This week, I had two quite useless but nevertheless uplifting conversations in store lineups. "That little gem lettuce," a stranger asked me at our local grocery store, "I've never used it. Is it nice?" It was nice, I said, and possessed two vital qualities for lettuce – it was crunchy, and wouldn't rot when you inevitably forgot it in the crisper drawer.
Later, at the store I now think of as the Emporium of Bread-Swindling, I got in a conversation with another stranger about the relative merits of fabric hair scrunchies versus plastic clips. Okay, so it wasn't exactly sharing martinis with Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin, but in these cold times, you welcome human interaction where you can find it.
At this point, either you've abandoned this column muttering, "I hope I never run into that lunatic at the grocery store," or you have recognized a fellow line-talker. We're the ones who stand there marvelling out loud at the ingenuity of Doritos' endless flavour experiments, or explaining to the cashier exactly how freaking cold it is out there. We are the weirdos and the daydreamers who actually welcome the few minutes standing in line as a respite from a world that constantly wants us to be somewhere, doing something.
For our small cohort, there is nothing as unsettling as the prospect of the new Amazon Go. What precisely is Amazon Go? It is "the store of the future," according to CNN. Amazon, proud parent, describes it as the place where engineers have combined "the most advanced machine learning, computer vision and AI into the very fabric of a store, so that you never had to wait in line." Fast Company calls it "a machine designed for throughput," which is a phrase to set off sparks in even the dullest imagination. Just picture telling your future kids, "Dad and I met at the machine designed for throughput, discovered that our algorithms aligned and, next thing we knew, there you were!"
Really, it's just a store without cashiers. Or lines, ideally, although when the first store opened in Seattle recently, a line snaked around the corner. There was no lineup to get out, but there was one to get in, so it was like Studio 54, with less Bianca Jagger on a white horse and more coconut water and kombucha. I'm not sure if old people were technically banned or merely banned by their creaky technology, but either way, video reports did not show a lot of grey hair in the crowd.
Illustration by Hanna Barczyk
This is how it works: You download the Amazon Go app and swipe it on a turnstile as you enter the store. A combination of cameras and sensors detects the items you pick up from the shelves and adds them to your account. If you put an item back – if, say, the wheat berry salad is verboten in your keto diet and so you glumly return it to the fridge – the item will be removed from your account. Human clerks are on hand to check ID for booze purchases and answer questions, but otherwise, it's just you, your phone and the postsentient future.
No carbon-based life forms will gum up your day on the way out, asking if you need bags or cash back or would like to do a survey. You merely exit the store, the beneficiary of Amazon's cunningly named Just Walk Out technology. And now you have saved seven minutes, which can be spent on Instagram, Twitter, or browsing Amazon online.
So far there's only one Amazon Go, located in the bottom of the company's Seattle headquarters, but you can bet more are on their way – especially since Amazon now owns the retail chain Whole Foods. The expansion of a chain of cashierless stores, whose shelves will one day likely be stocked by robots, raises many good questions about what kind of work we value and want for the future. Amazon's opaque data-collection procedures raise other important questions about privacy and information security.
For me, though – line-talker, dawdler, Dorito-admirer, gossiper-over-the-avocado-pile – the most crucial question centres on what a fully automated retail experience means for human contact. We already know that, in the West, we suffer from a crisis of social isolation – what used to be called loneliness – that is so acute it is becoming a public-health crisis. Social interactions, even small and seemingly meaningless ones, can have great benefit to people who feel disconnected and adrift. A smile from a cashier or a commiseration from a fellow shopper could be the highlight of someone's day. And if they get to talk to me about lettuce – well, that's the equivalent of a week's vacation.
Smithsonian Magazine asked Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University, about the consequences of a retailer such as Amazon Go: "The more contact we have with other human beings, the better the world is, even if it's just a gas station attendant or a store clerk," Dr. Yarrow said. "This is how we form communities, in these seemingly inconsequential interactions."
But community-building isn't the buzzword of the moment – "seamlessness" is. That is, all experiences are meant to be as convenient as possible, requiring the least number of clicks, human interactions, waiting times. Friction is the enemy. Bumps are the enemy, and so, I gather, are sidesteps and interruptions and serendipity. I'm not sure if the proponents of seamlessness have ever listened to Leonard Cohen, or they would have heard the master's wisdom: "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."
I have a feeling I'll never actually shop at an Amazon Go, so I'll never experience the frictionless joy of not talking to someone who's slurping Soylent while trying to fit 10 extra seconds into his day. I will instead be over there by the tomatoes, trying to figure out if this one is too ripe or just ripe enough. I'm going to need some advice, so feel free to join me.