I’ve only this week become aware of a retail revolution that causes me significant anxiety the more I learn about it.
The poster child of this revolution is Amazon Go, a cashier-less grocery store in downtown Seattle which opened to the public on 22 January 2018.
There are cameras and sensors, to detect when you’ve walked in and when items are removed from shelves, and there are check-in kiosks near the entrance for scanning your phone to register your presence via Amazon Prime. (Nick Statt on The Verge)
For an idea of what the sensors are like check out the article: Amazon Go cashierless convenience store opens in the Seattle Times. The idea of computers and artificial intelligence tracking my every movement in a shop has a distinctly Orwellian tone to it, but on the other hand being able to just walk in, pick up what you need and then walk out without waiting in queues is appealing.
Amazon is not the only online retail giant playing with this sort of technology, Alibaba has also trailed a checkout-free store which uses facial recognition to charge customers for their purchases automatically: Alibaba’s cash-free Tao Cafe
I want to emphasise that I am not a conspiracy theorist, I think the development of ways to avoid checkout queues and reduce staffing costs is an obvious progression based on human nature. Customers want secure ways to pay that minimise waiting times, and retailers want whatever mechanism they can find to maximise profit, reduce theft and streamline accounting. The hardware and software used in these cashier-less stores facilitates advantages for both retailers and customers.
For the majority of people, convenience subtly but strongly influences behaviour, gradually altering social norms with things like cars, ATMs, and contactless payment now quite normal. It’s not difficult to envisage a progression to biometric and implanted technology which enables people to completely do without credit or debit cards, cash or cheques. A completely cashless society is still decades away in my estimate (it was predicted when the first EFT-POS machines arrived), but probably inevitable.
The convenience of not having to worry about carrying cash or cards would be nice, but I do have some concerns about the whole thing. Obviously for Christians there is the scary spectre of Revelation 13:16-17, but even without that I worry that our technological ‘progress’ is taking us too quickly into realms in which our psychological wellbeing is unable to cope.
Humans have always lived in community, to be alone is risky for survival and useless for propagating the species. Because we are social beings, we are finely tuned to the reactions of people around us and the relationships we have with them. By automating everything they can get their hands on, engineers are interfering with this dynamic and may end up driving increasing numbers of people into serious psychological distress. Maybe this seems like an over reaction, but it is not difficult to find reports of people who live alone and only really interact with shop attendants and bus drivers, is it a good thing to eliminate even these few personal interactions?