Monday, December 5, 2016

Giving Yourself to Amazon Go


With those wails from Millennials rising up to the ears of older voters after our surprise presidential election results last month, many of us scoffed.

"Millennials!"  The very term has become one of derision, a catch-phrase for young adults who seem more young than adult.

"Snowflakes" and "generation snowflake" are other references to Millennials.  The image of a snowflake conjures uniqueness in nature, a quality young people generally act as if it's theirs alone.  But snowflakes also melt easily.  That means snowflakes - Millennials - need "safe spaces" in order to survive (like a freezer), plus trigger warnings so they know when something bad - like 33 degrees - is just around the corner.

Millennials are young enough to not know a world without most modern conveniences, chief of which being mobile phones.  Technology has been evolving at warp speed ever since the Second World War, but it doesn't seem like any generation has embraced it so completely as generation snowflake.  For example, if Baby Boomers are associated with televisions, and Gen-X'ers with CD players, then Millennials are definitely all about cell phones.  Or maybe social media.  It's kinda hard to tell, since cell phone makers and digital content providers have all but become one these days.

Nevertheless, despite their fascination and adoration of all things social-media-related, Millennials generally seem relationally stunted.  Watch a group of Millennials at the same table in a restaurant - or, more likely, an overpriced coffee shop.  They may be carrying on a conversation with each other, but they won't be talking.  They'll be using their expensive smartphone's chat features.  Cell phones for them constitute an absolutely essential component of functional life.

Older, more mature adults are easily bemused by our Millennials and their apparent immaturity, what with their statistical tendency to live with their parents, even after graduating college.  Their preoccupation with technology over interpersonal relationships.  Their trust in government, their inability to process big-picture problems, their preoccupation with technology, their political liberalism, and their preoccupation with technology.

Millennials would love a world with driverless cars, for example.  Uber is really popular with them.  They want to shop from their phone.  They want to work from home, or from space, or from anyplace where they can still think, create, and "Keep It 100" (which is a Millennial term for "keeping it real").

Attention spans are short.  Minimalism is popular, except when it comes to technology.  Millennials can't have enough technology.

Millennials have FOMO (the "Fear Of Missing Out") so they tend to trend-set in packs.  That's one reason they're glued to their social media so much - they have to know what everybody else is doing, even if all anybody else is doing is checking to see what everybody else is doing.

Granted, there's not a lot unique to Millennials that couldn't also have described previous generations of young adults.  Except that with Millennials, the technology factor runs so deep, this really could be the age cohort that helps usher in the type of social controls previous generations have traditionally viewed with skepticism.

For example, we know about the driverless cars.  About how computers hard-wired into these machines will have the capacity to tell a government - and our car insurance provider - all they want to know about our driving habits.  And about how much higher our insurance rates should be, even if driverless cars are supposed to eliminate accidents (yeah, right...).

We already know that smartphones track our every physical movement.  Online banking has already become a hacker's paradise.  Most of us have some sort of Google profile, optical scanning technology is about to make our biology an integral part of our digital identity, and animals already sport microchips embedded under the skin - a creepy One-World advancement that makes End Times theorists blanch.

Yet Millennials don't seem to care.  Technology is their friend, not their foe.  And it's not just Millennials who are adopting this mindset.  When was the last time you ordered something other than books from Amazon.com?  When was the last time you posted videos of your young children on Facebook?  How often do you "balance your checkbook" on a mobile app?

More and more, older adults who should have more common sense are opting for ease and immediacy by letting technology strip just a little bit more of their personal privacy away, one click, one search, one photo at a time.

Today, we learned that Amazon is testing a prototype convenience store in Seattle that will be cashless and clerk-less.  If all goes to plan, starting in 2017, customers will be able to enter an Amazon Go store, activate their Amazon Go app on their smartphone, shop for sandwiches and other items, and then leave, without having to stand in line at a checkout, or even swipe a bar code.

Does that sound cool to you?  Or does it send a little chill of foreboding up your spine?

Your entire shopping trip will be secretly recorded and, presumably, archived by computer.  Digital scanners will track your eye movements, and record the products over which your gaze lingers.  Other scanners will record every product you select - and even return to its place on a shelf - during your visit.  Scanners will even be able to detect portions of the store you entirely ignore.

And most shoppers won't care.  What difference does it make, as long as I can get what I want and pay for it in the shortest, least complicated visit possible?  My life is very hectic.  Every minute I can save by eliminating menial tasks is a valuable minute added to my important life.

Except that somewhere, all of that data Amazon has collected on your one simple visit is being analyzed.  It's being cataloged and tabulated and quantified, along with similar bits of data from every other shopper that visits Amazon Go.  Even if you end up purchasing nothing.  Facial recognition software - even for those without an Amazon Go app on their smartphone - will quietly record your visit for posterity.

After all, how altruistic do you think Amazon really is?  Sure, they want to save you time - or make you think they're saving you time:  That's their schtick.  That's what they're selling you.  That's their true product.

Amazon isn't just selling sandwiches, beverages, and other items.  It's selling convenience, making convenience a commodity.  Sure, other stores have tried to sell you convenience, too, like the 7-11's and Walmart's of the retail world.  But they haven't tracked your movements like Amazon plans to do.  At least, not to the degree Amazon wants to.

Amazon is taking the next big leap in retailing, a leap nobody else has yet been able to.  Amazon is creating a profile of you, the shopper from whom money can somehow be extracted, even if it's in the form of information about you that Amazon can sell to the government or another entity.  Your smartphone service provider also has your profile - including the Internet sites you secretly visit! - and who knows how many other entities have access to your profile!

"So what?" you ask.  Walmart probably knows what products you frequently purchase, and if you do online shopping, you already know that your favorite online retailers have detailed records of what you've already purchased, viewed online, and deposited/deleted from your shopping carts.  You've got nothing to hide, you rationalize.  Whatever makes my life easier, that's a good thing.

But what are you giving away in the process?  All of your personal information has value to these companies.  And every click you make, you're adding value to that trove of information that these companies are compiling and leveraging for their own benefit.

The new thing about Amazon is that now, one of the most basic tasks in life - visiting a convenience store - will become an utterly data-driven, data-rich revenue source for that company - even if you don't buy a thing!

Of course, Amazon isn't saying how it will prevent shoplifting in their prototype, if there's no cashier to at least monitor customer flow.  And nobody's wondering what's going to happen to all of the jobs Amazon could eradicate with their entirely cashless, wand-less checkout.  Currently, approximately 3.5 million people work as cashiers, and while those jobs aren't exactly high-paying, they do employ people whose employment qualifications likely won't easily lend themselves to more sophisticated jobs.

Nevertheless, all of this will likely mean little to Millennials who won't have to stand in line to pay for their overpriced organic salads, overpriced energy drinks, and overpriced flavored waters.  And it might not mean much to everybody else who likes to look down on generation snowflake.  After all, won't it be cool to walk into a store, not have to talk to anybody, not have to wait in any line, and just waltz out, having the cost of your purchase automatically deducted from your bank account?

Until we start thinking about what all of this technology is doing to us behind the scenes, we'll be no less gullible than Millennials - people who we joke are generally too dependent upon others to be independent and self-sustaining.

It's not that technology itself is bad, or is only doing bad things to us.  And it's not like we can individually stop the spread of technology into different facets of life.

Still, do we have to embrace it with an ambivalence towards the personal independence technology tends to suck from us?  Not because having computerized scanners record your every move in a convenience store is evil.  But because the time you're supposedly going to save, and the information about how you shop, is being given away by you in the form of your own data.

How fair is that?  Shouldn't Amazon Go be paying you, then?


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