Unexpected item in bagging area!

In a world where we turn to self-service checkouts to save precious time, join Oak Hill student Tom Bryant as he reflects on the idolatry of efficiency.

Self-service has been around for centuries, but technology is pushing the concept to new extremes. The self-service checkout (SSC) was patented by David Humble in 1984 after a frustratingly long wait in line at a shop, (1) but over the last fifteen years these machines have taken supermarkets by storm. How is this trend relevant to us as Christians? To answer, we need to think about the “story” the SSC tells us…

What’s the “story”?


Everything about the SSC is engineered to give the appearance of increased speed. They are often positioned closer to the exit, only have a space for placing a basket not a conveyor belt for a trolley-load of goods, and there is a single queueing area for a bank of machines as opposed to a queue per checkout, which means the queue for the SSCs is always moving fastest. In our busy world of Instagram, two-hour Amazon Prime Now delivery, and food within minutes from Just Eat and Deliveroo, the appeal is massive.


Striving for the gift, ignoring the giver.


Of course, faster transactions can be good. Our search for speed at the checkout may be a helpful recognition of the truth that God is the author of time, which is his gift to us to be used well, not wasted in a queue. Often though, we turn to the SSC to steal back precious seconds, distorting or suppressing this truth. We try to do more and more, not seeing time as a gift, but a commodity to grasp hold of. As we ignore the gift giver and strive after the gift, efficiency – or perhaps even a thinly veiled greed – becomes our idol.


This desire to be more time-efficient stems from the belief that we can somehow be justified by works – not the work of using the SSC, but the other work that is now possible because of the time we’ve saved. Our mindset is: “If I can just have a bit more time, I will have enough time.” But death means it is never enough. Efficiency
is an idol that is predictably inadequate, because no matter how much time we save, we can’t make more of it. Whilst our desire is seeded by the hope of eternity, the premise of efficiency is finite time. Perhaps the greatest irony of SSCs is that we are so enticed by their promise of time-efficiency that we fail to realise that they are often the slower option. (2)


But there is a better story…

Imagine a world where efficiency is meaningless: Work is so wonderfully engaging and completely fruitful that it is no longer an unwanted distraction from what we would like to do, but is a part of enjoying life. There is no grasping for extra time, because more time is always provided. There is no need to do more because everything that needs to be done has already been taken care of. Why would we want “the SSC experience” in that world?


Here’s the amazing thing: That world is here in part now, because everything that needs to be done for us to be saved has already been done, not by us, but by Christ. But we must also remember that it’s not yet here in its fulness. Only in God’s New Creation will work itself be redeemed to become a total joy, free from the curse of sin.


Until then, we are free to use the SSC in a way that glorifies God. Since time is limited, the SSC can be a helpful tool for using it in a way that fits with eternal priorities.


So, next time you approach the self-service checkouts, ask yourself, “What story am I believing?”

1 Adriana Hamacher, “The Unpopular Rise of Self-Checkouts (and How to Fix Them),”
http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170509-the-unpopular-rise-of-self-checkouts-and-how-to-fix-them.
2 Megan Griffith-Greene, “Self-Checkouts: Who Really Benefits from the Technology?”
https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/marketplace-are-you-being-served-1.3422736.

First published in EN:

https://www.e-n.org.uk/2020/08/features/unexpected-item-in-bagging-area/