Monday, February 11, 2019

Legal Shoplifting

At least that's what it looks like.  In a few convenience stores in San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle, you get in by having a certain Amazon app on your phone.  Once inside, you simply find what you want and walk out with it.  Cameras, RFID sensors, and other technology figures out who you are, how you've set up to pay, and charges your credit or debit card as you walk out the door with you box of Cheerios or whatever.  No human being directly intervenes, and you don't have to stand in line to scan the item yourself and pay.  You just pick it up and go; hence the name "Go store."

A recent Associated Press article describes how Amazon and other firms are test-marketing this type of store in a few selected locations.  One techie type quoted in the article says his purchase of a Coke Zero in a minute and five seconds at a Go store "was just a phenomenal experience."  If you have the type of mindset that divides life into things you want to do and things you have to do, and you're unequivocally in favor of the more time for the former and less time for the latter, then a cashier-less store is right down your alley, of course. 

On the same day I read about Go stores, I also read a short story by T. Coraghessan Boyle in the New Yorker.  Called "Asleep at the Wheel," it's a series of vignettes in a future where autonomous cars are nearly universal and robot watchmen patrol the night.  One of the main themes is the love-hate relationship a young woman named Cindy has with her car Carly, who has the personality of a pushy, prudish mother-in-law.  If the car isn't urging her to stop on her way to a lawyer's office to buy a purse she looked at last week, it's locking her out when the car disapproves of a homeless man she's picked up at the local pet shelter.

Silly?  Somewhat.  But Boyle, working with themes reminiscent of stories by the late Kurt Vonnegut, is trying to show us the logical conclusions of several lines that purveyors of new technology are urgently pushing us along.  Retailers are excited about cashierless stores such as Amazon's Go not only because they eliminate wages paid to cashiers.  If you pick up an item, the system can offer you a discount for it on the spot through your phone.  And retailers in brick-and-mortar stores can start to do what online stores have been doing for years:  tracking your every move, noticing what you hesitate in front of and what you may be thinking about buying, so as to increase the chances of your buying it. 

Privacy—remember privacy?—is obviously a concern, but I expect that such stores may eventually have a small sign in fine print posted at the entrance with phraseology like, "By entering this store, you agree to the following terms and conditions. . . . " In other words, abandon all privacy, ye who enter here.  And many people are willing to trade privacy for convenience.

But convenience, like so many other goods, becomes a demon if you turn it into an absolute unqualified supreme that trumps every other value.  Americans in particular are suckers for comfort and convenience.  Our bathroom and plumbing technology led the world into the modern era, for instance.  But much of what meaningful life is about consists of overcoming challenges of one kind or another—that difficult relationship with a relative, that hard problem at work.  None of those kinds of things are convenient, and if you make convenience the ruling principle of your life, you will just skim along the surface, effortlessly using convenience after convenience, but on the way to where?  No place inconvenient, that's for sure.

That's why the Boyle short story packs such a punch.  It's all about the hazards and conflicts caused by an imagined society's embrace of convenience, an embrace that hands over one's schedule and motives to a machine that does things for your own good, but things that you don't always want it to do at the time.  Boyle exaggerates for effect, of course—that's what storytellers do.  But his point isn't simply that these artificial-intelligence technologies are so dangerous we shouldn't go there.  He's no Luddite.  It's that if we allow a society to come about in which we allow convenience alone to dictate the design of major systems we have to use daily, we may come to regret our decision.

It's a bit like a person who has some bad habit—drug addiction, alcoholism, overeating—handing his keys over to a hired servant who has orders to keep his boss away from the addiction.  It's like Lear in Shakespeare's King Lear, who wanted to let go of his cake (kingdom) and still have it around in case he got hungry.  If the servant is really a servant, he'll have to follow orders when the boss tells him to open the liquor cabinet.  But if the boss always does what the servant tells him, the boss is no longer the boss.  He's the underling and the servant's now the boss.

I do not believe that the spread of Go stores and other cashierless retail establishments presages the downfall of civilization.  Thousands of stores already have self-checkout lines, and the Go-store idea is in a way just an extension of that.  But it's a symptom of a desire to make convenience a god, and to fix our impatience problem, not by becoming more patient, but by getting rid of the thing that makes us impatient—checkout lines, in this case. 

No technology I can think of is totally beneficial and without any downsides for anyone.  While cashierless checkout may be the wave of the future, you can expect that it will also lead to trouble of one kind or another.  Or at least less convenience than many of us are hoping for.

Sources:  The article by Michael Liedtke and Joseph Pisani on Amazon Go stores appeared under headlines such as "Retailers are shopping for ways to get rid of checkout lines," in the Boston Herald on Feb. 9, 2019 at and the Austin American-Statesman, where I read it.  T. Coraghessan Boyle's story "Asleep at the Wheel" appeared on pp. 54-61 of the Feb. 11, 2019 issue of the New Yorker. 

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