Who Do You Serve When You Serve Yourself? Consumer Labor, Automation, and a Century of Self-Service
We rarely need to ask what “self-service” means. When you fill up your gas tank on the way to work, or surreptitiously mix Coke with horchata at the soda fountain, or withdraw $40 from an ATM, you understand the procedure. The logic and technologies of self-service appear almost everywhere in the industrialized world—at car washes, grocery stores, airport terminals, movie theatres, and even computerized voting booths. Most frequently, they appear in the form of applications on our computers and phones: personal banking apps like Chase Mobile and budgeting apps like Mint, matchmaking apps like Tinder and Bumble, or real estate apps like Zillow and Renter. In each of these contexts, you intuitively know the structure of the encounter, even if you are not aware of how it is executed. You know to “help yourself.” Even if you don’t, most self-service technologies will teach you what to do without relying on assistance from another person.
As behemoths of retail, banking, and logistics increasingly automate and outsource their services, the act of consumption in the U.S. and most of the world now relies almost wholly on technology, be it online interfaces, computerized terminals, or behind-the-scenes infrastructure. To point, Amazon’s current global dominance in retail and cloud computing services would be unthinkable without the logic and technology of self-service.
Although much of our economy runs on the consumer labor that self-service extracts from us, we still don’t have a clear sense of what it really is. Self-service, whatever else it might be, is neither self-explanatory nor self-sufficient; conceptually—and quite literally—it makes us do the work.
Despite its seeming retreat from the forefront of commercial culture, the logic of self-service spread even more widely, although less visibly, in the design of new sites and scenes of consumption — particularly in malls, television shopping channels, and transportation hubs — and new computerized technologies.
In the U.S., self-service began as a Progressive Era rebranding of a Victorian mechanical gimmick—the first modern vending machines dispensed postcards to British consumers as early as the 1880s. The idea gained traction in the early twentieth century, not as a descriptor of specific technologies but as a prescription for specific consumer contexts. Its prominent presence in today’s technologies illuminates how the meeting of fin-de-siècle management practices and technical innovation over a century ago would generate some of the most distinctive features of our current cultures of consumption and production.
As a slogan, “self-service” appealed distinctly to the American ethos of individualism and self-reliance. In the early 1900s, grocers and store owners pitched self-service shopping to women with the promise that less service would mean better service, providing the customer with freedom and privacy in their consumption. This new approach to consumer experience appeared to cut out the services once provided by human laborers like store clerks and department store girls, giving customers (namely, the wives and mothers of America) more control over their shopping experience.
M.M. Zimmerman, an early food retail titan whose New York Times obituary referred to him as “an expert in supermarkets,” wrote in his authoritative history of the industry, The Super Market: A Revolution in Distribution, that the stores’ innovations impacted not just consumers but retailers. Describing the 1934 opening of Big Bear stores, one of the earliest supermarket chains, Zimmerman marveled at the novelty of people seemingly “content to wait on themselves.” By encouraging shoppers to navigate large warehouses to procure and then transport their own goods, supermarkets handily reduced costs, transferring the labor of distribution over to their willing customers.
The idea of self-service as an exemplary site of independence and self-determination quickly gained a foothold in the American cultural consciousness, not only to the benefit of retailers but ultimately to political agendas. Self-service practices claimed to offer something more like social equality and democracy in consumption in comparison to older forms of exchange. Piggly Wiggly advertised its early version of the self-service grocery store as a place that “fosters the spirit of independence – the soul of democratic institutions, teaching men, women, and children to do it for themselves.” Marketed successfully as a patriotic approach to any consumer choice and action, self-service became shorthand for freedom and respect of privacy. Against the backdrop of the Cold War in the 1950s and ‘60s, industry and government officials alike touted the American supermarket as a model of capitalist democratization and abundance, and its lowered prices, attractive marketing, and logistical convenience seemed to offer a persuasive example of U.S. capitalism against the imagined threat of communism. Nikita Khrushchev, in a momentary Cold War thaw, toured a San Francisco supermarket during his first diplomatic trip to the United States in 1958.
With the implements of self-service so fully metabolized into so many streams of commercial and social life, the implicit assumptions we make about self-service technology warrant more precise attention and explication.
The selling of self-service in the commercial sphere also shares a historical trajectory with the selling of self-help in the cultural sphere, a fact noted by scholars like Micki McGee and Tracey Deutsch. As men endured a re-shaping of the professional personality with the rise of the white-collar workplace, modern women experienced a re-shaping of the domestic personality. Propped up in large part by popular self-help, ladies’ magazines, and television programs, new expectations for and attitudes toward consumption would leave their mark long past the expiration date of the rigid gender dichotomy that produced them. Self-help functioned on the same beliefs that undergirded self-service: those in power can give you all the tools you need but at the end of the day only you are responsible for yourself. McGee, in her account of a century of self-help, writes, “the literatures of self-improvement, and self-creations of other kinds, reliant as they are on the liberal notion of an autonomous self, require their adherents to engage in a denial of the importance of – even the existence of – the labors of others and the forces of history.” The spread of self-service trained women—and eventually men and children—to self-create its best consumers while it disciplined us to overlook the precarious, feminized service economy that its widespread adoption helped shape.
As the century progressed into the ‘70s and ‘80s and the retail industry attempted to innovate against the threat of flagging profits, firms began to implement hybridized models featuring full-service experiences marketed to attract more affluent customers alongside the efficient familiarities of self-service shopping. Despite its seeming retreat from the forefront of commercial culture, the logic of self-service spread even more widely, although less visibly, in the design of new sites and scenes of consumption—particularly in malls, television shopping channels, and transportation hubs—and new computerized technologies. The general aim of these designs continued to minimize a consumer’s required interactions with both employees and other consumers, rendering the new and diverse spaces of consumption deserts of a single psyche. Through the logic of self-service, and even more so than when paying for the cloistered experience ensured by full service, consumers could feel secure in their authority, their solitude, and their autonomy.
From its very beginning, self-service deceived us into growing closer and opening ourselves more nakedly to the corporations that would exploit us through the mirage of immediacy, privacy, and self-determination. With the advent of the digital age, online technology has been incorporated into almost all aspects of the now ubiquitous forms of self-service. This has led to new and lucrative opportunities for massive, unchecked harvesting of consumer data alongside self-service’s already effective obfuscation of labor and the ways it short-circuits the production of value.
Our lack of a clear definition or critical understanding of self-service has worked immensely in corporations’ favor. In a widely circulated 2010 report published by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation thinktank, Daniel Castro, Robert Atkinson, and Stephen Ezell provide a helpful working definition of self-service that we can use to grapple with its contemporary applications. They describe self-service as “the process by which consumers engage in all or a portion of the provision of a service or product.” While this definition remains exceedingly broad, it highlights the two most crucial components underlying the popular conception of self-service today: the presence of a “consumer” and the performance of a “service.” Part of the ever increasing need to boost productivity under late capitalism, this emphasis on the consumer differentiates self-service from another rising trend: automation.
While the idea of automation has received critical and popular attention (many a webinar has been launched in response to the fear-laden question: Will machines take our jobs?), our lack of understanding about the implications of self-service has led us to see it as a marketing or consumer-based problem rather than a matter of labor. But both self-service and automation effectively diminish workers’ direct roles in performing a service or providing a thing, redistributing and re-defining existing labor. Both are instituted as a result of top-down managerial decisions, and although self-service relies on garnering voluntary (unpaid) consumer involvement, both require investment in fixed capital of technology. The introduction of self-service supermarkets led to reductions in distribution employment; self-service checkout lanes cut positions once held by checkout clerks. Together with automation, self-service technologies have eliminated some labor entirely and rendered other labors—those of service workers and consumers—almost wholly invisible.
Introduced to the American public over a century ago, self-service’s keen, early advertisement of its forward-thinking novelty and democratizing impulse, alongside the apparent privacy and freedom it could afford consumers, fueled its widespread adoption first in retail and then eventually everywhere, fully integrating into so many strands of contemporary life while its ideological roots extended deeply into Western accounts of virtuous labor. With the implements of self-service so fully metabolized into so many streams of commercial and social life, the implicit assumptions we make about self-service technology warrant more precise attention and explication.
Until then, you should take care to remember that when you engage in self-service—whether by telephone, online portal, bank ATM, or in the checkout aisle—you engage in an exchange achieved through the extraction of your consumer labor for the multivalent benefit of corporations, and often at the expense of other invisible service work performed by low-waged, increasingly marginalized workers. Whether you’re banking on your phone, learning Italian with Duolingo, or buying a novel from Amazon, your choices serve someone—and not only yourself.
Self-service, whatever else it might be, is neither self-explanatory nor self-sufficient.
Mackenzie Weeks Mahoney
Mackenzie Weeks Mahoney is currently pursuing a PhD in English at the University of California, Irvine, where she studies the intersections of contemporary literature, technology, and labor alongside the history of the novel. At UCI, she has been a Division of Teaching Excellence & Innovation Pedagogical Fellow, a Humanities Out There Public Fellow, and co-director of the interdisciplinary Capital & Culture Research Cluster. Mackenzie is a fellow of the 2020 Los Angeles Review of Books Publishing Workshop.