Pub date August 29, 2006

› paulr@sfbg.com
We tend to trust what we see, and when what we see is a computer printout, specifying in meticulous detail what we just had for dinner, we tend to trust it all the more. How can such a miracle machine as the computer ever be wrong? Being wrong is a human thing; it is an errant scribble on one of those pale green tablets on which servers write down orders at less technologically advanced establishments (unless they are show-offs working from memory). Or it is bad arithmetic. Most people, I am sure, have had the experience of being delivered a hand-written check they could not decode — and when you can’t decode it, you just shrug your shoulders and pay it, hoping the errors, if any, aren’t too egregious.
Tidy computer accountings of restaurant activity would seem to be altogether an improvement over ballpoint primitivism: a brave new world. And yet, and yet … it behooves us not to fall asleep. Computers might be infallible, and to the extent that computers replace human beings as trackers and toters-up of bills, the likelihood of error is diminished. But it is not eliminated, as I discovered recently when sifting through the bill at one of the city’s more tech-savvy restaurants: a dollar too much for this item, a dollar too much for that one — and, to be fair, a dollar too little for a third.
A dollar here and there would not seem to make all that much difference — just a couple percentage points of the total bill. But any effective strategy of overcharging must be subtle, in amounts small enough not to be noticed or worth disputing, and it should be balanced by the occasional undercharge, to give the impression of randomness or lack of guile. Customers must be granted the occasional victory, so that they do not become disillusioned or even angrily suspicious.
I asked for menus to recheck the numbers, then summoned our server to point out the discrepancies. The matter was quickly straightened out, with apologies. Possibly these were innocent mistakes, bad numbers entered into the machine by some harried human in a hurry. But as we left, I glanced around at a big dining room full of people accumuutf8g charges on an unseen computer somewhere, and I wondered.