The West's Automated Checkout Dilemma

Monday, August 15th 2011

Think about a self check-out system in a supermarket. As you leave, you scan the items you want to buy. Bleep. Bleep. Bleep.


There was a human buyer (you) and a human seller (the checkout operator). Now there is now just a buyer. You.

The next step is to automatically scan the items in your trolley. You just walk past. Swipe your credit card or wave your mobile phone. And you've paid. No need for the bleep, bleep, bleep!

Eventually you won't even swipe a card or wave a phone.

Once that happens the entire transaction is automated. We have an automated buyer and an automated seller. The transaction is no longer a matter for humans. The problem of distributing resources has turned into computational problem, a networking problem, an engineering problem.

Human thought is still used of course. But in a more abstract fashion. To program the software that solves the computational problem of distributing resources. To review automated transaction logs. Etc.

But fewer people are capable of doing that work. But, then again, fewer people are required to do it.

Supermarkets aren't the only place this is happening. Automated trading in share markets is now commonplace. It is even conceivable that, in war, it will be robots versus robots. Sci-fi, I know. But consider this:

Working at digital speed is another unmanned advantage that's crucial in dangerous situations. Automobile crash avoidance technologies illustrate that a digital system can recognise a danger and react in about the same time that the human driver can only get to mid-curse word. Military analysts see the same thing happening in war, where bullets or even computer-guided missiles come in at Mach speed a defenses must be able to react against them even quicker. Humans can only react to incoming mortar rounds by taking cover at the last second, whereas "R2D2," the CRAM system in Baghdad, is able to shoot them down before they even arrive. Some think this is only the start. One army colonel says, "The trend towards the future will be robots reacting to robot attack, especially when operating at technologic speed ... As the loop gets shorter and shorter, there won't be any time in it for humans." (Wired for War, P.W. Singer, p.64)

There won't be any time in it for humans.

Supermarkets and war to one side. Automation at "technologic speed" is appearing everywhere. Robots are replacing human labour. Artificial intelligence is replacing human thinking.

Great, right?

Not entirely.

We have two contradictory motivations operating in the market system:

  • Most people earn money by exchanging their labour for money.

  • The aim most businesses is to increase profits. Wages are a huge cost. So technology is used to reduce wage costs. That's why the supermarkets adopt automated checkouts, for example.

The result is increasing profits for those who produce (or own) the technology. (You see this in the vast cash reserves of companies such as Apple or Google.) It also results in more interesting, lucrative and complex work for the people who are still needed as labour.

And reductions in real wages for everybody else.

As the need for labour is reduced, most people have no way to earn money. Sure, some will work for themselves. Some will opt out. But most just won't have anything to sell. They'll be unemployed.

Since the 1970s this has been hidden. Women entered the work force in vast numbers. So they contributed to family incomes. Debt was used to increase people's budgets from the 80s onward. A lot of work has been created for people to do.

Plus, technology is still getting cheaper. So many gadgets seem cheaper. This is a combination of better technology and cheap labour overseas.

But, in truth, inflation and declining real wages are destroying the average punter's buying power.

And now we're in the endgame.

  • Debt is no longer an option without leading to hyperinflation and ruin.
  • We're also seeing a decline in the power of western currencies, which means overseas labour is no longer as cheap to Westerners. That means more expensive "made in china" imports.
  • The once-off increase in household income thanks to women working is almost finished.

All this means the collapse in real wages is no longer hidden.

The result is a collapse in "aggregate demand", "consumer confidence", etc. That is, how much everybody is willing to spend.

In time, that means a collapse in demand for, say, Apple's products or Google's ads. Eventually, even those who own the hardware and machinery (or create it) find there is less and less demand for it. So they have a choice:

  1. Specialise in producing stuff for the elite market of people who still have money to spend (yachts, advanced plastic surgery, moon bases, robot servants :-)) and erect barriers to protect them against the plebeian masses;

  2. Go bankrupt trying to sell things to a smaller and smaller mass market.

Institutional inertia may dictate that many opt the second option in many cases. But there is the option of abandoning those institutions; and moving to institutions that adopt the first model.

The concentration of wealth, combined with the increase in scope and power of automated systems, leads to a concentration of decision-making. So the decisions are made to perpetuate the system to favour the status quo ... in a cycle of increasing centralisation and automation.

Automated policing start to enforce this - it starts with sophisticated surveillance.

Back to supermarkets. An example of centralisation is the "home brand" or "shop brand" products that gradually replace more diverse products in supermarkets. All in dull packaging, produced en masse in anonymous factories, with less and less thought given to what people actually want.

That's one part of the story.

Some of the Problems

In Western society, we have an amalgam of:

  • various forms of welfare state;
  • centralised bureaucratic state/corporate system;
  • highly regulated market system;
  • democracy, perhaps nominal: more a squabbling oligarchy that periodically fights amongst itself to wrangle votes from a disengaged, propaganda-fed public;

And the West has some big problems ...

  • Populations are ageing;
  • Consumption is increasing beyond the capacity of our ecosystems to cope;
  • Workers in certain Western counties are now having to compete with younger and more desperate folks from other regions.
  • Physical labour is being displaced by robots and innovative hardware;
  • Mental labour is being displaced by networks and advanced software that analyse giant data sets gleaned from everything from sensors, satellites, "social networks", banking systems, search engines, and so on.
  • Collapse is "aggregate demand".
  • A financial elite of modern day nobles are, essentially, techno-anarchists, in this sense:

“You’ve got that eternal idiotic idea that if anarchy came it would come from the poor. Why should it? The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government. The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn’t; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all. Aristocrats were always anarchists.” (G.K. Chesterton via Ye Olde Cheese Factory)

The Solutions

But, of course, people sense a problem.

The traditional solutions are:

  • Populations are ageing: increase the retirement age! Make those lazy pensioners work!
  • Competition from overseas: Tariffs! Racism! Wars! They're stealing our jobs! Transitional funds! More education! Increase welfare!
  • Physical labour being displaced by machines: Complain! Make work! I just want a good job! Punish the unemployed! Lazy bastards! Force business to employ people! Work harder! Government schemes! Ban the machines - they're out to get us!
  • Mental labour is being displaced by software: Stop co-operating! Opt out! Ban the software! Censor it! Fear it!
  • Collapse is "aggregate demand": print money!
  • A financial elite of modern day nobles who are, essentially, techno-anarchists: revolution! Destruction! Don't trust the elites, the intellectuals, the political class, the corporate class, the rich! Quickly, the guillotine!

As these solutions fail, they are accompanied by the Five Stages of Grief, or something similar:

Denial — "Everything is fine! This is just an exception. Nothing to see here."

Anger — "It's their fault! Why us! Unacceptable!"

Bargaining — "If you can solve this I'll", "What if we just ..."

Depression — "All is lost!", "We're doomed!"

Acceptance — "No point fighting. Time to accept our Fate ..."

The is a bastardisation of the Kübler-Ross model - Wikipedia

e.g. with the collapse in jobs:

Denial — "Ah, there's no problem. Anyone can get a job is they really want to! I just have to try harder."

Anger — "It's their fault! Ban them! Ban this!"

Bargaining — "If you create some jobs the government will ...", "A transition fund will help displaced workers train for new jobs ..."

Depression — "Okay, so this work has gone and will never come back...."

Acceptance — "Work seems to be dead ..."

None of those solutions, and the various stages of denial, will work.

Purchasing power collapses. This has a strange consequence in a free (ish) market.

The subtle propaganda of the advertising industry starts to fail because there are fewer people to sell to. So the advertising industry no longer bothers to condition the mass mind. (Indeed, the advertising industry starts to be replaced by automated preference gathering systems, too!)

Propaganda collapses, denial is no longer possible.

As people rebel, often in an incoherent rage, it is seen as common criminality. On one level it is. But on another level it is a symptom of the structural decline of the Market Based Propaganda Model. A symptom amplified by efficient new communication technology.


The call is for more police powers. More surveillance. Less freedom. Less communication. More censorship. A natural enough reaction. "We must uphold the law!", "We must prevent anarchy!" Technology is used to repress rather than liberate. All in the guise of carrying out stupid solutions to problems such as fear of new communications technology. Censor the net!

Then, of course, there's always blaming someone else. The classic neo-fascist approach - "they're taking our jobs!", "it's the muslims!", "the jewish bannkers!", the "stupid white men!", the "refugees". Them Vs Us.


Some solutions - such as the make-work approach - force businesses to be inefficient. Paperwork reigns. Pointless meetings. Vast bureaucracies. You know the symptoms. Doing this just postpones the inevitable. Eventually forcing business or government to be inefficient means they collapse in the face of more efficient competition (see West versus Soviet Union).


Others, such as let the market reign or getting rid of the welfare state, just accelerate the problem. If people's labour is obsolete, and new technology doesn't augment peoples' talents in a way that makes them useful again, then they are simply not in the market.


And then there's the people who opt-out. Start returning to growing their own food. Working with technology in their own way. But this only works for a few.

Or perhaps you slide into a post-capitalist techno dystopia where the institutions that were once useful turn into diabolical skeuomorphic forms; into some sort of William Gibson meets Orwell Blade Runnery nightmare where the detached elites repress the masses with drone armies :-).

Whatever the course, the ideals of the Western system are in trouble. We either modify the system or it will die a slow, painful death as it transmogrifies into a dark parody of its former self.

The riots in the UK presage the increasing turmoil that will result. I hope that the political and financial elites realise there's a problem - I'm sure they do - and start acting intelligently to change things. But given that the elites power is derived from the current system I find it hard to believe they will. Why change something that has looked after you so well?

But it's not all doom!


For the wiser, there are alternatives, of course. I've discussed one before.

The optimist in me hopes that new technology will allow people to be the owners of their own capital. I can see those sorts of systems emerging - advanced version of the makerbot, services such as cloudfab, decentralised power generation, and so on. Things will become human-sized again, with giant global, automated, open source infrastructure underneath it. A weird hybrid of the global and the local. McLuhan's classic "global village".

Technology will make some things much cheaper to do, too. If it is unencumbered by the stupidities of existing systems of control. The notion of the "job", employer and employee, the "career", and so on will dissolve. The old mental conditioning from the existing educational institutions will be made redundant. Everyone will become an owner and a producer, or to use Schumpeter's phrase, everyone will be an "entrepreneur" ...

Naive? Utopian! Of course. Vaguely Marxist? You miss the point!

But often the utopian, faced with reality, turns dystopian, doesn't it.

The hope is a more decentralised approach to organisation, mediated through technology, will mean collective intelligence is applied more widely and at a more granular level to the problems of society. Rather than relying on idealism, we rely on gradual, emergent solutions coming from the aggregation of people's personal experimentation.

New technology has amazing ways of aggregating information and harnessing individual activity in cheaper and more sophisticated ways, meaning higher and higher levels of granularity at lower and lower cost. Things that were previously too hard to organise suddenly become possible. Things that required vast bureaucratic overhead become simpler.

Consider the hopelessly outmoded price system.

The pre-industrial, narrow collective intelligence that is harnessed by traditional price system does not help us solve the ecological problems we are faced with, or deal with the obsolescence of labour, or the cover the costs and benefits of non-market goods (spending time with your kids, creating art, helping old people out, etc).

It was inconceivable to some to use anything but the price system. But now the technology is there to replace it. Instead of perpetuating the price system as some sort of bizarre skeuomorph that inhabits global computer networks, we could change the price system to make better use of networking technology.

We could return to, say, forms that directly relate information to real goods. Meaning the abstractions in the current financial system would not be able to get out of hand in the same way (see recent financial meltdowns as examples of that). That is: returning to a new form of techno-barter perhaps. Of course, there are vested interests in the old system. The copyright lobby, the financial institutions that are in power, sheer social inertia, and so on. They remain, clinging to the old ways.

Downside: there will be bugs, new tech could also mean more and more command and control, it could also mean an advanced Bullshit Industry is created to keep humanity employed.

Or take a look at Facebook credits. No different to a government enforcing a currency in its jurisdiction. Social networks are becoming defacto online governments. People can leave, sure, but network effects and social pressures make this hard. So there is "soft" enforcement. The central control of CEOs of these systems belongs in the age of kings and nobles, not the age of TCP/IP and decentralised communication systems. Everything from copyright and "intellectual property" to Facebook Credits are skeuomorphic forms, the products of intellectual stagnation.

The Big Question

Will networked computers emerge as a way of providing more control to people of their own social system? Will these mechanisms are freer and less laden by skeuomorphs?

Open source software development, socially produced and technically mediated production such as wikipedia, alternative crypto-currencies, legal systems based more around the social pressures generated by loosely organised virtual groups rather than complex, detached, inflexible semantic systems of laws, etc, give me hope.

But one thing is for sure.

As long as you conceive of a the world in the same terms that you used to frame a problem and solve it, you will perpetuate the problem in skeuomorphic form. Even when the problem has been solved technically, the ideation will live on.

For instance.

The problem of information distribution has been solved, pretty much. Yet people are still fighting that technology, trying to hold on the world where the problem had not been solved (e.g. plastic disks, books, copyright, etc, etc).

Work is being eliminated. Yet we're holding on to the labour as the prime basis for distributing resources.

And so on.

And that is the dilemma for the West. Can it escape the canards of the past - the State, the Business, the employee, the employer, money, plastic disks, books, copyright, etc - and actually make the most of the technology it has invented?