Posted by on January 30, 2018 at 10:16 am

David Harvey

Consumer behaviour expert David Harvey comments on Amazon opening a supermarket with no checkout operators or self-service tills, but with extensive built-in cameras to spy on people’s behaviour.

“…Those who have read George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, will know about its depiction of surveillance technology…”

“Amazon has just opened a new grocery store in Seattle, where customers can simply take items from the shelves and then leave without queuing at a checkout to pay for them. It’s all made possible by combining a phone app with lots of cameras and artificial intelligence. What does this mean for retailing and future shopping behaviour?

Retail has experienced many innovations in recent years and Amazon’s concept store is the latest example. This application of surveillance technology is certainly very clever, but is it a solution looking for a problem? How important is it to save a couple of minutes of queuing, when so many people waste hours staring at their smartphones? Because something is technically possible, does not necessarily mean it is economically viable, or a good thing for society.

Amazon does of course have very deep pockets and they can easily afford to develop and test this technology, without any risk of it bankrupting them. They will be able to collect huge amounts of observational data from this experiment, before deciding whether to roll out the concept elsewhere. The store layout and merchandising methods can be fine-tuned to increase sales. Ultimately, these store insights could be connected to other information they have about their customers, such as how they use or consume these products at home or elsewhere. The latest version of the Amazon Echo Dot now has a built-in camera, which can presumably spy on people’s behaviour at home too!

Whether with all this information, Amazon can convert it into a good return on their huge investment, is another matter. Regardless of the long-term financial gains or losses though, the ‘store with no checkouts’ serves as a symbol of Amazon’s expansionist ambitions and technological prowess. Along with other global corporations like Google, Apple and Facebook, Amazon is engaged in a ‘tech race’, which shares some symbolic similarities to the ‘space race’ between the USA and USSR in the 1960s. It’s arguable whether getting a man on the moon achieved much, practically, for the Americans. But it mattered a lot, ideologically, that they did it before the Soviets. Abolishing the checkout is not as romantic or awe-inspiring as advances in space travel, but the technology behind it may eventually have a bigger impact on our lives. Amazon will be pleased that they did it before any of their competitors, who will likewise want to respond with their own vanity projects, such as driverless cars.

What does this particular technology mean for us, the ordinary citizen or consumer? Those who have read George Orwell’s novel, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, will know about its depiction of surveillance technology. The most disturbing idea in the book is the notion of ‘thought crime’. There is already some evidence that monitoring our facial expressions or observing the way we walk or talk can provide clues about how we are thinking or feeling. It is bad enough to know that authorities and corporations can see and hear nearly everything that people do and say. The idea that they will also know or predict what we are thinking, is enough to give us a headache! We can already say to our Amazon Echo, “Alexa, order me more paracetamol”. I wonder how long it could be before Alexa can reply, “Don’t worry, I noticed you were feeling a bit anxious about me watching you all the time, so I’ve already had some delivered!”


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