A thousand years ago, when I was an undergraduate, there was one bank in State College, PA that had an ATM. "Rosy, the 24 hour teller!" it was called. The bank had to give the ATM a name and warm, friendly female persona to introduce this strange new concept to its customers, especially since they were charging them extra for the card they needed to use it. Craziness, I thought. Who in the world is going to pay for the privilege of having access to their money, when you can just go in to the bank and have a real teller give you your cash? That silly thing will never catch on. Rosy! What a hoot!
Many years and a skazillion ATM fees later, the bank has the last laugh.
Now, in my Sunday paper, I read about this horrifying development in the land of the baguette.
Jean-Louis Hecht [a] baker from northeast France has rolled out a 24-hour automated baguette dispenser, promising warm bread for hungry night owls, shift workers, or anyone else who didn't have time to pick one up during the bakery's opening hours.
"This is the bakery of tomorrow," proclaimed Hecht, who foresees expansion in Paris, around Europe, and even to the United States. "If other bakers don't want to enter the niche, they're going to get decimated."
There are only two machines...for now. And people may scoff that it's not as good as the real thing...for now. But just as we got used to paying for our own money, and scanning and bagging our groceries ourselves, we'll get used to this. Monsieur Hecht says so.
"It's like with banks: Before, everyone went to a teller; now, everybody uses ATMs," he said. "It will be the same with bread: Today, everybody goes to the bakery. Tomorrow they'll go to the baguette dispenser."
We are too busy to wait in line for human tellers inside a bank, or for someone else to check out and bag our groceries. We'll do it ourselves, 24/7, and never mind that the waiting in line used to contribute to someone having a job. Never mind that accepting a half-tolerable baguette, because you can get it at any time of the day or night, will put bakers and their employees out of work. Monsieur Hecht says his bread dispenser will change the lifestyle of bakers, letting them sleep in a little later, and imagines this desiderata justifies the technology, but what the bread dispenser will really do is dispense with baking. As he says
"If other bakers don't want to enter the niche, they're going to get decimated."
It's deeply ironic that France, of all places, is discovering fast-food bread, at a time when many U.S. cities are beginning to rediscover the virtues of old-fashioned bread-making and bakeries. At one local farmer's market near my home, a baker sets up a stall each week and those who would purchase bread from him had best get there in the first two hours of the market. The bread goes before the cookies, before the croissants and apple dumplings and nut rolls and cannoli. Even in my local Genuardi's grocery store, the Wonder bread languishes on the shelves but the "artisan bread" from the store bakery is snapped up early in the day.
Technology that decimates, that destroys jobs and gives lower quality food as its gift, is truly technology gone bad. The bulk of U.S. food culture is ample proof of that. How much food culture will France be willing to sacrifice in the name of efficiency and convenience? Or will they realize what they already know, that eating cheap crap on the run is no bargain?