For some, it’s a dream come true: The ability to walk into a grocery store, grab anything you want off the shelves, and simply walk out.
There’s no need to wait in line at a busy cash register. Your bank account will be automatically debited when you leave the store. It’s magical.
Amazon says it started working on this new shopping experience four years ago, using the same technology applied to driverless cars. Now it’s launching the new app that makes it a reality.
So the day is coming when people will be able to pull up to cashier-less stores in their driverless car, leaving their cashless wallet at home. All they will need is their smartphone and Amazon’s new app, called Amazon Go.
The first Amazon Go pilot store is already open to the company’s employees in Seattle and it will open to the public in January.
Neil Stern, an analyst with retail consultancy McMillan Doolittle, heralds the new technology as a “game changer for the retail industry” which is searching for ways to cut labor costs while trying to compete with online merchants.
It could “drastically change not just food retailing, but every segment of retail,” Stern wrote in a blog. “One can envision a future of Amazon brick-and-mortar outposts: book stores, beauty stores, drive-thru grocery stores and convenience locations all using this technology.”
Watch Amazon Go promo video touting the new shopping experience as the epitome of ease and convenience:
If anyone doubts the popularity of the idea, they should note that the above video was released by Amazon Dec. 5 and within three days it logged 6 million views on YouTube. It’s spreading like wildfire.
But some are saying “not so fast.” This new convenience offered to shoppers and the labor savings of retailers will come at a steep cost to personal privacy.
They fear the emergence of a society that is not only cashless but controlled by machines and requiring very little human interaction. The data collected will inevitably be shared across platforms. In short, we could be looking at the emergence of a long-awaited technocratic utopia with frightening unforeseen side effects. Futurists like George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and H.G. Wells saw it coming decades ago but the technology now exists to usher it in, says Patrick Wood, an economist and privacy advocate who also follows the global technocracy movement.
“In the longer term if the experiment works out and is adopted widely it could radically transform the nature of work in the retail industry, much like the driverless car and truck technology threaten to upend transportation,” observes Wood, who edits the blog Technocracy News and Trends.
Not only does Amazon Go remove the need for cash – that’s nothing new – but it removes the need for a large segment of the work force.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, cashiers represent the second-largest occupation with 3.5 million employed in the U.S.
While more and more people, especially among younger generations, are going online to shop for basic necessities like food and clothing, Amazon’s new experiment acknowledges that some people may never be comfortable with that idea.
Enter Amazon Go.
This is how it works: You download the app on your smartphone, scan your phone when you enter the store, take whatever products you want off the shelf and the app immediately places them in your online “to go” cart. If you put a product back on the shelf, the app removes it from your virtual cart. When you leave the store those products in your cart are charged automatically to your debit or credit card. No cash or credit card is needed. No smiling cashiers or bag boys. No waiting in line behind a young mother with crying babies.
It sounds great but what’s the catch?
While super convenient, Wood and others are cautioning to let the buyer beware.
What you gain in convenience, you will lose in privacy.
“Amazon is not going to keep this just to themselves, they’ll be selling this technology to other companies, to retail stores all across the country, probably across the world,” Wood said.
The store will have the ability to not only monitor what products you take off the shelf, but the day of the week and the exact time of day you took each one off the shelf and how long you held it in your hands. Did you read the ingredient list before deciding to buy it? The possibilities are endless.
“What’s next? Are they going to monitor and record your facial expressions as you looked at it?” Wood asks. “And what they do with the data is the scariest part. It’s what you leave them with and what they do with it, and it will be tagged to you as a person forever.
“The data Amazon Go collects on you is going to be used by them as well as other companies to market products to you.”
Here’s one possible scenario: A consumer goes to Amazon Go in the morning, looks at a few things but doesn’t buy anything. Then in the afternoon this same shopper goes to Macy’s and all of a sudden that store’s system identifies her as the same shopper who went to Amazon Go earlier in the day.
“They know you’re there, they know you’re an Amazon Go shopper and they know what you did, or didn’t do, while you were at Amazon Go earlier in the day,” Wood explains. “And they can use that information now to pitch products to you.”
It’s the same phenomenon that already happens online. If you shop Amazon, E-Bay or some other website for a new camera, you will notice that ads for cameras start appearing in your Facebook feed, on news websites and on virtually every other website you visit.
“Once this can of worms is opened, all of our most intimate details of what we own and what we buy, we’re going to lose control of it, completely,” Wood says. “They will have it, and we won’t.”
Information is power, and consumers should be compensated for turning over their intimate shopping habits to corporations that will profit from it, says Wood.
“But when you leave their store, Amazon won’t give you a five-dollar bill or a ten-dollar bill for all that data they’ve collected on you,” he said. “No, they harvest your data, they use it themselves and they sell it to others. You get nothing. Except the creepy sales pitches.”
But Amazon is betting that people will eventually adapt to the intrusive nature of the technology, like they have adapted and grown used to every other data-collecting device that comes with the “Internet of things.”
By the time they figure out their personal data is being stripped and sold, they will be addicted to the technology that allows them to finish mundane tasks like grocery shopping more quickly and efficiently.
If anyone makes an issue about privacy, Amazon will be ready with a standard answer. They will likely say that they only keep aggregate data, not personally-identifiable data.
“They’ll say ‘we don’t really know who you are.’ That’s nonsense. You will be tagged and identified to that store,” Wood said. “They have your credit-card data, your facial scan, everything. And it’s really naïve to think they won’t do anything with it.”
Seattle the perfect test market?
And it’s no accident that Seattle was chosen as the pilot for this new technology.
“Seattle is kind of the hotbed of technocracy. There’s a lot of people in Seattle that think this way, and they would be eager early adopters,” Wood said. “It’s the home of Microsoft, Starbucks, all the cool hipster stuff. People in Seattle would go for this stuff.”
Some say it’s the wave of the future. A place where you will have access to everything, for a fee, but won’t own anything. No car. No house. No appliances. Products are turned into services in this burgeoning utopia, all you have to do is “register” with your digital imprint and you can get anything you want.
Everything you do in this society is recorded. And you won’t have to worry about “fake news,” either. The technocrats who work for the corporate-styled [mostly unelected] government will be there to take care of all your media needs. Your news will be filtered but at least you won’t have to worry about being “duped” into voting for a “populist” or “nationalist” candidate like Donald Trump for president.
“Technocracy is closing in,” says Wood. And in the end, the consumer will find that what was sacrificed for convenience can never be retrieved.
“The fact that your data will become ubiquitous across all these different platforms, all these different stores, wow. It’s going to be steering everyone,” Wood says. “This is the brave new world that we live in. We need to be cautious. Just because they build it does not mean we need to come. I don’t know how we can push back against this in the case of Amazon in particular but, somewhere along the way, if we’re going to save our sovereignty and freedom and liberty in this nation technocracy needs to be rejected by the American people.”
Wood says he can’t help but flash back to a 1970 book by Alvin Toffler called “Future Shock” in which rapidly advancing technology starts to affect the psychological makeup of both individuals and society as a whole.
Modern ‘magic’ lapped up by tech-addicted population
He worries that at some point this technology, from driverless cars to cashier-less stores, will be forcibly implemented, offering no choice to opt out of the e-commerce economy. Technocracy by its nature is ultimately coercive.
“I don’t think most people are psychologically ready for Amazon Go but I don’t think we’re going to have any choice,” Wood said. “‘Future Shock’ was a radical book in its day, but it said there would come a day when technology gets so advanced so quickly that the average citizen will lose his ability to understand it, so it will be seen as almost a form of magic.”
“Theologian Francis Schaeffer warned of the same thing in the latter stages of his life, when he said the final step in a post-modern world will be people turning to technology as magic.
“It’s like something out of Star Trek. You speak to the computer and say I want a ham sandwich and a few minutes later it appears.”