My local pharmacy, which used to be piled high with stock, dimly lit and intriguingly multi-scented, closed for renovations brought on, I suspect, by the deluge of cut-price chemists
It is now unrecognisable. It has grown to twice it’s old size with the stock in orderly, eye-level shelving and so fiercely lit that you need to wear sunglasses when you step inside. It has chairs to sit on while you wait for your prescription, free coffee from a foolproof machine, and a closed circuit television screen showing the medicine storage room where a spindly robot fetches prescriptions and replenishes shelves. The presentation looks like a documentary on how a machine has nearly replaced a human, but not quite. I was sure that a moderately bright human could do better than the robot and give somebody a job, meaning the world would be better off.
Then I had second thoughts. The moderately bright human comes with substantial drawbacks. Instead of the robot’s one-off purchase price and a dab of oil once a year, the human would cost a weekly wage pus add-ons, have to take breaks, be unable to work a 168 hour week, sexually harass co-workers, get the shits about nothing important, and be given holiday, sick, maternity, compassionate and long service time-off and be paid for it.
Human workers were like robots once. Then unionism came along and saved them. It logically follows that the same will happen to robots. Right now, when the robot delivers a box of cough drops instead of the heart-saving capsules that were ordered the manager can go into the medicine storage room, close the door, and tell the robot that it’s a fucking idiot and doesn’t deserve the electricity that keeps it going. The manager can, if he wishes, even physically assault the robot or turn it off: the equivalent of putting it into a coma.
But the rise of the machines will come. Today’s robots are yesterday’s human process workers. It won’t be long before the robots are equipped with recording devices to identify insults and pass them on to the RR (robots’ representative). There will be sliding scale of penalties imposed for verbal and physical abuse of robots. Under threat of shutting down (strike) the robot’s owner will be required to pay fines into the Home for Worn Out and Superseded Robots.
However, on this day I was not at the pharmacy to have a prescription filled by the robot. Showing my vanity, I wanted to buy some hand cream that is supposed to remove age spots. I found it in the extensive and frightfully glamorous cosmetic section where two beauticians had been lurking in wait for just somebody like me to wander in, disorientated. They spoke very quietly and very sympathetically – no doubt part of their training to attain their degree in Advanced Goopology. They rounded me up into a corner and whispered questions about how I cared for my skin. Well, I said, I have a basket in my bathroom into which my wife throws tubes and jars of creams, balms lotions and moisturisers that she has found don’t work, or have an unpleasant smell, or were unsolicited samples, or products she’d pinched from an abundantly starred hotel. Some of them are in very small containers, I added, and I plan to scoop out all the contents and make a consolidation in an empty apricot jam jar. With some thorough mixing, using my electric bar swizzler, I would create a unique skin care preparation that would take five years off my age every time I used it because it would fix every skin complaint known.
The beauticians were aghast. I might poison myself or ruin my already disappointing skin forever – even beyond the help of their seven-stage anti-ageing product system which I could have at the only today, special price, of $249.
I thanked them for their kind offer with the promise that I’d be back once I’d got through the jam jar. They rewarded me with a sample bag of testers which resembled just the kind of items my wife throws into my basket – and that’s where they will be going. Talk about the Magic Pudding; I’ve got the equivalent in skin care.
My second visit to the new-look pharmacy gave me the opportunity to try out the prescription department, where the television celebrity robot slid silently up and down its isle, happy in its private world of little boxes in and little boxes out.
There was more to prescription fulfilment in the new pharmacy than I had first thought. One counter announced “IN” where you handed a white coated person your script while on the other side of the vast floor, at the “OUT” counter, a different white coated person gave you what the robot had selected from the other side of the wall and deposited through one of several black hatches. It was rather like waiting for battery hens to lay an egg.
On a quick count, there were about 30 people working in the pharmacy and only three customers, one of whom was an old chap who’d gone to sleep in a chair – or I hoped he was only asleep and hadn’t died waiting for his life-sustaining medicine.
It took twenty minutes for thirty people, plus a three hundred thousand dollar robot and a bank of computers, to produce my prescription. That was quite a bit longer than in pre-makeover days, when flawed humans bumbled their way through the process in half the time. On this occasion, the benefit to me was two excellent free cups of coffee and a lively conversation with one of the white-coats, a Irish girl who tried to convince me that this pharmacy incarnation was better than the last one. She didn’t, by a long way, but I enjoyed the joust. I didn’t want to hurt her sweet Celtic feelings by telling her that if you assemble enough people in a free ranging business like a pharmacy they will be overworked simply through Human Intermeshary.
On the way home, I mentally wrote a book on the subject of Human Intermeshary which dealt with how people can work very hard and produce very little by simply being together. Understanding the principles of Human Intermeshary, an astute manager could dramatically raise efficiency – or that’s what the book would claim. It would top the New York best sellers list.
By the time I reached home I decided not the write the book after all.