Sunday, April 05, 2015

Hey! You! Get Off of the Cloud!

Paul Roberts:

But when it comes to consumer convenience, we need to consider whether easier really is always better. Online shopping, for example, is already so effortless that we often don’t remember we’ve ordered something until the package arrives at our door. What happens when consumption becomes even less of a conscious process — when, say, our smart cupboards and refrigerators, empowered to monitor what we’re using, start making buying decisions autonomously?

...As important, might it be possible to make things too easy? Systems like Amazon’s Dash are attractive because they let us skip routine tasks, such as managing the household, which gives us more time for things that are more important to us. But when we eliminate even a mundane task, we also lose some of the mental skills that the task required. Granted, losing the mental skills needed to compile a shopping list hardly seems a cause for worry. But we should consider that loss as part of the broader “de-skilling” of everyday life with the spread of automated conveniences.

Ian Crouch:

As propaganda, the video seems more like a condemnation of consumption than a celebration of it. All that stuff, the same stuff, used and discarded day after day. It’s the kind of montage that a movie director would use to show just how sad and soulless a character’s life was. And the idea of shopping buttons placed just within our reach conjures an uneasy image of our homes as giant Skinner boxes, and of us as rats pressing pleasure levers until we pass out from exhaustion. But according to Amazon, these products represent the actual rhythm of life, any interruption of which might lead not only to inconvenience but to the kind of coffee-deprived despair that we see when the woman realizes that she has run out of K-cups. That’s the real dystopia: not that our daily lives could be reduced to a state of constant shopping but that we might ever have to, even for a moment, stop shopping.

...But what if there is actual value in running out of things? The sinking feeling that comes as you yank a garbage bag out of the box and meet no resistance from further reinforcements is also an opportunity to ask yourself all kinds of questions, from “Do I want to continue using this brand of bag?” to “Why in the hell am I producing so much trash?” The act of shopping—of leaving the house and going to a store, or, at the very least, of one-click ordering on the Amazon Web site—is a check against the inertia of consumption, not only in personal economic terms but in ethical ones as well. It is the chance to make a decision, a choice—even if that choice is simply to continue consuming. Look, we’re all going to keep using toothpaste, and the smarter consumer is the person who has a ten-pack of tubes from Costco in the closet. But shopping should make you feel bad, if only for a second. Pressing a little plastic button is too much fun.

Just to be clear: these guys are making like Amish elders evaluating what are essentially little wi-fi buttons you can put around your house that will allow you to add everyday-use household items to your Amazon shopping cart. I mean, you could still do it the old-fashioned way, like we did back in my day, and walk around the house with a laptop or a smartphone to make a shopping list. But in our slave new world, you will still get an email to confirm that you did intend to add that item. Your kids cannot accidentally order 700 boxes of dryer sheets by playing with the button. There would seem to be little danger that this will somehow prove to be more addictive than using Amazon's already-existing one-click option. No one is going to turn into a hoarder and bankrupt themselves ordering 20,000 jars of Peter Pan peanut butter and Welch's grape jelly because it's "too much fun" pressing this button. If anything, this would seem to be marginally more useful than those smartwatches that the tech geeks have been fapping over for the last couple years, and I don't remember anybody seeing those as harbingers of dystopia.

So, yes. Roberts asks if technology like this will "make us stupid". Crouch, when he's not standing outside the Dollar General wearing a cilice and urging shoppers to repent, seems to think that most people normally fill in the lacunae in their hectic days by contemplating the essence of the good life, rather than cursing the shitty luck that caused them to run out of trash bags and detergent now, of all days, for chrissakes. Like Calvin's dad, both sound eager to remind harried consumers how stress and hard work builds character. If this sounds awfully familiar, why, yes, we were just talking about this.