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Emma Teitel: Amazon Go could be the downfall of unintended human interactions

If grocery store checkout lines become extinct, people might get a lot lonelier without those random acts of kindness.

A customer scans his Amazon Go cellphone app at the entrance as he heads into an Amazon Go store on Jan. 22, in Seattle. The store allows shoppers to scan their smartphone with the Amazon Go app at a turnstile, pick out the items they want and leave — all without so much as having to look at another human being.

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

A customer scans his Amazon Go cellphone app at the entrance as he heads into an Amazon Go store on Jan. 22, in Seattle. The store allows shoppers to scan their smartphone with the Amazon Go app at a turnstile, pick out the items they want and leave — all without so much as having to look at another human being.

What will become of tabloid magazines and Kinder Surprise eggs?

This was my first question when I heard about Amazon Go, Amazon’s checkout-free grocery store that opened in Seattle this week — a store that uses what Amazon calls “Just Walk out Technology” to enable customers to walk into a grocery store, pick up their items and exit without so much as having to look at another human being.

Customers sign up to shop via an app connected to their credit cards. They scan their apps as they walk through the door and voila — the store is theirs for the buying. Amazon Go does employ actual people to cook fresh food and stock the shelves, but “Just Walk out Technology” has no need for cashiers, and thus no opportunity for lineups.

Which brings me back to the tabloids and Kinder eggs. A world without a checkout counter lineup isn’t just a more efficient one for the consumer, but perhaps a more financially prudent one.

If you don’t have to wait in line at the grocery store, you’re probably less likely to indulge those last minute shopping cravings. You know the ones: The US Weekly with the Duggar or Kardashian clan on the cover. The post-Christmas discount box of Lindt chocolate balls. The three pack of Bic lighters you don’t need because you quit smoking, but who knows, maybe you’ll start again, and besides, they’re on sale. These items in addition to several others (gum, batteries, Sudoku puzzle books) are checkout counter staples. Their success is in large part dependent on our standing around looking at them.

But if the Amazon Go model catches on and store lineups eventually go extinct, what will become of them? And more important, what will become of us? After all, a store without a checkout line may not just mean fewer unintended purchases, but fewer unintended human interactions. Fewer conversations struck up with strangers. Fewer hellos — and on Canadian soil, fewer “I’m sorries.”

And maybe even fewer great ideas. The grocery store lineup, it could be argued, is the shower of the public domain, where some of us do our best thinking. Who knows: the next Jeff Bezos might be waiting to buy a roll of paper towel in a Loblaws lineup right now, dreaming up the tech empire of the future.

A lot of critics of Amazon Go tend to focus on the business model’s extensive surveillance of its shoppers, which is undoubtedly creepy. Go likely couldn’t function without a multitude of store cameras that track its customers’ every move, raising concerns about consumer privacy.

But it’s hard to believe a cluster of surveillance cameras will mark the end of privacy in a society where millions already hand over their personal information and whereabouts to corporations through their smartphones. Privacy isn’t going to die with Amazon Go or Amazon Key (the controversial package delivery service that gives Amazon delivery employees access inside customers’ homes). It died with the iPhone. It died with Facebook. It died with Instagram.

What Amazon Go could kill, if the cashierless model proves popular, is a great deal of spontaneous human contact among strangers. In fact, what I find far creepier than Amazon Go’s camera surveillance of customers is the idea behind the business model itself: the notion that we are becoming a society that views hyper-efficiency as a great virtue and wasting time — even two minutes in a checkout line — as an ill.

The other day I was standing in line at the grocery store with a cart full of food when I realized the woman behind me had a single loaf of bread in her basket. “Go ahead of me,” I told her. “You’ve only got the bread.”

“I’m in no rush,” she said. “You go ahead.”

“If you insist,” I said. She insisted. In a cashierless future where lines are an aberration exchanges like this will rarely occur. A lot of busy people won’t mind. But I suspect a lot of lonely people will.

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