Two Visions of our Automated Retail Future

In the last month, I’ve seen two scenes of automated retail which I wish I could have taken a photograph of. In the first scene, people were queuing up for the automated checkouts at Marks & Spencer in Euston station while multiple cashiers were left redundant at their station. It’s a shop I use a lot and I remember when the automated checkouts were first installed, often being left unused while people opted to queue as per routine. In the second scene, each of the ten automated checkouts at my local supermarket were occupied by ten people, standing passively as an error message flashed on the screen. Eventually, as I began to contemplate whether I could legitimately take a photo (or even go to a non-automated checkout and stop treating a trip to the supermarket as a sociological expedition) a guy came along and slowly began clearing the error messages one-by-one.

I was struck by a sense of sequencing between these two scenes, immediately recalling the image from Marks & Spencer in Euston which I had long since forgotten. People quickly adapt to the automation of retail, perhaps motivated by a sense that it is quicker and more efficient, even though it is frequently anything but. In reality, I suspect the truth of the motivation is more complex, perhaps reflecting what Ian Craib described as the discomfort with disappointment that leads us to escape the ‘mess of life’. Bit by bit, we become less inclined to tolerate the fleeting awkwardness of everyday life, the falterings that can unpredictably afflict mundane interactions and the loss of emotional energy, however minute, it takes to get through them. For instance, I couldn’t help but wonder why the guy in his 60s who was struggling to buy a newspaper on an automated checkout had opted to so, let alone continued with it in the face of mounting of obstacles. This is all speculative but a psychoanalytics of everyday automation remains an important endeavour. Can we assume that people will happily shunt over to automated retail en masse, carefully nudged along by retailers? If so, why would retailers preserve staff other than to ensure a baseline degree of functionality in human-computer interaction? The shadow work of coaxing desirable outcomes out of recalcitrant machines seems liable to become an even more central part of our lives than it is at present.

3 responses to “Two Visions of our Automated Retail Future”

  1. As I read your post the ATM comes to mind, perhaps signalling a bit on the normalization of these things

  2. This actually speaks to my own work (as experiences) on the intersections of social time and social space in precariousness (from employment to housing). Precariousness (the way my dissertation is going) is a trading out of the commodification of social time versus social space. It creates chaos out of order, and people navigate that chaos in ways that gives them meaning in a more ordered way.

    I recently went to the grocery store, where I had 5 items, and stood in a very long checkout line. The manager pointed me to a self-checkout, suggesting that it would be more convenient for me. I became visibly irritated and told the manager: “If I’m so qualified to do the job of a cashier, then why don’t you pay me to check myself out?”

    The idea of automation in precarious employment, I’ve found in my own research is a bit complicated. However, I’ve found it relies on the following dynamics – both social and economic.

    1. It is the “outsourcing” of jobs to the customer. Economists have been pointing out that retail jobs cannot be outsourced to other countries (spaces). But they CAN (and are) be outsourced to other people – mainly customers (the idea if “self care” also comes in here).

    2. The Capitalist is now extracting surplus value from the customer – those buying goods & services that create M’. They are no longer extracting surplus value from labour. The customer is now being exploited.

    3. It is the lowering of the composition of capital (à-la Marx) to where the variable capital is brought to its lowest common denominator – ZERO. Customer do not get paid to check themselves out, and the labour required is reduced (on average in North America) 6:1. In economics, we can use the Marginal Productivity of Labour (MPL), where adding an extra unit of labour (a cashier) yields no benefit to the company.

    4. It used to be “time is money. Now, time is no longer money. Precariousness itself is a chaotic (disordered) aspect of time and space. The space that used to be occupied by a cashier is now occupied by the customer. The time that used to be commodified is now un-commodified, and now the space is commodified in a way that exchange value for labour is not (or cannot – still working that out) sold within that space.

    5. There isn’t just the negotiated meaning making out of this chaos of time and space for labour, but also for the customer. The customer knows that this is the space that was previously occupied by a laborer, and they know that if they have to “wait” because of a glitch in the machine, that their perception of time changes (“I don’t have time for this!”)

    Which leads to my fundamental disagreement with the discourse on wages, especially the concept of a “living wage.” Such discourses say absolutely nothing about time, and pretend that social conditions only exist in the vacuum of space. If you have a job, you should have X wages per hour. But time has been distorted in the current precariousness created by capitalism. “Per hour” doesn’t mean much when there are ZERO (or very low) hours to begin with. We can pay cashiers £500 per hour. With zero-hour contracts, it won’t lift a soul out of poverty. The issue of time and space must be looked as an intersectional phenomena if we are going to make order out from the chaos created by capitalism distorting time.

    And remind me that I made this comment, because I’m probably going to want to copy & paste it in a chapter later.

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