My city recently passed a law making it illegal for stores to provide plastic bags for free at the checkout stand. Now we have the option of paying ten cents for a paper bag or bringing our own. If one looks at this new law in isolation, it seems reasonable enough. People will adjust to the change and the environment will be better for it.

That's how it looks if you view the bag law in isolation. But allow me to put it in context and explain how I feel when I go to my local grocery store, Safeway.

When I walk into the store, and realize I didn't bring my reusable bags, I feel like an absent-minded moron. This is how I usually feel during the day, so it's no big deal.

Then I start looking for cheese, only to discover that some genius in Safeway's marketing department thinks that cheese should be spread out over about seven different locations throughout the store. You have your cottage cheese here, your artisanal cheeses there, your shredded cheeses somewhere else, and so on. There is no logical order to any of it. Five minutes into my shopping, I am filled with rage and I feel manipulated. I assume someone at Safeway decided that inconveniencing me would somehow make me buy more shit because I end up walking down every frickin' aisle in the store looking for my cheese. It's not the inconvenience that bugs me so much as the feeling of manipulation.

When I'm ready to pay, I see long lines at the human checkout stands and short lines at the self-checkout. I know from experience that using the self-checkout, which was designed by a crack team of practical jokers, sadists, and monkeys that have been abused by their trainers, will bring me to frustration. I know I will inadvertently move my bag before the system believes I should and it will proclaim to all nearby shoppers that I might be a shoplifter. I will feel humiliated, incompetent, stupid, and shamed.

So I skip the self-checkout and look for the shortest line with a human checker. The 15 Items or Less line looks good, but I'm never confident in how they do that calculation. Is a six-pack one item or two? What about two identical items for which only one needs to be scanned and the cashier can hit the "times two" button? Will the people behind me think I cheated? Will the cashier give me an angry look and call the manager? What exactly is the process for dealing with express line cheats?

I can't stand the ambiguity so I head for the regular checkout stand and its longer line. When it's my turn to pay I am faced with the choice of proving I have a loyalty card or paying a penalty if I can't. I don't carry loyalty cards with me because I would need a wheelbarrow for all of them. Instead, I rely on using one of our phone numbers at the checkout. But which one? The people behind me glare at me and my time-wasting hesitation, or at least it feels that way. I know some of those folks were just looking for cheese so they can't be happy.

Is the loyalty card registered under the landline number for our house? Or might it be the phone number we had at our old home when we first got the card? Is it under my wife's cell phone number or do I have my own Safeway loyalty card? I can't remember. I peck at the point-of-sale terminal until one of those numbers works.

Now I have to decide on debit versus credit. I choose credit because of the airline miles associated with the card, which is another cesspool of complexity. I get mad just thinking about my airline miles.

Now the point-of-sale terminal asks if I want to donate a dollar to some worthwhile charity. I approve of the charity, but it pisses me off that they ask me in this particular situation. It's manipulative. I JUST WANT MY DAMN CHEESE!!!!

The cashier informs me that my credit card is blocked. I must have recently purchased a few things that match the pattern of credit card thieves. I switch to my emergency backup credit card while the people behind me wonder if I am a credit card thief, a pauper, or an idiot who forgot to pay his bills. I feel belittled and frustrated and angry.

I am also aware that there was probably some sort of coupon or discount for the stuff I am trying to buy that I didn't know about. So I feel a little ripped off too.

Now I have to figure out the bag situation. I have too many items to hand-carry because my search for cheese caused me to buy several items I didn't even know I needed. It only got worse as I got hungrier and hungrier over the course of my cheese safari. Damn you, Safeway marketing department! Damn you!

The cashier asks, as law requires, whether I want to pay ten cents for a paper bag. I would happily pay the ten cents if the cost were baked into the total price, but something about being asked in front of witnesses makes it feel wrong. And I know that if I do buy the bag I will be destroying the planet for future generations. I will feel guilty buying it, guilty loading it into my car, and guilty recycling it later. I decide to buy a reusable bag that is offered at the checkout. At this point, for reasons I still don't understand, the cashier gives me a death stare and moves in slow motion toward the reusable bags, as if to signal to me that I have done something wrong, but I'm not sure what.

Then the cashier asks if I need help to my car with my half-a-bag of groceries. I know her company requires her to ask, but it calls into question my manhood. I feel insulted because I know I can lift as much as five pounds and carry it across an entire parking lot without stopping more than twice.  I try to ignore the insult. . . until the bagger asks the same question.

By the time I reach my car I feel frustrated, angry, guilty, stupid, incompetent, belittled, weak, humiliated, ripped off, and inconvenienced. The feeling lasts until I get home and my wife says, "That's the wrong cheese." That feeling pretty much replaces all the other ones.

My point is that the new bag law in California is entirely reasonable when viewed in isolation. Likewise, loyalty cards, self-checkout, and all the other annoyances make complete sense when viewed in isolation. But we don't live in a world in which anything can exist in isolation. Safeway and my city government have made the simple act of food shopping so complicated that I'd rather scrounge in the dumpster behind the store than endure the pain of shopping inside the store.

This is an interesting issue because every business decision that causes inconvenience for customers is viewed in isolation. When you take that perspective, eventually the entire process becomes so complicated it is barely competitive with dumpster diving.

What we need is some sort of system in which any proposed complication is viewed as more bothersome than earlier complications. The first complication usually doesn't cause much problem. The tenth complication - no matter how well-meaning - destroys the system.

But here's my big gripe. Yes, I saved the best for last. You see, brains are like muscles in the sense that they have a limited capacity during any given day. If you lift too many heavy objects, your muscles will fail. Likewise, if you use up all of your brain cycles on nonsense, you have nothing left for the important things in life, such as making Dilbert comics and writing blog posts.

Seriously though, I think society is blind to the hidden cost of complexity in daily life. The ever-worsening complexity isn't simply annoying; it is hijacking your brain. Every minute you spend trying to find cheese, and trying to pay for it without getting arrested, is time you aren't thinking about solutions to real problems.

If this seems like no big deal, you might be wrong. Consider that everything good about modern civilization was invented by people who really needed to focus to get the job done. What happens to a world-class engineer or entrepreneur when he or she has to syphon off more brain energy to satisfying Safeway's marketing strategy instead of designing new products? Now multiply that times a hundred because every retailer, website, and business is trying to complicate your life too.

Complexity sneaks up on you because every individual decision - such as the bag laws in my city - make sense when viewed in isolation. But if that trend continues, complexity will be a huge drag on civilization.

Does complexity have a cure?

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Feb 27, 2013
I think many people are missing the point of this post. It is about how little inconveniences build unneeded frustration into modern life. I don't tend to mind this when the reason for the inconvenience makes sense (like charging for bags), but when it seems to be completely unnecessary, is when I get a bit frustrated.

My wife and I have developed the habit of reminding ourselves that we are having 1st world problems. Certainly everything in your post as well as all the comments that 'feel your pain' qualify as small costs to an incredible life.

The question to ask, is not, should/could life be simpler. The better question is, what are the modern conveniences that we take for granted each day, worth.

We (1st world society) have a bad habit of wanting to eliminate those things that we find unpleasant without giving up what the things we want. Example: most people want taxes to be lower, but most people have certain government programs that they see as completely necessary. Then for some reason they feel it's perfectly reasonable to say that we should just cut the programs they don't like, and we could cut taxes.

Your post, which I think is very funny, reminds me from a quote, from the Dilbert TV show... "it's not that it's difficult (hard?), it's just that it's unnecessary" referring to turning the knob for the shower.
+8 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 19, 2013
Scott, I ran into similar problems today, and probably at the same Safeway since I live in the same town as you.

First, I go downtown to deposit some checks for my business. The ATM has been changed to scan the checks instead of entering from the keypad of how much the deposits are for. This is the third time out of three different deposits where the ATM could not handle a check because it was "previously deposited". It was not. The ATM just gives the checks back and will not let you deposit them. No override. At least before I could put the checks in there and say how much the checks were for, which they verified, and be done with it. So the last three times I had to go into the bank and do a deposit of the check that would not be accepted. Good thing the bank was open. What is the purpose of the ATM for deposits if it fails three out of three times. The bank is totally missing it here because I might change banks on something like this as I need to do deposits at my convenience. I used ot be able to but they took that away from me with their new 'automation'.

Then I go over to Safeway to purchase some cold medicine, probably the same one you went to. I go to the self-service machine and scan my item and the bells go off and says I need an employee to come over. The employee notices I have bought cold medicine. The government obviously thinks that I am a threat to society in purchasing cold medicine and the only way to check out is to have the employee verify my id and my birthdate. I guess the government feels that people with colds are more likely to be terrorists. I finish my checkout and pay and then the alarm goes off again. The employee comes over and finds that the receipt printer is jammed. She has to call another employee with the key. So I wait, and wait, and somebody comes over and tells the first employee that she should change the paper in all the self-service machines now since it will be happening to all of them. They immediately take all the self-service machines off line. But I am still waiting for them to do something to my system so I can leave. They did not even open my machine to fix the problem but rather started a conversation in how they will be resolving this issue. By this point I tell them I do not want and will not wait anymore for a receipt so I am out of there. They did nothing to expedite the situation as I believe most people using self-service are in a hurry you would think they would have resolved my situation quickly so I could finish the check out and leave.

Oh yes, it did ask if I needed a bag, for a fee. Funny but nobody offered to help me to my items I checked out with self-service. I guess once you choose a self-service checkout, you are on your own to get those items to your car.

It is the little things like this that all add up and drive us crazy.

-11 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 19, 2013
If he feels bad that he maybe could have saved a few cents if he'd had a coupon, I wonder how he would feel shopping at Whole Foods, knowing that Safeway is cheaper. For that matter, I wonder why he doesn't just shop at Wal-Mart. Maybe that would be even more depressing than worrying about a loyalty card.
-22 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 19, 2013
Several commenters have come very close to a point that should have occurred to me at first; why do you shop at Safeway Scott? Im sure California has Whole Foods or something similar and I would be amazed if your area didn't have health food stores, upscale markets and such that would probably provide you with a better shopping experience that is more your style (i.e., vegetarian, healthy). Yes it would be more expensive, but since we're not talking about your work here I agree with those folks who say you are Scott f***ing Adams and such a minor consideration should not worry you.
+9 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 18, 2013
Scott, I can totally relate to how you feel.

I started making my own cheese.
Feb 18, 2013
Likewise, if you use up all of your brain cycles on nonsense, you have nothing left for the important things in life, such as making Dilbert comics and writing blog posts.

Perhaps you should try Sheldon's method in 'Big Bang Theory' where he leaves all of life's 'simple decisions' to the roll of D D dice thereby freeing up his brain to concentrate on more loftier ideals
Feb 18, 2013
This is why depression is more common in complex industrialized economies than the undeveloped 3rd world.
-10 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 17, 2013
[Does complexity have a cure? - Scott]

Yes, it has. GET YOURSELF AN ASSISTANT ALREADY! Or a service/company who specializes in helping around the house and daily chores.
Feb 17, 2013
You only really enjoy central heating after you've been good and cold for a while. A glass of water is delicious if you're desperately thirsty. People adjust to whatever comforts they are given. So people without problems develop a paralyzing hypersensitivity to non-problems. The good news is the people developing the next generation of life changing gizmos (not ipods, iphones or the next ijunk) tend to be middle to upper-middle class, they're not so rich as to be paralyzed by a pea in their mattress.
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 17, 2013
I find it very comforting that an ex-mensa-member finds daily life too complicated. Personally, I ignore the complexities. It takes a little rudeness and a little selfishness. I don't have any loalty cards because the effort is not worth it. I also take the expres line when I'm not totally sure about the amount of items, and act really polite and surprised if somebody tells me off about it when I am mistaken.

I recommend for you however that you keep on taking shopping so seriously, an continue to publish all your problems that go along with it.
-26 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 17, 2013
Do you know, if you weren't a famous cartoonist, all this would just sound like the maunderings of a tiresome old bore in the pub, waffling on about how terrible life is nowadays - more articulate, but no more interesting.
-12 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 17, 2013
I'm with you for many of your supermarket rants, but I think the fnancial penalty for not bringing the re-usable bags is a good idea. It might help me remember to bring them to the store again. I almost always forget. They do this in Europe, but the plastic bags you pay for are actually very big, very sturdy bags that you will reuse for other things. I wonder who moved the cheese?
Feb 16, 2013
Scott - Shop local and pay cash. Much easier.
I stopped using loyalty cards. And I don't sweat the small stuff. If I can't find what I want in the supermarket I ask someone. I don't care what people think about me. Most people are too busy thinking about themselves anyway.
+30 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2013
Scott - You could just move out of the Peoples Republic of California to a freedom loving state like...wait, I live in NY...maybe we should all move to Texas.
+14 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2013
I could see a few different scenarios where this bag thing is going to bite them. So what happens if you decline the purchase of bags and then ask for help out? Does a bag guy have to stop selling bags and help you juggle all your items to your car?
I find that baggers use too many bags in the interest of keeping certain items separate. This would sometimes cause something like bug killer to have it's own bag, which is clearly a waste since many items are packaged like a tank. So now can you just throw everything in one 10 cent bag? Whose fault is it if that bag rips on the way out of the store? Do you also have to know the strength of each bag? Different stores have different bags so that could get complex real quick.
Feb 15, 2013
Simple, buy at ALDI. If there is no ALDI near you, write them an e-mail and beg.
+13 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2013
'That's the wrong cheese' - brilliant. In the UK, we have only slightly less complications but the self checkout rates as the highest possible frustration quotient of any. I once spent 10 minutes ranting at a manager who insisted it was 'giving the customer more choice' and wouldn't listen to anything else. We also have two German supermarket chains LIDL and ALDI who offer simplicity of choice and checkout with the emphasis on speed. They are doing very well.
+14 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2013
The trick is to develop generic responses to each complexity. When my cashier asks if I want bags today, I just say, "yes, please." I've thought about the tradeoffs and decided once and for all that I'm willing to pay the cost. Since you're a professional humorist, you might develop a standard response that incorporates some humor ("yes, and throw in a couple of extra bags while you're at it").

Feb 15, 2013
We often use the grocery store's delivery service when we have large orders. Unfortunately, all too often the avocado is too ripe, or the bananas are not ripe enough, or the mango is too small, or the potato has too many shovel marks, or an egg is cracked or there is something else pointing to a lazy picker.

Maybe pickers could have an online karma system that allows their individual picking skills to be quantified and rewarded. Customers could request a picker from a list and would be charged say, $1 per karma point.

Then picky customers could pick picky pickers.

+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2013
"If you know what you want, the greeter can enter the data into his terminal, which uses an NFC protocol (e.g. Bluetooth) to put the information into your shopping cart."
Of course, for a dollar extra the greeter could turn into a shop assistant and go and fetch the stuff while you have a coffee.
When he presents you the goods, you sign it off, the money gets deducted from your account and that's it.
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