We were done with our meal and so I signalled to a waiter to settle up.
A very young woman at a table nearby explained what I’d done to her companion – not unkindly, and without possibly knowing she was within earshot of a highly-sensitive Geiger Counter of a human being:
“Did you see that? Do you know why they do that wiggle with their hands? It’s because they used to have write their name on a piece of paper to pay their bills.”
Thank goodness my postman still calls me ‘young man’.
My vanity and intimations of mortality aside, it’s interesting to think about all these little cultural – or even structural – artefacts that litter our society and environment.
One example is the QWERTY keyboard. Most of us use one every day. After a few years and no-training, sheer repetition turns us into touch typists. Our fingers can reach for a P or the space bar even when we’re tapping away on a keyboard-less desk!
Yet this QWERTY layout is arbitrary from today’s vantage point. It’s a legacy of an arm’s race in the once red hot mechanical typewriter boom.
Indeed popular legend is that the key arrangement was selected not to speed up typing but rather to slow typists down – in order to prevent a typewriter’s hammers from jamming.
Whether true or not, the arrangement of keys has not been selected for the modern world – and yet it’s not going to change in our lifetime in the Latin-writing world.
(The only thing likely to supersede it is voice. How very back to the future).
Another example of this in-the-making is the navigation of virtual realities – or The Metaverse as we must call it nowadays.
Getting from imaginary A-to-B is sure to build off video game controls first pioneered by the likes of Doom and Super Mario 64 in the 1990s. Nobody is going to spend time figuring out whether that’s optimal, when so much of the money-spending adult world knows how to do it already.
Of course some habits or actions do go change or away.
My parents were still reciting their number on picking up their home telephone well into the era of Caller ID and mobile. At some point they stopped. Nobody does that any more.
On the other hand, many of my generation still end their emails with a ‘best’ or a ‘cheers’ and their name. The young people don’t.
You can’t model the future
These changes happen so slowly we seldom see them underway.
But for a striking visual example, check out this video of a Chinese model racing through a clothing shoot for a fast fashion brand:
Two things are happening at once here.
Firstly, the ease of manufacturing and the relentless turnover of disposable fashion means the manufacturer Taobao requires images of thousands of product skus every month. Possibly every week.
The model – a pragmatic woman called Cui Yue – laments they could shoot for 24 hours a day and still not get through the backlog.
Which means everyone involved must move at speed.
Secondly, there’s no film in the photographer’s camera. Instead it’s all digital, which makes the marginal cost of an additional shot extremely near-zero.
Fashion photographers were always click-happy, but this is the old flash-flash-flash cliché on steroids.
As a result Yue seems more like some Boston Dynamics ModelBot than the strutting, stalking models of old. She transitions through a dozen poses in as many seconds, with an economy of movement that would put a ballerina to shame.
She’s like a very pretty C-3PO doing Tai Chi.
Turn, turn, turn
Cui Yue has made peace with her eventual replacement by younger, cheaper women.
And I expect those women will have to accept they’ll be replaced by computer graphics. All those people with cameras and clothes and bottles of water are expensive, even at this pace.
The young historian at the restaurant who explained away my hand wave no doubt paid for her bill – like I did – by touching her phone to a portable card reader, brought to the table by the staff.
All very 2022 and yet probably not long for this world, either.
Waiting for the bill is only slightly less annoying than waiting in a queue at the supermarket in today’s world of self-serve checkouts. There’s a small social payoff at the restaurant, but I don’t think it will save the ritual any more than album covers held back music streaming.
Several startups enable diners to pay and leave whenever they want – just by scanning a QR code either at the start or the end of their visit. You get up and go when you’re done.
But that won’t last long either.
Amazon Fresh stores enable you to pick-up anything you like off the shelves and walk out without any formal settling-up. Doing so at a restaurant would be magnitudes easier.
Everything is changing, all the time. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re from the future.
If you can read this you’re already a relic from the past.