Dumbing Down

The other day I went into a McDonalds restaurant to get my morning coffee.  I usually will go to Dunkin Donuts, but sometimes I go to McD's because the coffee is good first thing in the morning, and the one I go to sells any size for $1.  (Hey, a buck is a buck...)

Normally I go to the drive-thru, but on this day the line was long, so I went inside.  No one goes inside at 5:50 in the morning, so service was swift.  But not having been physically inside a McD's in a while I was surprised to see that the POS terminal was now all pictures.

Back in the old-timey days, we had these things called cash registers. The cashier would put in the amount of the item for sale, and the machine would add it up.  (I know some of you remember those things)  They were loud and big and had a lot of moving parts.  They required that the person operating them knew what the prices were of the items that they were ringing out. I had friends who were grocery-store cashiers who literally knew the prices of thousands of items on sight, and could bust through a full belt faster than a modern scanner.

Somewhere in the late seventies and into the eighties, cash registers were replaced in favor of point-of-sale terminals.  These computerized doohickies help keep inventory, sales trends and prices under control.  In fast food restaurants, they would have a key for each menu item, with a little piece of paper under a plastic cap.  That moved along to a touch-sensitive pad with an overlay, and currently to touch screens with virtual buttons with the names of items.

Apparently now, one is no longer required to read.  That looks like a Big Mac...

Before you get all uppity with me about accessibility and whatever, stop.  I'm not talking about that.  McDonald's is not using this technology to help the visually impaired.  They are using it to help the English-impaired. 

Fifteen years ago, I probably knew over a hundred phone numbers off the top of my head.  I'm lucky if I can recall five right now.  Part of that is age, possibly, but more likely it's that I dial by tapping on a picture of your face, or your kids, or whatever else you have as your Facebook profile picture, because that is what my 'droid displays in my contacts list. Or, if I'm really feeling lazy, I can just tell the phone to call you.

I used to be quite proud of my library skills as well.  The town I grew up in had a wonderful research library in it, with two entire floors of reference and huge microfiche collection.  Given time and patience, I could find almost anything.  Usually a side benefit was learning a bunch of stuff I wasn't looking for along the way. Now, I Google something (like microfiche) on my smartphone and viola! Instant knowledge!   It still feels like I've lost something along the way.

I used to have to... what's that word?  Proofread letters and articles.  Now it's done for me. Spelling?  Covered.  Making sure a photo is properly composed and lit?  I'll fix in in post. Listen to a whole album?  I'll just download the song.

I'm dumber than I ever was.

Don't get me wrong, I am not a Luddite by any means.  I love tech.  I'm a Google addict.  A smartphone ninja.  Social media junky.

Would it kill you, McDonald's to make your cashiers have to be able to read "Big Mac?"

This is not one of those "This is America - speak English!" rants.  ( A  position I support, by the way) This is one of those "Would it kill us to put a little effort in?" rants.  Because the end result is going to be an America (and world) that is dumber, lazier, and incapable of leadership.


  1. It's the double edged sword of technology. Reading your description I wondered - does it make the point of sale process faster. If it does, that's good tech.

    I love that we can do things faster and smarter with new tech. For example, I write with Scrivener these days. In a way, it's not a huge breakthrough from using Word years ago. But, it's helped me become a better, more focussed writer.

    That said, we are becoming dependent on this stuff. I'm forcing myself to not use iPhone maps now because I realised that after nearly six months in Singapore I don't know my way around anywhere near as well as I did after a similar amount of time in London or Delhi (in the pre-smartphone era).

    Ultimately mastery, in any kind of craft, art or vocation will demand that we understand background concepts and ideas. Anything less and we are walking down other people's flowcharts.

  2. Fern,

    You are exactly getting my point, thank you. When stores moved from cashiers typing in prices to optical scanners, in most cases there was a marked increase in throughput. A good cashier could always "beat" the scanner, but that was the exception. Somehow I doubt that pressing a picture of a cup of coffee saves a ton of time over pressing a button that says "Coffee."

    I tend to look up a map or directions before I leave for an unknown destination, then turn off the GPS and see how far my memory/reconnoitering skills take me. Usually I make it all the way.

  3. #truth. very well put. I have to say, i think you're great and smart. some people don't even know how to google. LOL :-)

  4. There's another interesting aspect to technology & the common man that's been touched on by Cecilia. Some people will be smart & able to use the new tech to enhance themselves, while some will find that it doesn't fit them well at all, and regardless of their ability, they will be excluded from the benefits & sidelined despite being potentially significant as individuals in the contribution they could be making to society.


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