A trinity for progress?
There has been a strong relationship between science, technology and capitalism since the 17th century. It began with the Enlightenment. Yuval Harari, in his book Homo Sapiens, points out that it was not until the Enlightenment that humans realised that they were ignorant and that that there was much new knowledge to be discovered and exploited. He explains that this is where the relationship between science and technology developed apace. Discovering new knowledge and then exploiting it is expensive. It requires significant funding and this is where a third party enters the relationship – capitalism. Those with funds to invest paid for scientific discovery and its exploitation with the expectation that they would make a significant profit some of which they could re-invest in finding and exploiting new knowledge. Hence there has been an alliance between science, technology and capitalism (through both private and government investment) that has enabled science and technology to develop a significant synergy that has led to the world we have today.
A trinity in crisis?
Tim O’Reilly, in his book WTF What’s the future and why it’s up to us, writes an interesting critique of capitalism and the way it has most recently used technology in the pursuit of profitability. Three quotes are of particular significance.
The algorithm is the new shift boss. What regulators and politicians should be paying attention to is the fitness function driving the algorithm, and whether the resulting business rules increase or decrease the opportunities for workers, or whether they are simply designed to increase corporate profits.
Mistaking what is good for financial markets for what is good for jobs, wages, and the lives of actual people is a fatal flaw in so many of the economic choices business leaders, policy makers and politicians make.
It isn’t Wall Street per se that is becoming hostile to humanity. It is the master algorithm of shareholder capitalism, whose fitness function both motivates and coerces companies to pursue short-term profit above all else. What are humans in that system but a cost to be eliminated?
Jacques Ellul, in his book The Technological Society, argues that the intrinsic nature of technology with its emphasis on efficiency and standardisation as inimitable to the human spirit and the wide ranging influence that technology is having, and continuing to have, on society as both dehumanising and outside human control.
Where does this leave Amazon’s till-less grocery store?
Amazon sees this initiative as providing a more ‘frictionless’ experience than that of other retailers enabling them to expand into the high street. This will undoubtedly be followed by other retailers mimicking the ‘frictionless’ experience. Tim O’Reilly’s critiques of ‘the algorithm’ are relevant here particularly humans being a cost to be eliminated. I have often been in my local supermarket and eavesdropped on the talk between the person on the till and customers. The till operators are highly skilled at processing the shopping and maintaining conversations with minimal interruption of customer flow through the checkout. Some of this talk may be the only conversation that lonely folk, not always elderly, have that day. The frictionless experience offered by Amazon is, as Jacques Ellul would say, dehumanising.
As always comments welcome
There are other issues with regard to the till-less grocery store. Civil liberties groups, such as Big Brother Watch, group has raised concerns.
“[It] offers a dystopian, total-surveillance shopping experience; Amazon’s intense tracking of shoppers will create larger personal data footprints than any other retailer. Customers deserve to know how and by whom these records and analytics could be used.”
Check out this item on BBC news.