Last week I was in the check-out lane at the grocery store, paying for my items in cash. The young man who was the cashier told me I owed $21.78, so I handed him a twenty and a five-dollar bill. Normally the amount of change I would get back would come up on the computer screen for both of us to see, but he must have entered the wrong amount because according to the screen, I still owed him money. Quite a lot of money, as a matter of fact.
“No problem. I’ll figure out your change on this,” he said, whipping out his cell phone and pulling up his calculator app. He tapped his phone’s screen a few times and then reached into his cash drawer and handed me $4.76. I’m notoriously bad at math, but even I knew that $25.00 minus $21.78 doesn’t come to $4.76.
“I don’t think that’s right,” I told him.
“Sure it is,” he said. And held out his phone to me as proof. “See?”
And sure enough, it did say $4.76 on his screen. But all that meant was that he had keyed in the wrong amount (again). I was beginning to think that perhaps being a grocery store cashier was not the ideal job for this particular person.
But the more I thought about it, the more I believed that the real problem wasn’t his habit of hitting the wrong keys when typing in numbers. The problem was that it never occurred to him to question the accuracy of the information provided by one of his devices. And that got me wondering about how often the rest of us accept whatever facts we get from our devices, instantly and without questions.
Like most people, if I want to find the answer to something quickly and easily, I just “Google it.” And whatever answer Google comes up with, I believe. Others, who are more up to date in their devices may also ask “Siri” or “Alexa.” But honestly, how in the world do we know that Siri and Alexa know what they are talking about?
When home computers first became popular, we were often reminded that they are only as accurate as the information that is programmed into them. And sometimes technology malfunctions, as anyone who has gotten hopelessly lost following incorrect GPS directions knows all too well. I admit that I have no idea how Siri or Alexa actually work, or even how Google sifts through thousands of websites to decide which ones show up first on my screen. But I think it’s a good idea to remember that no technology is infallible, “exhibit A” being Auto-correct and the way it can mangle the simplest of text messages.
Last month I was in Florida with a friend who wanted to hit the beach at low tide because that’s the prime time to find the best shells. She Googled it, and found that low tide was going to be at 1:30 that afternoon. At exactly 1:30 we arrived at the beach with our high hopes and empty shelling bags. And found ourselves staring at a beach that was experiencing what is commonly known as a high tide. We managed to find some decent shells, but I’m still thinking that someone needs to teach Google a thing or two about the Florida tide cycles. Or next time, maybe I’ll play it safe and just ask one of the locals.