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Machines versus me

BY Rachael O. Phillips

My first memories of the machine takeover began when an underhanded Coke machine stole my precious dime.

It resembled a metallic Santa Claus – big, red and shiny. How could I guess that its friendly exterior hid a chilly heart? The machine only gave a hollow chuckle when I banged it with outraged fists.

Decades later, I still find myself at odds with machines. Especially those that tell me what to do.

Admittedly, many contemporary machines keep their requests polite. My car gives a small apologetic ding when I forget to turn off my lights. My husband’s truck shows less courtesy – at least when I drive it. It peals like Big Ben even when its belly bulges with $45 worth of gas.

“Don’t you dare talk to me in that tone of voice!” I smack its steering wheel.

But does it listen? Never.

Even my car smarts off from time to time. The entire front panel lights up when it needs service.

So does my Keurig coffeemaker. Sure, its little screen requests, “More water, please,” but it flashes an on-off light display that betrays sarcasm. Reminds me of a kid who demands ironed gym clothes, 50 signed permission slips and $500 for school snack time … please (eye roll).

Not content with these complications, the information age has forced us to coexist with computers. These sneaky machines pose no small challenge to a person who considers Ziplock bags the ultimate in technology. Computers sing cute little musical fanfares when users log in. They welcome us by name. But don’t be too quick to trust them. One insisted on crashing at my place – every hour on the hour. Do computers ever eat files like “My Worst Golf Scores” or “Breakfasts I Ate in 1993?” No-o-o-o. Mine devours IRS records, student grades and all but the last page of my latest novel. When it’s really feeling rowdy, it pulls up websites that curl my hair, then emails them to all my relatives.

Some blame such behavior on viruses. Viruses? My doctor husband brings home every virus known to man from his office. I’ve caught them all, but you don’t find me acting like that.

My first encounter with vocal machines took place several years ago while buying groceries. In a hurry, I decided to finally enter the 21st century and use an automated lane. At first, the Voice welcomed me with enthusiasm and instructed me to scan my first item.

I was buying a big, gooey Death-by-Chocolate cake for my daughter’s college graduation get-together. Unfortunately, the UPC symbol was glued on the plastic cover.

“Please scan the first item and place it in the bag.” The Voice sounded less friendly.

“But – but I’d have to flip it over.” I held it out for the machine to see. “And it doesn’t fit in the bag. It’s a cake, for goodness sake. An expensive cake!”

“Scan the first item and place it in the bag.” No “please.” No friendly tone. I felt like I was on trial for robbery.

“I’ll bet you wouldn’t if it was your daughter’s cake!” I swung a fist at the monitor.

I’d swear it ducked.

“If you had half a brain, you could do this,” the Voice boomed.

I haven’t visited that machine or that store since. The restraining order might have something to do with that. ...

Lately, I’ve heard self-checkouts have learned better manners. With my luck, though, the one I choose might be related to that first cake-hater. I don’t really want to wear the next one I buy.

To think, all this began with that first big Coke machine. These days, I occasionally encounter red robbers that steal dollars rather than dimes. I still fight the childhood urge to spit at them. See, that’s something machines can’t do yet! Instead, I check the coin returns. Once I found a quarter. Given inflation, the machine didn’t pay me back for its ancestor’s larceny. But it tried.

I patted its shiny red side and gave it a smile. That’s something machines can’t do yet, either.