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Wednesday, 08 March 2017 13:21

How to solve the retail automation problem Featured

By Stan Beer

The days of the smiling (or sometimes sour-faced) service attendants are all but over, soon to be victims of the unstoppable tsunami of automation. Can anything be done to stop the irresistible juggernaut of automated technology that threatens so many jobs? Perhaps, but only if we want it stopped.

First, it was petrol stations, then banks, then came the supermarkets and now come the fast food restaurants. In each case, we were told automation would be beneficial to us consumers, inevitably resulting in more efficient service and lower prices.

This, of course, was nonsense. People lost jobs, service was less personal and prices stayed the same. The only beneficiaries were the corporations and their owners who reaped a windfall in increased profits.

At the end of the day, automation has nothing to do with improved service levels and benefits to consumers. It is all about further enriching the lucky few who sit at the top of the human food chain.

Is there anything us poor useless consumers can do against the might of the fabulously wealthy that have all the necessary technology and resources at their disposal to make us redundant? Surprisingly, we have more power than most of us may think.

Assuming the population of planet earth is roughly seven billion and, using the 99:1 ratio made famous by the Occupy movement, the wealthy number 70 million while the rest of us number 6.93 billion.

Corporate giants like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Ford, McDonald's, and Walmart (and its equivalents) as well as many others at the big end of town have made and continue to reap their obscene fortunes from the pockets of the bottom 99%.

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We don't have to ditch our technology but we have to think seriously about changing our philosophy of acquisition and ownership.

Of the companies mentioned above, not one produces a product or service that any of us really need, and all continue to squeeze their workers out of existence by automating their jobs.

Yes, I like my iPhone and MacBook Air, but if push comes to shove, I could manage with cheaper versions of those products. I could operate with a suitably configured Linux PC and a low-end smartphone. In fact, just a little more than 20 years ago I managed quite nicely with no Internet connection and no mobile phone at all.

I drive a nice car which sits in the garage about 90% of the time. I live in an apartment in the heart of a large city so I rarely drive anywhere these days. I could easily sell my car and just rent one whenever I needed to drive anywhere.

Living in the city, one might think that I would have to shop at a supermarket for my produce. Not so. I live within walking distance (or a short tram ride) of two gigantic local markets on the outskirts of town where I can buy all the fresh produce and home goods that I need, much cheaper and usually incomparably better quality than the supermarkets provide.

If I lived in the suburbs, I would go to my local strip shopping centre and visit the greengrocer, butcher and delicatessen like I used to do. I might even keep chickens in my backyard and have fresh eggs every day.

I was a frequent patron of bookshops and used to enjoy browsing through them in my spare time. Thanks to Amazon, many have closed their doors forever but, thankfully, a few of the better ones still exist. I use Amazon occasionally but if it disappeared tomorrow would I really notice?

As for McDonald's, I kicked that habit decades ago. Like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and KFC, these misnamed food and beverage companies produce nothing of any value whatsoever and, in fact, cause a lot of harm.

One of the lines that companies like Walmart like to spin in communities is that when a Walmart comes to town it’s a good thing for the community because it creates jobs.

In fact, the exact opposite is true. Massive highly automated supermarket chains destroy jobs. They force countless small businesses that collectively employ far more people for decent wages to close their doors forever. And the community is far worse off as a result.

In case you’re thinking that this is a Luddite philosophy, you would be wrong.

The Luddites arose more than 200 years ago at the very earliest stages of the industrial revolution. New industries in the areas of energy, manufacturing, construction, transportation and communications were being created almost daily that required vast human resources.

Today, we are in the very latest stages of the information revolution. Jobs are being destroyed, but no new ones are being created. The luminaries of the information revolution are shouting it out loud and clear - Kurzweil, Musk, Gershenfeld - humans are being made redundant.

If you think that the 1% at the top know not what they do in this regard, then think again.

It is no accident that a number of voices from within the privileged technology intelligentsia - Elon Musk among them - are openly touting the idea of a universal basic income for every adult whether they are employed or not.

Consider carefully what that means. The 1% are suggesting that the 99% get paid a subsistence wage not to work. Perhaps to keep the masses at bay and from rising up in revolt just long enough for them to prepare their escape route?

Maybe this is just a load of paranoid conjecture being purveyed by conspiracy theorists. If so, then American tech billionaires have well and truly bought into the paranoia because for the past couple of years they have been buying up dugout bunkers in New Zealand hand over fist.

Of course, us ordinary folk can't afford to run away from the world and build castles with drawbridges on 200-hectare lakeside estates in the New Zealand alps.

So, is there anything we can do? There are a few things we can do to start putting our sick society back on the road to health.

Shop small. Wherever possible avoid large supermarkets and buy from your local green grocer, butcher and fishmonger.

Buy clothes from small independent retailers rather than department store chains.

Buy high-quality locally made goods and if they tear or break find someone to mend them. Believe it or not, a few cobblers and seamstresses still exist.

We don't have to ditch our technology but we have to think seriously about changing our philosophy of acquisition and ownership.

High-tech manufacturers are addicted to the cocaine of unrestrained and unsustainable growth. Most of them make products with built-in planned obsolescence. Don't buy from them.

Instead buy from the notable exceptions — Apple, so far, has been one of them — that make products that are built to last. However, resist the temptation to upgrade whenever a new model arrives. If your iPhone or Mac can last for five years or longer — and most can — keep it until it dies.

If this means that many tech corporations go out of business and the few surviving ones have to be content with more modest profits, then so be it.

Yes, jobs will be lost, but that is happening anyway. Every time one of these monolithic tech giants swallows up a smaller tech firm, jobs are lost. Every time a tech giant introduces automation internally or to one of its clients, jobs are lost.

We allowed ourselves to be led down this road to self-imposed corporatised human redundancy over the past 50 years in small incremental steps. We need to think seriously about how we go about retracing those steps.


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