Carrots & Communication

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

An amusing news story caught my attention recently. Apparently supermarket bosses had been scratching their heads wondering why they were selling more carrots than they held in stock. What was going on? It transpired that people were using the self-scanning facility to pass off expensive fruit & veg as cheap old carrots. The shops have now installed CCTV trained on the self-service tills.

To speak truth, I’m no fan of carrots. I buy them for the rabbit, but I wouldn’t eat one myself. I pick out anything green or orange from my food, and if the cat or the rabbit doesn’t eat it, it goes in the bin.

I’ve always been an opponent of self-service supermarket tills, and I said as much in a piece I wrote not too long ago on the subject of driverless cabs. On the subject of automated taxis I argued that it wasn’t just about safety; it was also about how we are losing the personal touch. Technology used sensibly can make life easier and more pleasurable, but it can also come as a detriment to social cohesion and well-being. However many of us get irritated, or feel uncomfortable, with other people, most of us have a basic need for some degree of human contact (and this is from someone who is off the scale on introversion and has spent most of his life avoiding other people). Sometimes a welcoming smile or a cheery greeting can be enough. Having 50% of a supermarket’s tills given over to self-scanning is reasonable, but it’s going to be a soulless experience if all the human checkouts are replaced by machines. The carrot issue also highlights how technology can be exploited by both suppliers and consumers. In this case the consumers are de-frauding the suppliers.

Uber halted its testing of driverless cars earlier this year, after someone was tragically killed by one of its driverless cars during testing. The car was manned at the time, which is worrying. I expect you’re expecting a rant about Uber now, but no. It just got me thinking about communication and the social experience.

The service that a taxi driver provides can be impersonal. Some people like that, some don’t. We’re behind a bullet-proof partition, and the intercom doesn’t do a lot. London is a very noisy place, with roads full of cars, cabs, vans, motorcycles and buses. There are roadworks and building sites on almost every road you could mention (this is one reason why I wouldn’t move back to London after eighteen years’ of relative peace and quiet).

Drivers of the new electric cabs have an advantage with their quieter vehicles. It would be nice for all of us to hear our passengers speak, and even hold a normal conversation – as far as you can when someone’s talking to the back of your head. I prefer the old sliding partition we had on the FX4. The rule was we could only have a 4 ½ inch gap, but by removing the wooden block the partition could be slid open fully so we could talk to our passengers. I remember how put out I’d be if the passengers slid the partition closed. That’s what I mean about losing social contact. It doesn’t feel nice.

Some drivers neither want to be seen or heard. In my town of Leighton Buzzard, taxi drivers often obliterate the view by posting large notices on the partition. At least one driver here has covered the clear plastic almost entirely with cardboard, leaving a mere pillar box opening. Communication is definitely not encouraged, and it’s disconcerting.

I read something else which I found odd this week: under European rules (cough), new models of electric and hybrid vehicles are not allowed to run silently: they are obliged to have noise built into them, because pedestrians can’t hear them coming (people can’t hear a fifteen year old TX4 coming when they’re plugged in to an i-pod either). I’m resisting the temptation to shout “Health & Safety gone mad” but, well, really!

I’m always irritated by those attention-seeking drivers of high performance cars driving around making a racket. Maybe the new act of rebellion will be to drive as quietly as you can? Maybe not though, as the whole point is to have everybody looking at them.

Anyway, I’m off to Morrisons to stock up on truffles  … I mean carrots.

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