The burger machine

Who needs Ronald McDonald when you can order two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun from a machine?

Published August 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that McDonald's is experimenting with replacing live counter people with "electronic ordering kiosks" at its Chicago research laboratory and a Wyoming franchise. Yes, this is the same McDonald's that not so long ago proudly filled its television commercials with glowing shots of the uniformed scrappy teenagers and well-scrubbed elders who made up the McDonald's family.

Minimum wage doesn't get you quite as far as it once did in these days of hyper-prosperity, so it's not surprising that Mickey D's would think of addressing the chronic shortage of cheap labor by replacing its counter staff with machines. What's troubling, however, is that early results seem to indicate that McDonald's customers actually like it.

At the Wyoming franchise, customers who used the burger-ordering machine (or automated burger server, perhaps?) wound up ordering an additional $1.20 worth of food on average than customers who ordered from a human. That's roughly an extra helping of medium fries per order. Maybe it's because there is something peculiarly compelling about a machine's voice. Imagine "2001's" Hal -- sweet, treacly and yet somehow commanding -- telling you, "You would like fries with that, wouldn't you?"

But that's not the whole of the explanation. In the last few years, we have become conditioned to machines taking our orders at the drive-through and picking up the phone when we call a company's main line or want a number from directory information. Americans have never been comfortable being "served," and the machine voice insulates us from having to think about the people serving us.

The result on the other side of the kiosk can't be pretty. The machines can take orders faster than the people in the kitchen can put them together. They get to work harder so that the customers, happily ordering into the machines, can have the privilege of not seeing them work. It's a weird devolution of Age of Industry automation: The manual work continues to be done by humans, who are carefully hidden away, while the job of
meeting and greeting the customers is taken over by machines.

At least there's one consolation: McDonald's can't order the machines to smile. At least not yet.

By Mark Gimein

Mark Gimein is a staff writer for Salon Technology.

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