Sunday, April 24, 2011

#14: Extreme Automation

Americans do many things to extreme - home makeovers, plastic surgery, fast food consumption, multi-tasking while driving. One thing though that Danes have us beat at is automation. Sometimes it seems like Danes automate just for the sake of automating. Other times they automate with irony. Their slogan would be: "This isn't actually saving you any time but it sure is neat to watch/do/ride."

Not a meat packing plant,
just the library's book return
Some examples.
The recently renovated main branch of Copenhagen's library features one of the biggest displays of over-automation I have ever seen. The system for returning books involves machines that scan the books back into the system (not so novel), then suck them onto a giant conveyor belt system that whisks the book off into the bowels of the library to either be consumed as fuel to heat the building or to be reshelved. It's hard to tell. It's also a strangely futuristic leap from the library's other branches where you scan your book back in and then un-futuristicly drop it into a basket for the librarians to deal with later.

In many Danish businesses with counter service (or long lines), like bakeries, the post office or the bank, it is a common practice for customers to take a number. I will admit I enjoy being able to wander aimlessly around the pharmacy knowing my place in line is secure. It allows for ample time to ponder why one cannot buy rubbing alcohol or over-the counter-cold medication in Denmark. And while some stores still employ the old method of hanging a roll of paper numbers, many establishments do not trust the average Dane's paper ripping skills and have installed fancy touch screen machines to dispense paper numbers lest you disrupt the order of the entire universe by accidentally taking two.

There are a fabulously large number of elevators in places where it might have made more sense to just put in a ramp. The mall across from my apartment building has an elevator that saves you from walking up exactly six large steps. Same goes for the entrance to Magasin department store from inside the Kongens Nytorv metro station. I suppose the builders could have been trying to save overburdened shoppers from toppling down a small flight of stairs with their bags. But then how to explain the lifts that bring you five steps up to the library entrance or down three giant steps at the art museum? As an everday stroller user I really can't complain but it all seems a bit overdone when maybe a simple ramp would have sufficed.

Automatic doors are also everywhere, though some of them require you to wave your hand or press a button to actually make work. When you have to go through all that trouble to figure out how to get the door to open, it makes it seem like they installed the auto- but forgot the -matic. And then how else to explain the popularity of Nespresso machines in Denmark? Nowhere in the States has the concept of a machine that automatically brews a single cup of coffee at a time caught on like it has here. And it's not like Americans don't know how to waste money on coffee but man, do we hate doing things for ourselves. Why make your own coffee at home with the press of a button when you could sit in line at the Starbucks drive-through for half an hour every morning?

Again, I wonder if this could be some subtle cultural tendency towards helping other Danes stay employed. Like the Danish bubble of economic demand generated for toilet brushes, over-automation creates whole industries out of installing and invariably fixing all these things with moveable parts, sensors and buttons. I feel another pie chart coming on...