Run, the machines are coming. Creepy, insidious little boxes are turning up on dining tables in restaurants across America, and I for one hate them.
In case you’ve been fortunate enough not to bump into one yet (they have 150,000 tablets in 2,500+ locations across the US, including Chili’s, Red Robin, and Olive Garden restaurants), they’re tablets that sit on every table and act as a virtual waiter. They take drinks, appetiser, kids’ meals, and dessert orders; you settle your bill on them; and for an extra $1.99 you (or your kids) can access a selection of games to play while you dine.
Now they might seem a great idea: they free up wait staff when restaurants are busy, and they keep the kids quiet, but that so-called convenience comes at a cost. If you’re a waiter earning pennies an hour and relying on tips, you want face time with your diners. If you’re a diner, you’d probably prefer to know who your waiter actually is (although I think we can all agree we could live without the awkward “Is everything okay here?” exchange which always happens just when you’ve stuffed your mouth as full as it can get).
More to the point, I kinda object to tipping $20 or more to someone I’ve barely said two words to. And the waiter I spoke to tonight confirmed those machines make it real easy to stiff your server. At least the old school way you have to be brazen enough to hand someone a receipt knowing you’ve stiffed them, and most people aren’t. Now you can swipe a card, decline to tip, and leave before your waiter even knows you’re done eating.
I also hate that they have games on them. All I’m seeing on the manufacturer’s Twitter feed is happy parents reporting they’ve plugged little Tim and Tracy into the Ziosk and for the convenient price of $1.99 forgot that they’re supposed to be raising adults who can go more than thirty seconds without being distracted by pixels. Yes, we’ve all been there on dinners when the kids just won’t settle and rather than make a scene it’s easier to hand them something to shut them up, but I seriously worry what the next generation of adults are going to be like because whenever I dine in public, I can’t help noticing that nobody engages with their kids anymore. Instead they prop an electronic box in front of them and as long as they’re quiet, basically forget they exist. Children don’t learn how to behave in public and use cutlery and hold a conversation by osmosis.
Then there’s the creepy Big Brother factor: the camera in the front (that’s facing the user, and pointing towards the diners by default). Ziosk says it’s only there to scan coupons but… yeah, right. It couldn’t possibly be exploited for anything else, could it? And given this is a machine which (according to the label on the bottom of the one I had the pleasure of dining with) doesn’t have FCC accreditation, it could well be irradiating the diners, too, for all we know.
American financial transactions have a long way to go when it comes to security, and I don’t like giving my card away to be swiped out of my sight anymore than anyone else. The Ziosk claims to have solved that problem, but given it isn’t even chip and pin ready, it’s going to be obsolete before it really catches on. Dining in the UK, where we’ve had chip and pin for eleven years already, the waiter brings a card reader to the table and you enter your pin there and then without giving anyone else access to your card. It’s easier, simpler, and far more secure. In the US, I constantly worry that if my card was stolen someone could max it out before I even realised, so lax are the precautions that might prevent it.
Until chip and pin rolls out nationwide (I notice more and more machines with that capability, but too few which are using it yet), I suppose Ziosks serve a purpose. I just wish the solution hadn’t come in tandem with yet more invasive technology attached.