My city recently passed a law making it illegal for stores to provide plastic bags for free at the checkout stand. Now we have the option of paying ten cents for a paper bag or bringing our own. If one looks at this new law in isolation, it seems reasonable enough. People will adjust to the change and the environment will be better for it.
That’s how it looks if you view the bag law in isolation. But allow me to put it in context and explain how I feel when I go to my local grocery store, Safeway.
When I walk into the store, and realize I didn’t bring my reusable bags, I feel like an absent-minded moron. This is how I usually feel during the day, so it’s no big deal.
Then I start looking for cheese, only to discover that some genius in Safeway’s marketing department thinks that cheese should be spread out over about seven different locations throughout the store. You have your cottage cheese here, your artisanal cheeses there, your shredded cheeses somewhere else, and so on. There is no logical order to any of it. Five minutes into my shopping, I am filled with rage and I feel manipulated. I assume someone at Safeway decided that inconveniencing me would somehow make me buy more shit because I end up walking down every frickin’ aisle in the store looking for my cheese. It’s not the inconvenience that bugs me so much as the feeling of manipulation.
When I’m ready to pay, I see long lines at the human checkout stands and short lines at the self-checkout. I know from experience that using the self-checkout, which was designed by a crack team of practical jokers, sadists, and monkeys that have been abused by their trainers, will bring me to frustration. I know I will inadvertently move my bag before the system believes I should and it will proclaim to all nearby shoppers that I might be a shoplifter. I will feel humiliated, incompetent, stupid, and shamed.
So I skip the self-checkout and look for the shortest line with a human checker. The 15 Items or Less line looks good, but I’m never confident in how they do that calculation. Is a six-pack one item or two? What about two identical items for which only one needs to be scanned and the cashier can hit the “times two” button? Will the people behind me think I cheated? Will the cashier give me an angry look and call the manager? What exactly is the process for dealing with express line cheats?
I can’t stand the ambiguity so I head for the regular checkout stand and its longer line. When it’s my turn to pay I am faced with the choice of proving I have a loyalty card or paying a penalty if I can’t. I don’t carry loyalty cards with me because I would need a wheelbarrow for all of them. Instead, I rely on using one of our phone numbers at the checkout. But which one? The people behind me glare at me and my time-wasting hesitation, or at least it feels that way. I know some of those folks were just looking for cheese so they can’t be happy.
Is the loyalty card registered under the landline number for our house? Or might it be the phone number we had at our old home when we first got the card? Is it under my wife’s cell phone number or do I have my own Safeway loyalty card? I can’t remember. I peck at the point-of-sale terminal until one of those numbers works.
Now I have to decide on debit versus credit. I choose credit because of the airline miles associated with the card, which is another cesspool of complexity. I get mad just thinking about my airline miles.
Now the point-of-sale terminal asks if I want to donate a dollar to some worthwhile charity. I approve of the charity, but it pisses me off that they ask me in this particular situation. It’s manipulative. I JUST WANT MY DAMN CHEESE!!!!
The cashier informs me that my credit card is blocked. I must have recently purchased a few things that match the pattern of credit card thieves. I switch to my emergency backup credit card while the people behind me wonder if I am a credit card thief, a pauper, or an idiot who forgot to pay his bills. I feel belittled and frustrated and angry.
I am also aware that there was probably some sort of coupon or discount for the stuff I am trying to buy that I didn’t know about. So I feel a little ripped off too.
Now I have to figure out the bag situation. I have too many items to hand-carry because my search for cheese caused me to buy several items I didn’t even know I needed. It only got worse as I got hungrier and hungrier over the course of my cheese safari. Damn you, Safeway marketing department! Damn you!
The cashier asks, as law requires, whether I want to pay ten cents for a paper bag. I would happily pay the ten cents if the cost were baked into the total price, but something about being asked in front of witnesses makes it feel wrong. And I know that if I do buy the bag I will be destroying the planet for future generations. I will feel guilty buying it, guilty loading it into my car, and guilty recycling it later. I decide to buy a reusable bag that is offered at the checkout. At this point, for reasons I still don’t understand, the cashier gives me a death stare and moves in slow motion toward the reusable bags, as if to signal to me that I have done something wrong, but I’m not sure what.
Then the cashier asks if I need help to my car with my half-a-bag of groceries. I know her company requires her to ask, but it calls into question my manhood. I feel insulted because I know I can lift as much as five pounds and carry it across an entire parking lot without stopping more than twice. I try to ignore the insult… until the bagger asks the same question.
By the time I reach my car I feel frustrated, angry, guilty, stupid, incompetent, belittled, weak, humiliated, ripped off, and inconvenienced. The feeling lasts until I get home and my wife says, “That’s the wrong cheese.” That feeling pretty much replaces all the other ones.
My point is that the new bag law in California is entirely reasonable when viewed in isolation. Likewise, loyalty cards, self-checkout, and all the other annoyances make complete sense when viewed in isolation. But we don’t live in a world in which anything can exist in isolation. Safeway and my city government have made the simple act of food shopping so complicated that I’d rather scrounge in the dumpster behind the store than endure the pain of shopping inside the store.
This is an interesting issue because every business decision that causes inconvenience for customers is viewed in isolation. When you take that perspective, eventually the entire process becomes so complicated it is barely competitive with dumpster diving.
What we need is some sort of system in which any proposed complication is viewed as more bothersome than earlier complications. The first complication usually doesn’t cause much problem. The tenth complication – no matter how well-meaning – destroys the system.
But here’s my big gripe. Yes, I saved the best for last. You see, brains are like muscles in the sense that they have a limited capacity during any given day. If you lift too many heavy objects, your muscles will fail. Likewise, if you use up all of your brain cycles on nonsense, you have nothing left for the important things in life, such as making Dilbert comics and writing blog posts.
Seriously though, I think society is blind to the hidden cost of complexity in daily life. The ever-worsening complexity isn’t simply annoying; it is hijacking your brain. Every minute you spend trying to find cheese, and trying to pay for it without getting arrested, is time you aren’t thinking about solutions to real problems.
If this seems like no big deal, you might be wrong. Consider that everything good about modern civilization was invented by people who really needed to focus to get the job done. What happens to a world-class engineer or entrepreneur when he or she has to syphon off more brain energy to satisfying Safeway’s marketing strategy instead of designing new products? Now multiply that times a hundred because every retailer, website, and business is trying to complicate your life too.
Complexity sneaks up on you because every individual decision – such as the bag laws in my city – make sense when viewed in isolation. But if that trend continues, complexity will be a huge drag on civilization.
Does complexity have a cure?