Amazon Go may represent an event horizon. The idea of a cashier-less supermarket does sound wonderful to some. Though there will be nay-sayers who, I suspect, will suffer the same fate as all who stand in the way of technology’s relentless march. That is to say they will be branded backwards and fearful.
Amazon’s idea should not have been a surprise; I doubt it was for many. The inherent cannibalising nature of cities has enabled, in what really is a very short period of time, the digitisation of the Western world (if not the East also). It is easy to forget that Amazon Go falls apart if consumers do not have an internet capable device and access, whilst on the go, to the internet. Both of these limitations seem like old concerns; alas, looking back on great leaps we might confuse them with barely lifting our feet.
The technology involved in Amazon Go cannot be denied its commercial use. Indeed, it’s already here. Similar advances will come along very soon (I am not foolish enough to put a date on it, equally I am not going to underestimate its timeline). Driverless cars, for example, have the capacity to save the world by reducing personal vehicle ownership and thus emissions.
The issue, of which I cannot be the first to point out, is that such advances impact on peoples’ employment, not merely their convenience. The arguments surrounding barriers to entry are real, though I do believe ultimately futile; it is the cost to human labour that we must remember.
It is easy for us to forget the role people play within systems once they have been removed from the system. For those who benefited – often the majority – the pain of this separation is an acceptable trade-off for the efficient gains. Amazon Go is not the first example of this separation, nor will it be the last, but when that majority become a minority and gains become, in a way, losses, conflicts will arise.
Such conflicts are emerging already. And as much as I take issue with the phrase ‘metropolitan elite’, such a brand exists for a reason; there’s a disconnect between those we call ‘professional’ and those who inhabit the ‘WalMart economy’ (though perhaps that needs a rebrand). Technology has not necessarily caused this divide, but as screens replace faces and faces become redundant, this divide will grow.
Mark Carney of the Bank of England has spoken recently about the risk to jobs from automation. This threat would imbue rage amongst many if only we were not part of the automated paradigm already. We cannot go backwards, and as such we must redefine the economy and the role of people in it. Or, should I say, we must remember there are people in it.
This sounds like a sound bite, in many ways because it is. To substantiate it requires almost existential questioning. Amazon Go, or something similar, will one day rule the high street. The question for our digital world is can we evolve with technology, or can we only adopt and become reduced to ones and zeros?