Technology and Society

Trivial Pursuits

January 29, 2018

When I was growing up, going to a gas station involved an attendant who filled the tank and cleaned the windshield. By adulthood I was used to pumping my own gas, so when I was in Oregon a couple of years ago, it seemed odd to have to rely on someone else to do it, but that was the law. (It’s changing this year; gas stations in rural counties will be allowed to offer self-service. Not every Oregonian is happy about it.) More recently I’ve learned how to use the self-checkout stations in my local supermarket. When I only have a couple of things to buy, it’s handy, but it’s giving me the weird feeling I might prefer not dealing with people if I can do it myself.

But nothing on earth would compel me to shop at an Amazon Go store in spite of gushing publicity freely supplied by media outlets. (To be fair, some were more circumspect or skeptical.)

To enter the store you have to have an app activated on your phone. This also ensures you actually have a smart phone and a credit card. You can’t use cash and you can’t use your Snap card (what we used to call Food Stamps) because poor people, feh. There’s no cashier, though an actual human is on hand to check IDs before you can purchase alcohol, at least until a machine can handle that. Some biometrics tied to public records should work, right? The transactions are all facilitated through the app and the cameras covering the ceiling, watching your every move. People stood in line to visit the store of the future – which is primarily “the future” because you don’t have to stand in line to buy stuff.

I wouldn’t shop there because I’m picky about privacy. I hardly ever download apps unless I’m sure they aren’t collecting data they don’t need, which means I have hardly any apps on my phone. I won’t get one of those discount cards from my local store because I don’t really want them analyzing my eating habits. I do buy things from Amazon from time to time, but I prefer not to let one company have too much information about what I wear or read or watch. (Don’t even ask me about Alexa – voluntarily having an always-on microphone in my house is not happening.) I’m not crazy about replacing local stores with warehouses where the working conditions are notoriously bad, or about replacing those jobs with robots. Why is this an exciting future? Is standing in line and saying hello to a cashier so terrible that we have to solve that problem with “computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning”? Couldn’t we deploy all that sophistication on, I don’t know, having water that’s safe to drink?

It’s weird how we can’t begin to solve actual problems – poverty, inequality, imminent environmental catastrophe, replacing aging infrastructure, providing affordable health care – because they’re hard, but we are throwing everything we’ve got at things we don’t need like self-driving cars and cashierless convenience stores. Our greatest innovations are focused on absolute trivia because the point is a) to be the first to make something cool without people getting up in your business with regulations and stuff and b) make money. These advanced technological innovations are usually touted as “making the world a better place” although they actually have zero to do with making the world a better place.

All of that built-in surveillance can have unintended consequences. For reasons I don’t totally understand, there’s an app where you track your running and compare it with other people’s exercise. That all shows up on a map – sweet, unless you don’t want your military bases to light up in conflict zones where you’re not advertising your presence. Then fitness buffs not opting out can be a problem. Or what if you’re avoiding a stalker? Apparently if you don’t actively adjust the settings, it pinpoints who you are and where you go and makes that information public. Because sharing is so great.

It’s also weird how humans actually are involved in so many of these futures designed to replace people. Somebody has to train the machines. Mark Graham, a professor of internet geography at Oxford, recently reported on a training facility in central Africa, a day’s drive from the nearest international airport, where low-wage workers tag and match images eight hours a day to structure information that will be used by autonomous vehicles and advanced search engines – things they’ll never own and probably will never use. And let’s not forget the armies of contract workers who get to flag the filth that people upload to social networks, something machines can’t do well. We never have to look these people in the eye. They might as well not exist.

This clean, well-lighted future of ours has cameras mounted on every surface, data buried in leaky containers, and the dirty work happening in far-away places we don’t have to think about. Maybe we should.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.