Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#13) — On the loss of ‘humanness’

Workaday charm: a street market in Sicily, from Rachel Roddy’s Two Kitchens. (Photograph: Nicholas Seaton/Headline Home)

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

On the loss of ‘humanness’

“The fundamental truth is that grocery shopping is monotonous, time-consuming, and repetitive.” At least, this is what Daniel Gebler, CTO at the mobile-only supermarket Picnic which uses electric delivery vehicles instead of stationery outlets, claims in a post on Medium in which he explains why “retail will never be the same again.”

Founded in 2015, Picnic offers its mobile grocery shopping services to more than 50,000 customers in a growing number of Dutch cities. According to Gebler, Picnic’s concept is simple: “We deliver all supermarket products including all the food you love, at lowest price, without delivery fee, always fresh, always on-time to your home.”

“Very few people in the world enjoy the weekly supermarket haul. Thus, it can be considered a chore. Grocery shopping has been a burdensome fact of life for too long, but it can (and should) be streamlined,” says Gebler. “By exploiting technology, deep learning techniques, and behavioural analytics, we wish to create an in-app grocery store that provides a fast, seamless, and delightful experience to its users. When paired with lower grocery prices than the competition, our customers see Picnic as a no-brainer.”

For more and more people, ‘life’ seems to come in boxes these days. Whether food, clothing, or beauty products, the list is endless. It somehow always reminds me of Margo Leadbetter who, in the 1977 Christmas Special of the BBC sitcom The Good Life, famously told her husband Jerry that Christmas had been canceled because “they won’t deliver it.” What should have been a “fast, seamless, and delightful experience,” turned into a social ‘faux pas’ for the Leadbetters. The 70s are a long time ago, and The Good Life, no doubt, feels dated to today’s viewers, but to me, however, the ‘good life’ is never out of date.

It’s not that I object against ‘the likes of Picnic.’ We’re all busy with whatever it is we’re busy with, and if “fast, seamless, and delightful” helps in any way, why not. No, I am much more concerned for two other reasons. First of all, words, or ‘guff’ as Lucy Kellaway calls it.

In her recent column for the Financial Times, How I lost my 25-year battle against corporate claptrap, Kellaway writes about the exponential rise of guff in business. She names Howard Schultz as “a champion in the bullshit space.” He has provided her with more material for columns than any other executive alive or dead. “Yet, he is still at it, and still out-doing himself. Earlier this year, he announced that the new Starbucks Roasteries were ‘delivering an immersive, ultra-premium, coffee-forward experience,’” Kellaway writes. “In this ultra-premium, jargon-forward twaddle, the only acceptable word is ‘an.’ Mr Schultz has brewed up a blend of old and new jargon, the fashionable and the workaday, adding a special topping of his own. ‘Delivering’ and ‘experience’ are grim but not new. ‘Ultra-premium’ is needless word inflation. ‘Immersive’ is fashionable, though ill-advised if you are talking about scalding liquids. The innovation is ‘coffee-forward.’ Sounds fantastic, but what is it?”

As for Picnic, ordering through their app is indeed fast. Of course, you still have to wait for your stuff to be delivered to your door, so ‘fast’ is a relative concept. What ‘seamless’ means, I don’t know. It’s one of those words that always pops up with regard to online services and everybody seems to take for granted. But I don’t see why my ‘analog’ (grocery) shopping isn’t or can’t be seamless. Yet, I am perfectly willing to grant Picnic ‘fast and seamless’ but not ‘delightful.’ There’s nothing delightful about ordering your groceries, or whatever it is, online. This is what delightful looks like …

These are humane and serendipitous places where you can use all of your senses. Places that bring together people from different walks of life. To me, streets and markets like these represent the ‘good life.’

Which brings me to my second concern, loss of ‘humanness.’ What happens if we hide ourselves and evermore of the things that make us human behind digital facades? When we displace using our senses with pressing our screens? When our experiences are limited to Picnic’s “fast, seamless, and delightful?” Our encounters to couriers, deliverers or even this …

Like many (digital) startups, also Picnic creates a false dichotomy between “fast, seamless, and delightful” and “monotonous, time-consuming, and repetitive.” The efficiency of digital versus the tediousness of analog. But this is a false representation of everyday reality. Buying socks is indeed tedious, so I am perfectly willing to buy them online. And although I also buy books at Amazon’s, nothing beats running your fingers along the spines of neatly ordered books, and finding that one book you weren’t even looking for. Or picking up a fresh fish at the fish market, with your own hands, and, seconds later, watch the fishmonger fillet it with skill and ease. Experiences such as these appeal to our senses. They induce unexpected encounters, create new impressions, make for good stories, and ultimately help us discover what it means to be human. As Alan Moore, the author of Do Design: Why beauty is key to everything, said, “Beautiful experiences lift the human spirit. They say, optimistically, life is worthwhile.”

And maybe this is also where the distinction between digital and analog lies for me. Mass production versus craftsmanship, anonymous versus personal. We need both, of course, but the beauty and humanness of craftsmanship is what gives life its real meaning.


“It was Mauro who first served me more than nine years ago when, having just moved into my new flat right next to the old market, I visited the stall for the first time to buy a lamb chop. He sized me up politely but quizzically, anticipating a miscommunication. I confirmed his suspicions by uncertainly repeating the word I had looked up in the dictionary three times: ‘Costolette. Costolette. Costolette.’ On the third attempt he understood. ‘Solo una’ (‘Just one?), he said, holding up his index finger. ‘Si,’ I said, returning the gesture, which made me feel even more feeble. A woman next to me was engaged in some serious shopping, on the counter before her a mound of neatly wrapped packets. ‘Solo una,’ Mauro repeated, just before his cleaver hit and then flattened the meat against the thick wooden board — twack. At which point I understood his insistence: the chop, or rather cutlet, was tiny, a mouthful of pink flesh attached by a seam of fat to a slim rib. From where I was standing I imagined that, once cooked, I could eat three, four, five even, given the amount of packing and unpacking I had done that day. But it was too late, I couldn’t remember one useful word. ‘Si,’ I said and Mauro handed me a small parcel. ‘Mangiano poco, queste donne Americane,’ (‘they eat little, these American women’) he said, and everybody laughed as I had proved a point. I wanted to tell him I was English and could eat 10 of his costolette.” — From Five Quarters, My Roman Butcher, page 167–168, by Rachel Roddy (2015).
Sartor selezione carni (“dal 1927”) at Mercato Testaccio, Rome.

Note: This post isn’t meant as a rant against Picnic specifically, though I realise it may seem this way. Daniel Gebler’s post on Medium was just the catalyst. If you want to know more about Picnic, you may want to read this interview with Gebler.