Welcome to the world of integrated consumer surveillance.
On Monday, Amazon announced that a small grocery store in Seattle that uses technology to deliver a "just walk out" experience with no lines or cashiers will be open to the public in 2017. Twenty-four hours later, The Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon may be planning on opening up to 2,000 similar stores across the US.
Basically, it's a huge deal, and it's been met with some criticism. Namely, from folks mourning the cashiers whose jobs may soon be automated like the basket-weavers and hamburger-order-takers before them.
It's not an unfounded worry—Amazon probably won't be hiring any cashiers for its stores, although it does look like some people will be around to, say, stock shelves, since human staff can be briefly seen in a promotional video. But this criticism misses the mark because Amazon's idea for a grocery store isn't about automation or saving on wages. Instead, it's about erecting a closed-loop system of integrated consumer surveillance.
A good deal of automation (that is, automatic computer behaviour) is a part of the Amazon Go store system, but what the company is doing is worlds apart from, say, replacing your neighbourhood barista with a mechanical version. This is the idea of automation that we're familiar with: replacing variable capital with fixed capital that becomes less expensive in the long run than paying people an hourly wage.
Lower wage overhead might be a benefit of Amazon's plan, but it's not its raison d'être—that would be finally closing the online-offline consumer information loop.
"The 'you' that Amazon doesn't see, and so clearly desperately wants to, is the you that buys a cheap hamburger for lunch every Wednesday like clockwork"
The "you" that Amazon the online retailer sees right now is the you that buys a 30-pack of something stupid at four in the morning, the you that mindlessly puts expensive things that you never plan on buying in your cart, and the you that inexplicably buys a large quantity of cardboard boxes one day (it's because you're moving apartments, but Amazon doesn't know this).
But the "you" that Amazon doesn't see, and so clearly desperately wants to, is the you that buys a cheap hamburger for lunch every Wednesday like clockwork, the you that picks up a bag of kale chips at midnight, the you that buys contraceptives on Friday, and so on—all of the tiny, insignificant, stupid things that altogether make up the reality of our daily lives.
Amazon is being secretive about the technology that will go into the store, and by extension what kinds of information they'll gain from people who wander in. A patent unearthed by Recode last year appears to confirm the computer vision aspect of the store's technology (which implies cameras), but an Amazon spokesperson confirmed to Motherboard over email that facial recognition, which is in the patent, is not in use at the Amazon Go store. Regardless, it's clear that Amazon will know what you're buying.
Anybody can get rid of a cashier with a robot. That's easy, and in fact, a lot of places have already done it with self-service checkout machines. But what only Amazon can do, and what it is seeking to do with Amazon Go stores, is design a hyper-efficient and data-driven information loop built around physical and online shopping. This will likely benefit Amazon's business for all of the reasons that customer data does now: improving its marketing, recommendations and promotions, and keeping its supply chain in line. All of this comes down to knowing you.
But at least you won't have to talk to a cashier.
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