We’re moving towards an increasingly virtual world, which, in spite of the pitfalls, offers us tremendous personal freedom. Think of driverless cars and smart supermarkets like Amazon Go, which promise queue-free, check-out free shopping. With technology set to liberate us increasingly as the future unfolds, we can look forward to the advent of dramatically increased individual autonomy. But, as always, with great freedom comes great responsibility.
Amazon launched its first Amazon Go store in Seattle in late January. Marketed as ‘Just Walk Out’ shopping, with taglines like ‘No lines. No checkout. (No, seriously).’, it sounds blissfully uncomplicated and effortless. It begins with an app, linked to your credit card, which allows you to scan in, enter the store and start shopping.
The technology behind it is not new, but the application is breathtakingly clever. Hundreds of highly-accurate cameras located throughout the store read the product labels of the items you pick or place back on the shelves. They also track your movements around the store, and, as you leave, the items are charged to your Amazon account. There are also sensors set in the shelves, which collect data about your preferences. It’s obvious that, once you become a frequent shopper at Amazon Go, your preferences will be stored on the system, and your phone might guide you towards other items that you may not have previously considered. Much like Amazon’s online portal, where the line, “If you like X, then you might like Y”, pops up to guide consumers to other options, the Amazon Go app might help you discover new delights on the shelves.
From there, you’re free to fill your basket or cart at leisure, change your mind and put items back on the shelves, or grab a last-minute must-have. When you’re done shopping, you simply walk out of the store. Shoppers who’ve experienced this brave new world of shopping have had mixed reactions – from those who feel it’s bracingly simple and accessible, to those who feel that it lacks the human touch. Whatever the reaction – cognitive dissonance or complete infatuation – it certainly signals a shift in the way we shop.
Ironically, Amazon created the flagship store partly to get closer to its customers. With e-commerce at its heart, Amazon’s opportunities for interpersonal contact are somewhat limited, with massive warehouses scattered in remote locations. This is Amazon’s way of trying to get personal. And yet, there’s not much room for chit-chat at the store. You can walk in and out without any human interaction at all, if you choose. And, yes, there is something wonderfully liberating in that. At the end of a long, hard day at work, it absolves you of the need to queue, make small talk, deal with more challenges at the end of an already challenging day. It’s ease of use exemplified. Fuss-free, failproof bliss. A moment of peace and calm before you get home to whatever domestic chaos and energy await you there.
But the real challenge is what we do with our freedoms. As driverless cars provide us with the much-needed opportunity to work while we commute, and as technology becomes increasingly automated so that we have more and more leisure time on our hands, we need to check in with ourselves to determine how we will, indeed, spend that newly freed-up spare time.
If we fill it up with more work, less inter-personal time, more screen time, then we can hardly claim to be liberated. ‘Enslaved’ would be the term that springs to mind. It’s finding the balance that is the greatest challenge. And using our newfound freedoms to build better lives. By better, we don’t mean busier. We mean more time spent with people who matter to us, time spent doing meaningful activities that enrich us and make us more fully human.
Technology has always been a bit of a double-edged sword. From ancient tech disruptions like agriculture, to yester-year’s inventions like the printing press, the pencil, the bicycle, the lightbulb, etc., each and every generation has faced the same balancing act. The secret to successfully embracing successive disruptive technologies seems to lie within us, and how we use these to enrich rather than deplete our lived experience. Finally, technology, and its freedoms, seem to be what we make of it.