The Narples Scanning Machine and the Dining Center from Hell

The Narples scanning machine arrived unceremoniously into our lives about a week ago. Its impact, thus far, has been small. However, I can say without hyperbole that what it represents is a sort of philosophy of design that fills me with dread. The sort of world that this philosophy imagines as an ideal is not one that I ever want to live in. 

The Narples scanning machine was, per a conversation with someone familiar with the topic, originally the suggestion of SGO. The machine is, in a naive sort of way, a natural solution to the problem of long lines during high traffic hours, crucially those found during lunchtime when getting people in and out of Narples quickly is most important. People are lining up to scan their cards, so increasing the number of available scanners will more quickly resolve the line. My issue is not even with this contention; anecdotally, to my eyes, the Narples scanning machine is successful in this goal. 

Where my issue arises is in the side effects of this particular mechanical cure: the reasons why the administration, usually agonizingly slow at addressing problems, so eagerly took up this particular solution. As well as the priorities baked implicitly into its design. Put simply, the Narples scanning machine is, from an administrative perspective, a perfect sort of automation. It can, in most cases, scan a student into Narples just as well as a front desk employee. While it admittedly cannot currently process to-go orders and those occasional guests in our dining center who (for reasons which elude me) pay out of pocket to eat with us, it does not take much imagination to foresee their seamless implementation into the wooden box. 

This foot in the door of automation is troubling for both reasons of philosophy of design and for its immediate, practical impacts. For one, it seems unlikely that the front desk employees of Narples do not see the explicit threat that the machine represents. From my brief and casual conversations with a few Narples employees these past two weeks about the machine, it is certain that, at the very least, they dislike it. Standing every shift beside a machine which in the eyes of your employer can do nearly the same work as you is an ever-present reminder of one’s own replaceability. Is a worker in these conditions more or less likely to feel comfortable speaking up about workplace abuses, to ask for time off, or even just feel safe in their employment? 

What, too, does this hyper utilitarian philosophy of work entail for those of us who use the spaces it governs? It means desolate spaces, because the truth is that the Narples machine is not truly a substitute for a human being in any meaningful way. The Narples machine does not greet me every day, ask me how I am doing, know my order at the Kohlberg cafe or do anything else besides its singular purpose. The design philosophy of the Narples machine extrapolated more broadly envisions the ideal dining center as a space of desolation. We can already see this philosophy in dishwashing staff hidden behind the rotating wall of plates (the human element which cannot be replaced is instead hidden). Were the technology available, would the school also have articulated robots scooping pasta, or flipping burgers? There is, after all, no value in the administration spreadsheets to represent the hundreds of tiny human interactions every day which make life what it is. Now this may all seem a bit like an overreaction, and I would certainly love to be wrong about the direction that this machine represents. However, change is often only understood long after it has occurred. So I, for one, will not be scanning in on the Narples machine. 

1 Comment

  1. “… a sort of philosophy of design that fills me with dread. The sort of world that this philosophy imagines as an ideal is not one that I ever want to live in” IS hyperbole to this reader.

    As an alum, I have visited the new dining hall, and was very impressed by it. Clean, modern: Sharples have been updated and improved.

    Taking common sense steps to improve service during peak hours does NOT make your wonderful campus and nourishment/meeting place “hell”, and you would be wise to consider the many locations within a ten minute drive of Swat which better fit that loaded term.

    Burn units, prisons, crack houses and crisis centers are real world places you can consider before insulting the administration and their efforts to improve your day.

    Community is more than a place, it is an attitude which can be corroded by casual callousness.

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