Convenience culture and Silicon Valley’s empty innovation

A few days ago, Amazon announced that it would soon be releasing Dash, a new series of branded Internet-connected buttons that consumers can place around their homes and click to initiate automatic order and delivery of various staple goods, such as paper towels, razor blades, or coffee machine cartridges.

Clearly, Amazon sees its continued growth as contingent on reducing the friction of shopping and consuming everything it sells to as near zero as possible—the eventual ideal being a total automation of retail: products ordered automatically and delivered by a drone. John Herrman sums up the motivation behind this aspiration quite simply: “human friction keeps fucking up Amazon’s systems.”

The Dash button is something perhaps only Amazon,with its massive scale and experience, could pull off at this point, but just about every tech startup around is trying to find profit using similar approaches: the removal of friction in access to services is the primary goal of many of the new companies that are celebrated as part of the emerging “sharing economy”. While the name sharing economy has a ring of a post-materialist and communitarian utopia, in it’s Silicon Valley-led manifestation, utilizing micropayments and smartphones, a nebula of corporations offering trendy services from Uber to Seamless now aim to transactionalize and mediate nearly every action we take. In this economy, “consumers” become “users,” and the inefficiency of private ownership has been replaced not by sharing among local communities, but by slavish dependence on commercial services supplied by massive corporations, to which users must fork over their cash much like junkies needing another hit. Many of these new “sharing” services that offer convenience and on-demand satisfaction actually reduce the support for maintaining truly shared public goods—for example, services like Uber allow the rich and privileged to opt out of using decaying public transportation. Silicon Valley’s entire ethos, in fact, rejects the messy business of public debate that might be necessary to genuinely solve shared problems like transportation, housing shortages or overconsumption: “public process is antithetical to tech culture. It is not fast. It is unruly and can be dispiriting,” writes Nathan Heller in the New Yorker. To the extent that Silicon Valley is now the dominant cultural force in our society, this ethos has so narrowed the popular imagination of how to achieve social change that we’ve put almost all our faith in the entrepreneur who brings creative destruction to faltering institutions and technological solutions to intractable problems. The narrowness of this approach means that degrowth or post-growth ideas that look beyond the market system and might lead to a true sharing economy garner much less mainstream attention than in Europe and Japan; the United States seems primarily interested in creating and consuming newer iterations of free market capitalism.

But I am in danger of digressing into a general complaint about Silicon Valley culture. To return to the topic at hand:

As Hermann points out, it seems clear that Amazon’s Dash button mainly solves Amazon’s problem, as a way for the company to permanently lock in consumers, but only a society that cherishes individual convenience as a holy grail would greet the invention of a magic toilet paper button with more excitement than laughter. K-Cups, the instant coffee capsules that are one of the products shown in the Amazon Dash video, are an apt example of how consumers are willing to pay a hefty premium and disregard environmental impact if it saves them time. Keurig Green Mountain has convinced tens of millions of consumers to buy machines which lock them into purchasing capsules that cost considerably more than coffee beans and produce an enormous amount of waste (10 billion non-recyclable cartridges sold last year) so as to avoid the time and cleanup involved with brewing a cup the old-fashioned way. Does this sort of automation actually make our lives richer, or does it make them shallower by depriving us of the pleasure involved in activities that are not considered purely productive?

The proliferation of convenient products should come as no surprise though. We live in an era when purveyors of popular wisdom such as “Four Hour Work Week” author Timothy Ferriss preach that the best solution to the pesky tasks of domestic life—cleaning, shopping, eating, scheduling, etc—is to outsource them entirely through market transactions. For what purpose is all this innovation and outsourcing necessary? To gain precious leisure time, the other holy grail of our productivist society, and so we can be more productive, make more money, outsource more of the inefficient parts of our lives, and buy more leisure time. Now that Netflix and Amazon offer endless streaming videos, there is, of course, never enough time. The idea that we might work less and more highly value reproductive labor doesn’t fit into a profit-driven system.

Obviously, disposal must be just as convenient as purchasing and consumption. I perhaps dislike no innovation more than single-stream recycling, which has become the standard around the United States in recent years, replacing previous systems in which residents were required to accomplish the laborious task of sorting their paper, glass, and plastics into separate bins. This old system—which is the standard in Europe and Japan—ensures that each material is properly handled and can be recycled at a relatively high quality. Single-stream systems were first developed in California in the 1990s, where innovators undoubtedly viewed the seconds it takes to sort your own trash as an inefficient process needing to be fixed. Why should we sort our own trash when we could just pay some people in a factory to do it, even if almost half ends up in the landfill because it’s so contaminated with other materials? (see this NPR story). In fact, why should we as consumers even bother to learn what can and cannot be recycled, when we can just abdicate all our civic responsibilities and throw anything we aren’t sure about into the recycling bin—someone else will figure it out! Peeking into an American recycling dumpster is a pretty good way to lose a bit of faith in people’s ability to maintain a commons. I’ve seen wooden chairs, snow shovels, filing cabinets and other things tossed into the dumpster in my building in Denver. Instead of engineering an effective system for resource recovery, recycling has basically been turned into a green trash can with a “responsibly disposed” label that allows consumers to relieve themselves of the guilt of consumption and the effort needed to consider where their trash actually goes. In the near future I will be able to auto-order 24-packs of Izze sodas from Amazon Dash (a habit I might have hesitated about if I had to haul them from the supermarket) and chuck the glass bottles into my recycling bin without so much as a thought about the absurd environmental inefficiency of this system. The palliative of recycling has been thoroughly integrated into the wasteful activity of consumption.

This is part of the genius of our current manifestation of capitalism—to make environmentally/socially conscious people feel good about ourselves for consuming and discarding “responsible” products (sure enough, Keurig Coffee now says it will make its coffee cartridges recyclable by 2020). Slavoj Zizek uses the example of “chocolate laxative” to illustrate this demand for sanitized products that contain the remedy to their own detrimental effects, but this way of thinking is endemic to our ideological landscape, not just in products like decaf/free trade coffee, but in our faith in philanthropist billionaires to stem the effects of inequality born of ruthless financial capitalism, or the common American belief that war is necessary to maintain peace (see Iraq War architect John Bolton’s recent NYT Op-Ed “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”). I would argue that the same merging of problem and solution also underlies a great deal of the innovation taking place in Silicon Valley, albeit in reverse: In order to solve a problem and earn a profit, you first have to create a problem in people’s lives, either by wrecking old systems or by inducing desire through marketing and media—you need to convince them that going to the supermarket is too much of a hassle, or that the public bus is too dirty and slow to take you across San Francisco. You sell them a problem they didn’t know they had and the solution together, in one sleek app (or button).

The world that Silicon Valley is building with its “sharing economy” and “Internet of things” is indeed frictionless, where each individual’s interaction with the world is mediated by sleek two-dimensional interfaces (both in virtual and real spaces) that connect them to the massive and invisible backend of our global production system (a psychological division of space summed up smartly by Venkatesh Rao here). Have we considered enough how this compression of our social experience into superficial interfaces alters our world view and our sense of responsibility to fellow citizens, including the great swath of humanity who lives on the other side of this psychic divide—making, packing, and shipping our things and sorting our trash? A frictionless interface is designed to make one forget the complexities and social structure of our global production system, and allows us to wash our hands of responsibility and guilt for the ecological and social consequences of our actions by incorporating solutions into the detrimental actions themselves (and if you’re ever struck by any severe pangs of guilt, you can always text a donation to the WWF or Oxfam). While a frictionless society may be good for boosting profits and market efficiency, friction is essential if there is to be any space at all for genuine social and communal life, democratic politics, the fermentation of non-corporatized culture, or environmental stewardship. If frictionless innovation is the only kind of “progress” that our society can produce, then we seem certain to be headed for a disastrous future indeed. Innovation of a different kind is needed: the emergence of new values, lifestyles, social arrangements and politics that don’t rely on profit, exploitation and environmental destruction. That is something Amazon is unlikely to find a way to sell to you.

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