Saturday, July 26, 2008

Talking cash registers - a socio-technical tale

Around 1980-81, my high tech supermarket installed talking cash registers at the checkout stands. The store sold a wide selection of grocery and pharmacy products and at first, the introduction of new technology was just like stepping into the Space age.

That is, until we noticed that a computerized voice was announcing everything that we purchased by name, size, quantity and price. To help us hear over the sounds of people shopping, the voice was loud and could be heard in nearby checkout lanes.

Photo courtesy of Kanesue

I noticed that I started shopping in the wee hours of the morning to get privacy, and when others would loom near, I'd make snappy comments about my purchases.

Breaking a hundred-dollar bill by buying a pack of gum no longer seemed like a good idea. While the voice was very polite, shoppers reacted as if someone had hollered over a loudspeaker. "She's leaving the building with $97.25 in change!"

How people feel about technology and the tasks that they are performing influences their widespread adoption and use. For cool new technologies to be successful, we need to identify and understand their social implications and how they will impact growth and innovation.

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