Friday, June 23, 2017

Danger Will Robinson

I laughed out load with relief when I found out Amazon had purchased Whole Foods. Now while this brings up the standard issues of Corporate Conglomerates and the rest, I was simply relieved that now I could actually get Groceries delivered and not ever have rent a car to get Ginger Ale and Toilet Paper. I buy most of my produce and other food stuffs at the Farmer's Market and while Nashville lacks a true central core that runs daily there are enough pockets that provide opportunity to avail oneself of various local providers.

Do I think we will be getting the Amazon style stores that are mentioned in the article? No there is no market here for it but I do see this in places like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco or West Coast tech centers, as well as Boston and New York. I cannot see this as financial feasible for urban or rural centers that have Walmart or local stores that serve a smaller population. They will however find themselves under competition for some basics already available on Prime that can be easily stored and shipped.

But the real issue is the driverless Uber cars and other service gigs that are being presented as in the near future and how that will further displace an already disintegrating retail sector. Would I eat at an Automat? Guess what they existed in the past so yes I would as I did as a kid and thought it was fun. Would I do it daily? No.

But the one thing that I could never replace are my Barista's. I have had good, bad, indifferent and great. I can think of several right now here in Nashville that bring tears to my eyes. There are the girls at the Bongo Java in the Omni Hotel, the adorable crew at the Barista Parlor Germantown, the dry witted and some dim witted crew at Three Brothers but they are all part of daily duty. I love coffee and drink too much of it and they are indirectly responsible. I also love Revelator but have no real contact with any of the crew there I still think they pour a good stiff one and the peaceful ambiance is something that I revel in before going to a movie at the Belcourt. There is Lulu's at the Ryman that I love for its big windows, big wine (seriously they have wine or "big wine") although I usually have a double large Latte, and sit and listen to the live music they have on some days. The kids were also part of my daily routine when I first moved Downtown and I needed to stop on my walk home to bask in air conditioning before continuing on. Rituals are a part of my day and coffee is a drink best served hot.

My road to Nashville has been bumpy and it still is. I don't think the roads here will ever be smooth for me. The South and North had wars over larger differences but while we keep it civil we keep it distant but the kids who pour my drinks have made that road just a little less rough. Sometimes I feel very much a stranger in a strange land but they make me feel less strange. People do that, good or bad there are people and that matters.

You Don’t Want to Buy Groceries From a Robot

JUNE 23, 2017

The next time you check out at Whole Foods, you might meet my friend Esther at the register. In a few years, you might meet a robot. Or no one at all.

Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods is expected to revolutionize the grocery business, accelerating a trend toward increasing automation and the elimination of cashiers and other human workers. The Amazon Go store in Seattle, devoid of sales clerks and checkout lines, offers a glimpse of what this “just walk out” grocery shopping experience might look like.

I’m not looking forward to it. While interactions with cashiers may seem insignificant, or at times even a nuisance, they also foster sociability between strangers.

I first met Esther 10 years ago when she worked as a cashier at a mom-and-pop bakery in Manhattan, where I’d come to study how adults over 65 used neighborhood spaces to develop social connections that helped them avoid social isolation and live independently.

Esther provided care along with pastries to the older people who congregated at the bakery. She knew exactly how her patrons took their coffees and brought orders to the table for people struggling with canes and walkers. She shared her homemade soup with an octogenarian who came each evening, patiently listened to customers’ long-winded stories, and admired pictures of grandchildren.

A computer could have done many of Esther’s tasks, perhaps more efficiently. But for anyone who’s ever experienced an alarmed electronic voice at self-checkout blaring that you have an “unauthorized item in the bagging area” when you just don’t see the point of bagging Tic Tacs, technology also has its shortcomings. Besides, while a robot might be able to learn that you take your coffee black with two sugars, how special does that make you feel?

Ephemeral contact with cashiers and other service workers can be especially important to people at risk of isolation, such as older people who live alone, those with chronic illnesses and the unemployed.

My sister, who suffers from schizophrenia, values her interactions with employees at the CVS where she picks up her medications. “It makes me happy,” she said about the cashier’s friendly hello. She mentioned a pharmacist who rings up her monthly refills: “She always asks how I am, says, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen you in a while, where have you been?’ It really helped when I got out of the hospital.”

Six years ago, she spent three months in Bellevue Hospital because of a psychotic break, and at first didn’t want to take medication or attend treatment sessions, worried that the people around her had weapons. Despite that initial resistance, she has faithfully taken the drugs that control her delusions and has not returned to the hospital since. Her exchanges with the pharmacy staff served as informal check-ins that gave her a little extra help adhering to an unfamiliar medication regimen.

Services like Walgreens’ express pharmacy kiosks, which allow customers to reduce the interaction required to refill a prescription in person, mean encounters like these may already be dwindling.

Fleeting retail interactions can also help people during major life transitions. I learned this when I ended a 13-year relationship and moved to San Francisco, a city where I knew almost no one. I worked from home and could have gone days without speaking to another human being. But I discovered how quickly I could become a regular at the coffee shops, eateries and bars I frequented. Service workers often filled in important connective social tissue before I worked up enough nerve to chat with other customers. A few friendly words with the servers and bartenders made me feel less alone. Eventually some became friends.

At the same time, San Francisco was a pioneer in automation. At Eatsa, a quinoa bowl joint, you don’t have to interact with any other humans. You just order on your phone, and a “personalized cubby” spits out your food. Robots make coffee at Cafe X, and self-driving food delivery robots roam the streets of the Mission District.

We seem to have fewer and fewer opportunities to interact with people, especially those outside of our usual social circles, of different races, classes or nationalities. In our polarized political climate, we cannot afford to squander them. That’s one reason I choose to ride the bus to work as a college professor, side-by-side with Walmart employees and other retail workers at the mall where the bus route terminates. Most people who can afford a car would rather drive to the mall, reducing the chances of serendipitous conversation with strangers. Will they soon be able to avoid them in the mall, too?

What’s good for business is not always good for people. We need to consider the trade-offs of increasing automation and use our dollars to push for the kind of shopping experience we want and the kind of communities we want to live in. Next time you’re at the store and have the opportunity to bypass the register, spare a few moments to chat with the cashier instead. You can always shop on Amazon at home.

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