouns in English. Oxford English Dictionary defines them as follows:

Common noun: a noun denoting a class of objects or a concept as opposed to a particular individual; and

Proper noun: a name used for an individual person, place or organisation, spelled with an initial capital letter, e.g. Jane, London and Oxfam.

Quite simply, the difference is whether the noun deserves a capital letter or not. A place name, such as ‘Melbourne’, deserves one, but a general word like ‘milk’ does not.

In languages like German, it’s different—all nouns are assigned a capital letter, regardless of their significance or what they represent. A proper noun like Otto, the abstract noun Fröhlichkeit (cheerfulness) and the common noun Milch (milk) all have capitals in German.

Back to English, you just have to learn to understand the difference and deal with what seems to be (but isn’t) inconsistent. Unfortunately, too many people fail to understand this distinction and include capital letters in common nouns. To give you an example, consider the qualification ‘Master of Business Administration’. In this particular name, all the nouns ‘master’, ‘business’ and ‘administration’ are common, but combined they form the official title of a qualification, which earns them the right to have a capital letter. The title is a proper noun in the form of a group.

I have noticed increasingly, however, that people see such titles and do not realise that they are in title case; instead, they believe that all fields—whether business administration, science, engineering or law—are all official things that require a capital letter.

It has become such a visual scourge online (at least for me), that I have chosen to classify it with a new term: CAPITALISEm.

The growing phenomenon of CAPITALISEm is not confined to professional spheres; it’s also prevalent on retail signage. This week, I spotted this puzzling example at a Myer shop, which looks like it was written by someone who thinks that Everything on the Sign is really important.

Over 60 Security Cameras, together with trained Security Personnel and Merchandise Tagging Systems are used in this store This provides even greater Safety, Security and Merchandise Protection for our valued customers

After reading this sign, one could assume that there are 60 people called ‘Security Camera’, one person by the name of ‘Security Personnel’ and an indeterminable number of people called ‘Merchandise Tagging Systems’. Furthermore, they are all being ‘used’ in some way, which I don’t wish to imagine.

Moving to the next sentence, the writer has switched to the German tradition of capitalising the abstract nouns ‘Safety’, ‘Security’ and ‘Merchandise Protection’—all undoubtedly significant elements of the human condition. Finally, the beneficiaries of these abstract nouns are ‘Valued Customers’. I can only assume that Myer believes that all visitors to its shops are called ‘Valued Customer’.

The icing on the cake is that neither of the two sentences end with a full stop and only one noun on the entire sign has not been granted the privilege of CAPITALISEm: ‘store’. With the capitalisation of this common noun, someone at Myer could have convinced me that they were going for some sort of super-innovative retail title case, however this reveals that it was in fact only foolish inconsistency. Someone wrote this poorly, someone ordered it to be made, someone made it and then someone put it on the wall. Nowhere along the line did someone look at this and say, ‘This looks ridiculous’.

Moreover, it is possible that with a logo in all capital letters, MYER is Australia’s leading advocate for the new wave of CAPITALISEm. The company clearly cannot envisage a world in which the capital letter does not reign SUPREME.

The next time that you read a Post online about the growing Importance of measurable Data in effective Brand Storytelling or browse a Menu and choose to order roast Lamb with a red Wine Jus on a bed of mashed Potato, grilled Asparagus and Cherry Tomatoes, point out these rogue, nonsensical capital letters and ensure that you do not fall into the same habit in your writing.


Rumination 59: They See Me Rollin'

For years, I’ve joked that one of the most frustrating things about visiting one of our local shopping centres, Figtree Grove, has been getting caught behind various elderly customers and their trolleys. No matter how determined you may be to duck in and out of the place quickly for a bottle of milk, you’ll end up stuck behind a convoy of trolleys through automatic doors, at the checkout and in the car park. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you’ll even run into three different sets of friends along the way, turning five minutes into 50 minutes.

Being a Seinfeld fan, this regular predicament has always reminded me of one of Jerry’s opening sets from the TV show, in which he describes how retirees like his parents drive in Florida. Conveniently enough for linking and quoting purposes, it also features in this transcript from a 1998 live show:

I just can’t drive around there. You know how these old people drive… They drive slow, they sit low. That is their motto. The state flag of Florida should be just a steering wheel with a hat and two knuckles on it. And they left that turn signal on since they left the house that morning. That’s a legal turn in Florida. It’s known as an eventual left. You can signal this week, turn any following year of your life. What is that age that old people reach when they decide when they back out of their driveway, they’re not looking anymore? You know how they do that? They just go: “Well, I’m old and I’m coming back.” “I survived. Let’s see if you can.”

This is certainly the attitude that I’ve seen from older customers in their navigation of the shopping centre and believe me, I’ve always tried to remain patient and respectful.

Well, today Natasha and I saw in person the kind of reckless road behaviour that Jerry described, which not only eclipsed our regular trolley experience but even his driveway story. While cruising through the suburbs to visit family, we encountered this unlikely road warrior…

Clearly, this man cares neither for the safety nor the schedules of his fellow drivers. He rolls how he wants. It took some time for him to hear us and move out of the way and he’s fortunate that we were patient and careful. (Playing songs by Earth Wind & Fire in the car might have assisted with this.)

Although we may laugh or cringe, there is surely a lesson in this: perhaps we all need be like this guy once in a while, just slowing down to enjoy the day, without caring what others may think.