Amazon Strikes Another Blow

sorcerers-apprentice

The cause for flourishing just took another hit with the unveiling of Amazon’s new “Dash.” Dash, a device to make ordering from Amazon both effortless and mindless has two parts. The hand-held Dash will automatically place orders for household goods by scanning barcodes or by recognizing your spoken commands. The second, related part is called Dash Button. a smaller device that sticks to whatever cabinet you store your household goods that allows you to order replacements with the mere touch of a button. Here what Amazon says:

Place it. Press it. Get it.

Dash Button comes with a reusable adhesive and a hook so you can hang, stick, or place it right where you need it. Keep Dash Button handy in the kitchen, bath, laundry, or anywhere you store your favorite products. When you’re running low, simply press Dash Button, and Amazon quickly delivers household favorites so you can skip the last-minute trip to the store.

I see this as only a step toward implanting some sort of device in your brain that intercepts the stimulus that would have actuated the Dash Button or clicked the Dash’s bar code scanner, then and sends the intended order directly to Amazon. Why bother with more gadgets lying around the house? It can all happen without them. This is truly mindless consumption, or close to it. Each of us becomes nothing more than a cog in Amazon’s provisioning machine. No conscious thinking needed; no agonizing choice between All® and Era®. What could come any closer to making us the perfectly rational, optimizing, hyper-efficient human machine that makes markets hum?

The on-line New Yorker had a story about this that I cannot help generously cribbing from. Thanks to Ian Crouch for “The Horror of Amazon’s New Dash Button.” He begins with comments about the promotional video that Amazon used to introduce the Dash Button.

There was also something slightly off about the promotional video. It opens with a montage of repeated household tasks—squeezing a tube of moisturizer, running a coffee maker, microwaving a container of Easy Mac, starting a washing machine—that gets interrupted when a woman reaches for a coffee pod, only to discover that there are none left. She leans forward and exhales, resigned. It’s going to be a long day. But then, thanks to Dash, the montage starts up again, with those familiar Amazon boxes arriving continuously in the mail—and in them a supply of coffee, lotion, and macaroni and cheese for as many days as we may live to need them. “Don’t let running out ruin your rhythm,” a voiceover tells us.

Most of the article was devoted to a theme I have been harping on for years, mindless, addictive consumption. The ubiquity of advertising has dulled our ability to make meaningful choices. The fundamental notion that the market works best when buyers have all the information needed to make rational choices has been buried for years. There is no way that anyone can determine which brand is better or whether the product being considered has hidden costs that outweigh or offset the apparent benefits. But Dash goes too far as the next quote from the article suggests.

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.

Crouch picks up on my theme by asking, “But what if there is actual value in running out of things?” Amazon is trying to make shopping completely transparent, that is, an action we take without conscious reflection. Heidegger saw this kind of action as fundamental to humans. So does modern neuroscience. Our brains learn to do routine tasks without thinking as long as the tools we need for them are “ready-to-hand.” That clumsy phrase, also from Heidegger, means simply that the necessary tools are easily available to us. If it were true that effortless consumption was purely beneficial, then it might be a good idea to make it easier. It would become just another action like walking or talking, both of which actions we perform without conscious thinking.

But consumption is clearly not without a dark side. It is the medium through which human economic life despoils the Earth. It is the medium that blinds us to the relationships we have with the world by the very readiness-to-hand nature of consumption, as Amazon would like to have it. So, by the way, would most neoclassical economists. Human life has progressed (if you would call it that) only when the transparency of action ceases. It is only then that we become conscious of the world before us that we use our real smarts to solve our problems. The world, again, according to Heidegger, becomes present-at-hand, and humans enter a different mode of thinking, reflecting on the scene. Almost all other animals lack this capability. It would be a terrible shame to lose it or to injure that talent. The Skinner box referred to in the last quote is a system where the animal (including humans) inside operates only by a transparent stimulus-response behavioral pattern. No ‘thinking” is involved.

The ability to think critically or reflectively is being neglected today. Teaching to tests is a thinly disguised form of Skinnerism. Humanities which teach such critical skills are being pushed aside by the drive towards complete professionalism in higher education. With only a little simplification, professionalism is a form of ready-to-hand behavior. One learns how to address many kinds of problems, transparently, with the tools one acquires in school and through experience. The appearance of many societal ills can be traced to the failure of professionals to cope with the present-at-hand, that is the real world. Even though Dash might appear to be an almost trivial player in a technological world where mindlessness is already the key, it is another ominous sign that what makes us human is taking another hit.

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.

Most of my readers are far too young to remember, Fantasia, one of Disney’s very early animated films consisting of fantastic scenes set to classical music. One of them tells the tale of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, set to the music of the same name by Paul Dukas. In it the Apprentice (Mickey Mouse), trying to emulate his master, performs what he believes is the correct incantations and spells to turn on a broom to become a water carrier to perform Mickey’s own chores. But the scheme goes awry, and the broom continues until the place is inundated. Mickey is powerless to stop the action until the master returns, turns the broom off, and gives Mickey the boot. I see Amazon as the sorcerer and me as Mickey. I am given the magic wand, Dash, and the ability to turn it on, but not the secret to turn it off. I can envision my house overflowing with toilet paper and Mac’n Cheese, but I cannot imagine the Sorcerer, Amazon, ever showing up to turn off the spigot.

This is not even the end of the story. It’s the last line in the following quote that conjured up images of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Crouch ends with:

Soon we won’t even have to hit a button. Amazon is also working with companies on devices that will be able to restock themselves. As the Wall Street Journal explained, “Whirlpool is working on a washer and dryer that anticipate when laundry supplies are running low so they can automatically order more detergent and dryer sheets.” Water purifiers could reorder their own filters; printers reorder their own ink. This is the dream of domestic life as a perfectly calibrated, largely automated system. But the doomsayer in me likes to imagine some coffee maker gone HAL 9000, making its own decisions about what kinds of coffee it thinks it should be brewing. Or a washing machine, haywire and alone in a basement somewhere, constantly reordering supplies for itself long after we’ve all been wiped off the Earth.

|