An Amazon Prime drone lands in the UK

An Amazon Prime drone lands in the UK

The new world arrived, again, just before Christmas. Delivered by Amazon, quite literally. In Seattle, the retail giant has opened a new store, Amazon Go, a basic convenience/grocery store, with basics and ready-to-eat meals, all of them, to judge by the photos, sodding salads. What, Amazon, dealing with all old-fashioned retail, shop assistants, etc?

Well, no. Amazon Go is a shop without shop assistants. You load the app onto your smartphone. To enter the store you buzz in using the phone, through automatic gates. You pick up the stuff you want, the shelves record them as taken (as with automated hotel minibars), and once you leave the store with them, their proximity to your phone records them as bought. The automated checkout — unknown item in bagging area insert card insert card call assistant permission required arrgggghh — becomes an intermediate technology like the fax, something we were passing through on the way to something else. Currently, the store is being beta-tested — i.e. it’s open on the Amazon campus — with a roll-out expected for 2017.

Whether it will be as smooth as they imagine remains to be seen. Presumably, the stores will have security guards — the gates are as leapable at any train station — and the savings will come from having few other staff whatsoever, and the expanded sales from the appeal of just walking out with stuff. For that reason, theft might be up too. Supermarkets have a problem with shoplifting because the visual rhetoric of the store suggests stuff is free — it’s just there like a depot. All the more so with a ghost store like Amazon Go.

But even if it proves less smooth than the Amazons hope, it’s part of something that is going to hit big. The roll-out of automation in fast food outlets has begun, years after it was possible, and much slower than many might have expected. Why so? The plain fact is that the fast food conglomerates themselves are terrified of the landslide they might be about to start. Typically, firms rush for automation at certain times, in the knowledge that the first in will gain extra profits by having costs cheaper than the industry base. But automation is so fast now that big retail and fast food is factoring in the industry-wide effect of any automation move. For obvious reasons: the main customers of fast-food outlets are fast-food and other retail workers. It’s all many of them can afford as a dining out experience. General questions of aggregate demand and rate of profit are things the industry has to take on.

Amazon’s other innovation was its first delivery of an order by drone, a week ago, in an area near its Cambridge UK facility, in an area the UK government has licensed as a test site for drone delivery — a gadget and a bag of popcorn arriving 17 minutes after it was ordered. The entire process, from order to drone-loading to delivery, was automated. In New Zealand, Domino’s is using self-driving mini-delivery vehicles. Just as the delivery of porn appears to have driven innovation on the internet, the automation of transport is in the hands of fast food. Good old humans, we know what we like.

There will be many delays, many of them regulatory, on the way to all this, but it’s possible that the world 10 years from now could look like 1999 did in comparison to 1989, when you had to drive to a “library” and get a mechanical plastic tape-brick every time you wanted to watch a movie or go to one of two or three news agencies in a city if you wanted foreign printed news. Furthermore, because the material revolution has the digital revolution enabling it, it will move much faster. Each new innovation will be a feedback loop, contributing to its successive redesign.

This will of course all be fine. Just fine. All the jobs and work of the unskilled and low-skilled that are being vaporised will be replaced by new and interesting jobs arising elsewhere, to which the invisible hand of the market will slowly usher them. Just like what happened when mass, high-employment manufacturing and industry closed down in the US and the UK, for example. Thank God that went well and all those industrial areas weren’t allowed to become haunted wastelands of the socially excluded, disregarded by a new elite, and ready to follow anyone giving them a bit of hope and recognition. Mind you the unemployment rate in the US is only 5%. Mind you, with successive redefinition, the unemployment rate can always be set below 10%. When there are only 10 people left with jobs — and that job is to supervise killer robots vaporising the excluded besieging the walls separating the poor from the rich — the unemployment rate will still be measured as less than 10%.

The third part of this puzzle is the recent announcement that a third of all corporations in Australia paid no tax in 2014-15 (for various reasons, some legit), and the reminder that companies such as Amazon and Starbucks often pay no tax at all in places like the EU, where they can play a shell game between different jurisdictions. As automation increases, so too does the shift of the money that would have been wages, and taxed, to sequestered capital, effectively a double deprivation. The very money that we need to undertake the retraining and restructuring of social life to account for the next-stage evisceration of unskilled work is denied us — because of the evisceration of unskilled work.

Left unaltered, a situation like that yields only one result in the short to medium term: a section of the population defined as surplus to requirements, their labour power value approaching zero, their presence a nuisance to those on the inside. The circuit of getting and spending is contracted to 50-60% of the population, perhaps less, whose lives become ever more automated. The culture changes, so that the excluded are seen as the utterly “other”, blamed for their own failure, a strict separation occurring. This has already happened in a place like San Francisco. The digital revolution there arose from the counterculture that the city had spawned and the ideas — connectivity, universality, randomness, play — that sustained it. But three and four decades on, those qualities exist only as functional means to innovation, not as lived values. Thus, the techs watch as the police clear the homeless out of the path of the Google bus.

The only way in which that pathway is avoided is through a realisation that as corporations approach dominant and monopoly status, in substantially automated manner, they cease to be a private organisation in form and have become de facto a social resource. In immediate practice that means a real tax on their surplus, levied by means of an assumed profit on turnover in-country. Sales tax alone won’t do it — it’s ceaselessly passed on to the consumer. Profit can be ceaselessly hidden and offshored. Taxing assumed profit on turnover is one answer to the problem, a way of reclaiming the social dividend, which can be redeployed. Hopefully, in parallel, liberated technology can be developed, so there’s an opportunity to bypass the market altogether via free-exchange of complex goods. But that’s the long arc. In the interim, without serious surplus recycling, we will embark/continue on a path of inequality, exclusion, indifference and active persecution.

I know, I know, and all you wanted was a salad. Still.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey