Chaos Theory

Thanks to modern science, the life of customers and consumers has been made much, much easier. Why, nowadays there's no waiting in long lines at checkout counters, and sometimes -- thanks to drive-thrus and automated tellers -- you don"t even have to leave the cozy confines of your own car.

And the result of all this high-tech hoopla?

Complete and utter chaos.

I could spend most of the pages in this magazine griping about tangled transactions, mangled mailings, ATM atrocities, and more. But allow me to give you just two recent examples of the confusion that I encounter on an almost daily basis.

Number one: I ventured into a local big-box hardware store to make a small purchase -- just some bags of screws and a new doorknob. Carrying my items to the checkout, I saw I could wait in a long line at a cashier station, or use one of those self-scan devices. I decided to step into the future, and scan.

That was my mistake.

Little bags of screws don"t scan easily, I discovered. The plastic bag wrinkles and distorts the bar code. As a line of other impatient shoppers began to form behind me, I tried everything possible to get the machine to read my puny purchase -- "ironing" the packages flat against my shirt, stretching the plastic flat, but nothing worked. The other shoppers were growing impatient with my incompetence, and they were big, burly fellows lugging 90-pound bags of cement, or carrying dangerous things like shovels and pickaxes. I began to sense an element of danger. At one point, I began frantically waving the things around in mid-air, like a Boy Scout practicing semaphore flag codes, desperately waiting for the approving "beep" from the machine. Sweat began to drip on the scanner -- or maybe it was tears.

Finally, God knows how, I got everything scanned, crammed some money into the cursed machine, and headed for the exit. That's when I was halted by another high-tech device. Something in my bag set off an alarm. A cashier brusquely summoned me back into the store, while the other customers shook their heads in dismay, their expressions clearly saying, "Filthy shoplifter."

The clerk peered into my bag and said, "Yep, he's got one." Another cashier asked, "Door knobs?" and the first one nodded, "Door knobs," with a hint of disgust.

She turned off the alarm and I trudged out to my car, feeling not only dishonest, but downright dirty. After all, I was one of those creepy "doorknob buyers" and the whole store knew it. I might as well have purchased a basketful of porn.

Need more? I stopped by a seafood place because I had a hankering for the most basic item on their menu, a "two-piece fish platter." The trouble was that I wanted two of them -- one for me, one for my wife -- and the drive-thru speaker was a bit crackly. Can you see where this is headed?

Speaker: Welcome to [indecipherable]. May I take [crackle] order?

Me: I"d like two [pause for effect] two-piece fish platters.

Speaker: Okay, a two-piece fish platter [crackle]. Please drive around.

Me: Uh, no. I want two of them. Two [another pause] two-piece fish platters.

Speaker: Yes, that's a two-piece fish platter. [Crackle] drive around.

Me [frantically]: No! I don"t want one two-piece fish platter! I want two of them. I want one two-piece fish platter, and then I want another two-piece fish platter. Two of them!

Speaker [After a very long pause]: Sir, we don"t have a two-piece shrimp platter.

Now, just think about that a bit. A two-piece shrimp platter? Is that for someone who's not really hungry? Does it come in a box the size of a packet of cigarettes? I just drove to the window, and using hand signals, mime, and my best pig-Latin, conveyed that I indeed wanted two of the most popular items on their menu.

I don"t know the solution to all this high-tech turmoil. A face-to-face transaction is sometimes no better. I suppose I could stay inside and conduct all my business from my home. But online? That's even worse, since it puts me at the mercy of locked-up web sites, email scams, and other Internet insanity. Of course, on the bright side, at least computers have gotten more reliable. Perhaps they are the only high-tech gadgets that have improved. Gosh, I can remember the days when they would crash while you were right in the mid ...

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