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The Roundup for January 20-26, 2018 Edition

Terminus, 2018, Toronto by Christopher Parsons

I’ve been thinking about how high technology is continuing to develop at a pace that outruns the least well off in our Western societies. I think that this was best crystallized in Amazon’s opening of its first Amazon Go store, which does away with cashiers and replaces them with cameras and sensors that automatically identify what you acquire for purchase and charge you as you leave the space. There are at least three (immediate) concerns that strike me with regard to these kinds of technologies:

  1. As noted by Hanna Brooks Olsen, these are inherently cashless technologies. Consumers will enter the store with their smartphones, cameras and sensors will track them, and be billed automatically to their debit or credit card(s) associated with the Amazon account. For persons who have a hard time acquiring a smartphone, or having it repaired when damaged, or opening a bank account or obtaining a credit card, or possessing a language barrier, or without access to a convenient and reliable place to charge their devices, or those who rely on the cash economy, these kinds of ‘convenient’ stores are nearly impenetrable fortresses. Those who cannot enter and purchase goods in the stores will be those who are often the least privileged and, rather than being confronted by the diversity of the human population, shoppers in Amazon Go-type stores will have some portion of society’s diversity simply deleted from their shopping experience. As stated by Olsen, “cashless life … is necessarily one of privilege.”
  2. These are anti-labour technologies. In promoting ‘convenience’ Amazon Go and equivalent technologies remove a certain portion of low skill jobs that many people depend on for their livelihoods. While the popular conception is that it’s just students who have these kinds of jobs, simply looking at service jobs belies this point: the age groups which have sales or sales service jobs are rising, and this is exacerbated by an older population who has to work longer into their retirement years simply to survive, let alone thrive. By removing, or at least significantly reducing, the number of low-skill jobs the numbers of persons who are struggling and unable to find work will increase and their social hardships be exacerbated.1
  3. Cashless systems and those which remove labourers are inherently political technologies. They are technologies designed for a particular set of people, to solve what one group in society regards as ‘problems’, and which could significantly reshape how elements of society operate. Should these technologies cease to be ‘technology’ per se and be normalized as ‘infrastructure’ then it will be challenging to ‘reformat and replace’ the technology and ameliorate its long-term social impacts.2 Transforming cashless into infrastructure threatens to deepen the the aforementioned difficulties.

Aren’t there solutions to the aforementioned problems? Of course there are. But any solutions will likely impose costs on those who are developing, advocating for, and using convenience technologies that detrimentally affect the least well off or privileged. Solutions might entail:

  • establishing a guaranteed way for all persons to obtain banking accounts with diminished identification or language requirements;3
  • providing either a basic living wage or reducing the barriers to accessing social welfare benefits, to offset the reduction of low-skill employment opportunities; or
  • reducing educational costs or fully subsidizing such costs so that we as a society can improve the educational status of many of those affected by shrinking low-skill labour. However, education is often seen as the silver bullet when it should be regarded as a tarnished and dented brass shield instead: educational requirements for mid-skilled labour may be too onerous for some persons who have mental, psychological, or physical challenges. Similarly, if there is a major gap between initial education and when it is (re)required, such as when a middle income person loses their job after 25+ years of performing the same tasks, then a short 6- or 12-month course may be insufficient. Education may help to address some job loss linked to convenient technologies but education, alone, is insufficient to ‘solve’ the social challenges linked with such technologies and infrastructures.

It’s pretty rare that major news reports about novel and emerging technologies are accompanied with real-work implications of the technologies, should they transform to infrastructure. It’s even rarer for minor news reports to consider the social, ethical, or political implications of new technologies. Instead, the focuses tend to be on whether a new user interface is ‘fun’ or ‘convenient enough’ or ‘fast enough’. Those are the concerns of the majority. We need to far more seriously consider how our developing technologies will affect those least well off, or else risk further stratifying social and economic divides and widening the rift between the most and least privileged members of society.


Quotation of the Week

“We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed.”

– Ruth Messinger

Great Photography Shots

I really appreciated the humour in these urban camouflage shots!

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things

Footnotes

  1. The current Amazon Go location does have employees working there, just not as cashiers, and the company hasn’t taken the population of would-be-cashiers and moved them to other locations. The very point is to remove cashiers as an occupation and number of employees from the experience.
  2. If you’re interested in this line of analysis — that technology is inherently political — I’d suggest reading Langdon Winner’s book, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in the Age of High Technology.
  3. One of the challenges to obtaining a bank account is that customers may require a fixed address, telephone number, or other identifiers. While such identifiers are often stable and available to the majority of the population they are fluid for those who lack secure housing, employment, and other ‘normal’ components of daily living.