As I read about the recent public opening of the first Amazon Go store in Seattle, I found myself having mixed emotions about the new retail concept and the possible effects it might have on society.
In case, you missed it, an Amazon Go customer swipes the Amazon app upon entering the store. The customer is then constantly observed by a battalion of ceiling cameras. Items picked up are further tracked via sensors built into shelves. The only time a customer must interact with an employee is for an ID check if they’re purchasing beer or wine. Customers simply walk out with their chosen items which are automatically charged to their Amazon accounts.
The question I always ask myself whenever new technologies are introduced is ‘how will this enhance our lives’? And, while I was fascinated to read about the specifics of the new technologies that make this way of shopping possible, I was struck by the fact that technological advancement was yet again moving humans further into the realm of isolation.
If you’re old enough to remember actually speaking to a company employee on the phone when you had a problem, consider how the introduction of the ‘phone tree’ with its automated, computerized selections has replaced human interaction with a system that has frustrated so many!
So, what does all this convenience mean for American society, as well as the rest of the world, as companies like Amazon continue to expand their influence? Will saving a few minutes in the check-out line really enhance our lives in positive ways, helping the average consumer to lead a happier, more fulfilling existence?
Even though I haven’t lived in the USA for 15 years, I visit often so I’m well aware of the importance that American retail customers place on convenience—ie, quick and efficient service. While having tons of free parking and choices galore are also important for American customers, it seems that Amazon is betting on keeping one step ahead of its competition by completely eliminating the need to spend time checking out.
I’ve listened to many people complain while waiting in long check out lines, especially during holiday periods. Some huff and puff and are rude to the cashier, while others take their complaints directly to store management who are responsible for operating the store efficiently while still providing sufficient customer service.
Of course, there are things I’d rather spend my time doing than standing endlessly in a line at the supermarket, but as a curious individual I try to make use of that time to observe the people around me, take a free glance at the selection of magazines on the racks and marvel at the variety of chemicals ever present in the gum and breath mints which always take center stage just beside each check out counter. People watching is always fascinating in the USA, especially at a Walmart in the South!
But, what will we do with those extra moments saved when we no longer have to go through the process of checking out when buying the weekly groceries?
Is it good for us as a society to have yet another experience that brings us face to face with real, breathing human beings eliminated by technology?
Value of Human Interaction
The first time I shopped in a major supermarket in the South American country of Colombia (where I currently live), I was surprised at the number of employees stationed on each aisle of the market in addition to having multiple baggers at each check out. A Colombian friend explained that due to high unemployment in many areas of the country, it was easy for large retail companies to hire employees who were willing to work solely for tips.
You won’t find any self-check lanes in Colombian hypermarkets either because that would only exacerbate the problem of unemployment. But, I also sense that Colombians in general wouldn’t like such a system. People in Latin America, as well as other countries where I’ve lived, seem to value human interaction over mere convenience.
I often find myself getting impatient because the Colombian customer in front of me in the check-out line moves at a snail’s pace while having a 10-minute conversation with the cashier.
Despite my feelings of annoyance in these instances, I consciously admire their cultural norm of taking time to be courteous and friendly. While they too have families and jobs that make demands of their time, they aren’t in such a rush that they ignore the humanity of a store employee.
Reflecting on the past
In many ways, watching store employees and customers interact in the small grocery stores in my little Colombian town reminds me of the neighborhood stores of my childhood where the store owner, cashier and other staff all knew each customer by name, and casual conversation (and a bit of gossip) was a mainstay of each shopping experience.
In contrast to the value placed on a slower pace of life which prioritizes human interaction above adhering to rigid deadlines, many Americans I know today are constantly running around like the proverbial ‘chicken with its head cut off’ in an effort to keep up with their busy daily schedules.
Does putting personal task completion (the busyness of being busy) ahead of human interaction really benefit American society, especially when there’s an opportunity to encounter and learn from someone who may not fit into your own socio-economic bracket and therefore may not have the same world-view as yours?
While working in LA in the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King riots, I read a series of well-written articles in the LA Times claiming that isolation brought about by LA’s suburban sprawl development model and car dependency was at least partially responsible for the violence and property damage that erupted in the city’s South-Central district.
The LA Times articles expressed what I had witnessed happening all across America as people moved to far flung suburbs to live in quiet isolation—sometimes in gated neighborhoods–with people who were just like them.
I’m not placing all the blame for social isolation on America’s love affair with the car, but it has undoubtedly been a contributing factor. And mind you, this trend was already in motion long before the masses began experiencing the isolating effects of technology and social media.
Based on my personal experience, I’d say that being taken out of our comfort zones occasionally and having to rub shoulders on a bus, train or at the check-out counter with folks who experience life differently from us is a very positive and necessary aspect of personal growth.
Back to technology
Technologies that enable us to bypass meaningful human interaction will most likely continue to change daily life in the Western world as more cashiers are replaced and robots take over many jobs currently performed by humans.
I’m not saying that technology is in some way inherently evil. Certainly, there are those with physical, mental and emotional challenges whose lives have been enhanced by the development and introduction of many new technologies.
What I am stressing, however, is my belief that we can best work toward solutions to our common domestic and international problems through face to face dialogue.
I’m talking about genuine encounters with people who assist in helping us to fulfill our basic needs such as buying food.
Technology and issues of convenience aside, what kind of world do you want to live in: One in which a diverse population is open to learning from each other, or one where people segregate themselves and point fingers at what they see as ‘the other’, those who aren’t just like them?
How can we truly learn to understand those who look, act or hold different views if we never have the opportunity to encounter them?
I fear we are seeing the negative effects of such personal isolation play out daily in situations all around the globe when people focus on their differences rather than those aspects of humanity that we all share.
Let’s be mindful of the technological changes companies and governments institute in the name of progress and make sure we maintain a level of human interaction that will nourish society rather than tearing it apart.
You make some great points that reminded me right away of an article the Atlantic published called “The War on Stupid People.” It asks the question: at what point does ‘progress’ actually hurt human beings? Shouldn’t that concern us?
I enjoyed reading about your little Colombian town and its differences. Getting away from the US certainly lends perspective.
Vive la perspective! Thanks for your comments Jessica. If more Americans developed an international perspective, then I think they would learn to change long-established priorities and in the process free themselves from tons of stress and fear. People in many other parts of the world live more stress-free and happier lives in my opinion. There seem to be fewer distractions ($$$) for the average individual in many other parts of the world, which leads to more quality time with friends, family and just enjoying the special moments in life. Thanks again for stopping by!
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Hi there. Your article is scary. I read a review of the book, Lost Connections: uncovering the real cause of depression. By Johann Hari.
He cites studies that show a lot of loneliness .. the lack of meaningful connection is a leading cause of depression … not the conveniently mixed up chemicals in our brains that the medical corporations are so happy to fix with a pill. Human interaction is a real need. Getting rid of supermarket cashiers, bank tellers, post offices , even police stations to save money by getting rid of humans is going to lead to even more isolation and depression. What is causing the mass shootings in the USA? Apart from the ease of buying a machine gun!!! Most of the shooters are isolated disturbed individuals. I’m not saying they would become affable cheerful people if there were more social interaction but it’s just another sign of our times. There is a growing anger the more people are isolated from each other. Road rage, people in cars perceived to be taking advantage or being bullies on the road. It’s almostvas if we don’t need each other today as everything is so convenient. You can see the effects of smart phone already. A Chinese tourist could book hotels, trains, find directions, have a whole holiday in Europe without having to interact with any local just by using the aps.
In the end this technology is developed for profits with no concern for the individual ! Or call them consumers ! Humans are being reduced to units of consumption. I live in a rural community in Ireland. There is little shop with a human couple who are the owners. If you go in there to buy a carton of milk you will be leaving with all the local news and you will have given all the details of your comings and goings and those of your family , their health status, deaths and births .. successes and disappointments.. in short you will have had a meaningful interaction with a fellow human being.. empathy, curiosity , a good dollop of gossip , and teasing humor, will have been aroused and your day will have been added to in a meaningful way that can only benefit the community and each of us! We know what Amazon has been getting up to andthe way they treat their zero contract employees .. sorry bots soon to be!
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Wow, thanks Kevin for bringing up those points and adding so richly to this discussion about isolation in Western societies. I tend to pick on American culture since it’s the only one I feel comfortable passing judgement on. It’s really nice to get perspectives from other parts of the world as well. To me, the comments written by readers are ithe most important part of sharing this blog. Thanks again for taking the time to write such an interesting response and making your voice heard!
I have read several articles regarding social isolation lately, and it does appear it’s becoming a serious problem in the USA. Sometime I think it’s just easier and less time consuming to text people rather than call. This includes my friends. I don’t know why I think I need to save time that way since I’m retired and my life is not typically hurried or frantic. We’ve become too impersonal. People argue in blogs and I’m shocked by how they treat each other when they disagree–things they would never consider saying if they were fact to face. Very good article and touches on one of the big problems in our society right now. Thank you, Henry!
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It is interesting Cindy how people in different parts of the world view time. I’ve read some good posts on travel blogs about that very topic. I think much an individual’s stress in life is created from within, but personal habits aren’t easy to break as we all know. Putting schedules–including work–ahead of child rearing and personal relationships carries a price. Does it really matter that America has the world’s most efficient economy (hypothetically-speaking) when people have to take medications in order to survive the toxicity of the culture (again hypothetically-speaking)? I personally know SO many amazing Americans, and I admire them for being able to navigate life there and still remain aware of the importance of everyone and everything else outside that world. Thanks again for being so supportive of this blog!
You touched on a topic that has been leaving me increasingly uneasy as the years unfold. I have witnessed the progression from the closer knit society in America in the 1950’s (when no one in my town locked the car or their house) to the wildly different American society of today, a society that is in 1st place worldwide in the number of mass shootings, as well as first place in the astonishing number of guns people own (supposedly to defend their homes). What a quantum leap into violent chaos!!!!
In the 1970’s, I read a theory while studying Cultural Anthropology (my first degree) in which the author proposed the idea that cultural development occurs when the greater harnessing of energy. It captured my imagination greatly.
Energy and the Evolution of Culture
by Leslie A. White
New Series, Vol. 45, No. 3, Part 1 (Jul. – Sep., 1943), pp. 335-356
With each new stage of harnessing energy, society goes through a period of social disorganization until it eventually calms down and falls into a cruising pattern. It used to be centuries in between major changes in the harnessing of energy (for instance, the shift from hunting/gathering to pastoralism to agriculturalism), so lots of time to adjust and get stabilized….but now, the stages are flipping by so darn fast that we are in a perpetual state of social disorganization.
Most of the horror stories we see happening with frighteningly increasing frequency can be attributed to the social disorganization that rapid technological advancements create. The number of people who are surviving to more advanced ages has radically increased, due to the gift of advanced medical technology……but that comes with a price: the burden on the carrying capacity of the planet. The more people that are occupying the earth, the more challenge to societal health there will be. When I was born in 1951, there was a total world population of 2.5 billion. The human carrying capacity of earth is projected to be a total of 8-10 billion. We are currently at well over 7.6 billion. What happens when you cram too many of a species into the space they can live in? Lots of violence, famine, diseases, etc., until the population decreases enough to get back to an environmentally sustainable level. It is the way of Nature.
Although this sounds all doom and gloom, I have very high hopes that as we approach the brink of destruction, we will pull a rabbit out of the hat. Humans are pretty darn clever at doing that. And the irony of it all is that the rabbit will be some new technological advancements that will save the day. Cain’t live with it, cain’t live without it. 🙂
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Your comments are such a wonderful addition to my post! I do hope others are getting the benefit of reading the comments that you and a few others regularly leave. I appreciate the value your points of view add to this blog.
I will add the Leslie A. White link to the Resource Page. I also enjoy reading UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond’s explanations of how cultures have evolved on Earth. You can find a link to one of his most interesting books on the Resource Page as well.
I fully agree with your observation that our planet has reached its carrying capacity. Living and traveling in some of the world’s more densely populated–and equally polluted–regions has opened my eyes to the severe environmental destruction that humans are unleashing daily and the fact that nature will simply now allow such destruction to take place indefinitely. As you say, many of the world’s leaders believe technology will save our species just in the nick of time.
In the meantime, there’s plenty of work to be done just to maintain some reasonable level of civility and safety in much of the world. We can look at situations like the continuing War on Syria and see that what we’re doing isn’t enough. While there are no easy answers to the major problems facing human civilization, everyone must be willing to negotiate in good faith to find solutions that will benefit all, not just a few who happen to be at the top of the food chain.
Thanks again for being such a loyal follower of My Quest Blog!
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It’s difficult to add to all the above, which I witness myself too, so I’ll say something different. It may be that in the inexorable movement of history the above is inevitable, at least for a period of time until it sorts itself out. In the meantime it’s up to us as individuals to find a way round it. Can we? I think yes, albeit to different degrees depending on our specific circumstances.
Keep writing Henry!
I agree Marios. It is up to each of us to become more aware of our choices so that we preserve the very best aspects of civilization. If isolate ourselves inside a protective bubble where we only interact with those who are most like us, then we miss the opportunity to learn and grow emotionally. And I believe emotional growth is what humanity appears to be most lacking in these days. Thanks for your comments!
I don’t know if you’ve spent time in Seattle, but it’s the perfect place for this innovation – people here are the opposite of what you describe about Colombian culture – they tend to self-isolate a lot. It is most definitely NOT a warm culture. And technology in all forms is embraced. I fall on your side of this argument, and found the video I saw weird and a bit horrifying.
Thanks for your comments! Yes I know Seattle very well. I lived there from 1988-2003, some of my closest friends still live there and I go for an extended visit every year. I agree that people there tend to be a bit passive–lots of reading–and love being on the cutting edge of technology.
I still love Seattle, but I noticed people becoming progressively less friendly as the city rapidly became wealthier from tech industries, requiring people in many common professions to seek cheaper housing options outside the city. I noted a similar change in San Francisco in the ’80s and ’90s. Maybe as people become wealthier, they find themselves less open to interacting with others, but they would also be more likely to have attained a higher level of education so hummm…
I don’t know–just thinking out loud here. I’ve seen statistics showing that Seattle has one of the most highly educated populations of any major US city, so it would be interesting to research to see if there are connections between level of education attained, wealth and isolation.
I often over-think things, and forget what a powerful influence geography is on the local culture of a place. Most likely, Seattleites’ love of solo hibernation has a lot to do with the cool, overcast climate. In general (and I don’t like generalizations!), people in tropical climates–where they’re encouraged to spend more time outdoors–possess easy smiles and are more laid-back. They also don’t like spending time alone and are almost always surrounded by friends and/or family. I’ve noted that with my Thai, Omani and Latin American friends over the past 15 years.
Post-industrial countries (1st world), which only contain about 10% of the world’s population, are also the places where personal isolation is most evident. So maybe there is a connection between wealth, level of education and isolation.
Enjoy the positive aspects of Seattle because it’s still a great city, and thanks for visiting my blog!
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Thanks so much!
Most welcome Henry! Good work you are doing!
Thanks again and I enjoy seeing your paintings as well!