The more things change… Amazon’s “anticipatory shipping” and the village square

Media outlets recently publicized Amazon’s patent for what it calls “anticipatory shipping.” The premise is as simple as it is creepy: Amazon will charge and ship items before customers have the chance to buy them themselves. In other words, Amazon knows what you want and is happy to spare you the trouble and effort of actually buying it, simply delivering the item –and, of course, your bill.

Here is the fruit of the information technology revolution. A giant corporation with which a person might have no face-to-face contact has complete enough psychological profiles that it can anticipate wants. Mass media brought us the creation of wants without our knowing, now the internet takes it one step further: the item that you didn’t know you wanted shows up at your doorstep unannounced. Hooray.

One common critical reaction to such innovations involves a retreat into the past. For the very youngest generations, it might ironically involve a wistful look back at the anonymity offered by the megamall. For most, however, the argument is that things were once different: people knew each other and many everyday transactions were based on personal relationships. Sure, the butcher knew your favourite cut of meat – but it was your butcher, not a computer knowing what you wanted. “If only we could go back to a world where relationships mattered.”

The problem with this argument is that it does not challenge what is truly wrong with something like “anticipatory shipping”. Even personal relationships can be embedded in a problematic economic logic. In many ways, in fact, today’s information-based economy is becoming more and more akin to that of the village square of the past. The anonymity of the past several decades may have been just a brief interlude during which information-processing capabilities lagged behind production capabilities.

The key differences with the past have thus to do with both the scale of market activities and the proportion of activities based on market transactions, but not with the essence of how and to what purposes they alter human relationships. The main difference from pre-capitalist social forms – the production of things for profit, which has an impulse to expand that is divorced from everyday human usefulness – is already there in the village market and its small-scale production of a limited range of things.

In gathering information about customers, the village square worked in much the same way as today’s mega-retailers. The mythical butcher, cobbler, baker and vegetable seller were all building psychological profiles of their customers, only they were limited by how much information they could process. Luckily for them, their customer base was also limited by how far people could travel and the items they sold were limited by the production potential of the broader economy.

Yes, the smaller-scale economies surely had a human element that is often sorely missing today. The butcher was not learning your preferences for meat solely so that she could sell more meat; she likely genuinely wanted to have a pleasant conversation. Compare that with any of today’s scripted call centre workers struggling to make unrealistic target numbers. But, unless she was a friend rather than merely an acquaintance, the butcher did ultimately want, and need, to learn about you in order to help make a profit.

Economic principles at work in capitalist economic interactions in the past are the same as those in the advanced capitalism of today. We are, after all, talking about the capitalist village square. While other forms of trade and exchange existed before capitalism, our social imagination is so blunted by the ever-expanding scope of capitalist social relations that it is difficult for many to imagine off-hand what a pre-capitalist village square would have been like. Even when we do try to imagine what human interaction looked like under other economic systems, we often fall back on a mythologized kind of barter relationship – one that David Graeber and others have forcefully argued never existed.

In addition to the larger scale of economic institutions, the percentage of our lives that fall under these economic principles is also greater than ever. One of the driving forces of capitalism is the quest for new markets, for new sources of accumulation. During the early history of capitalism there remained a large portion of people’s lives that were run on other principles, including those positive like mutuality or commoning and those negative like servitude. These often also involved exploitation, violence and coercion (much as the market is based on this mixture, either as a relic of the past or happening in the present); that their ends were different does not mean they were better.

The differences in scale and proportion just described are, however, enormous: our psychological profile is no longer in the head of the neighbourhood butcher, who is after all a human being with a limited memory. Today, there are enormous databases scattered across data centres all over the world that hold information about our shopping habits, our social networks, our daily movements and much more; this information can be further extrapolated to gauge the likes of our political views or emotional predispositions. Indeed, such information itself has become an important commodity with entire companies valued largely in terms of the information they own. The price at which Google recently purchased Nest, ostensibly a thermostat maker, reflects largely not on Nest’s ability to make thermostats but on its ability to track the living habits of its customers and its existing database of such data.

As capitalist relations colonize ever larger parts of life and information becomes cheaper and easier to gather and analyze, the space for futuristic-sounding technologies – of which “anticipatory shipping” is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg – expands rapidly. In one way, then, the optimistic futurists are right: the increasing use of data and more advanced, customizable production technologies signal a return to a more “personal” economy and an end to the anonymity of the preceding century. Welcome to your personal capitalism.

The problem, of course, is not the personal but the capitalism. Many radical thinkers, Marx a prominent example, have celebrated the technical achievements of capitalism just as they have renounced its mechanisms, its violence and its exploitation. Technical progress when embedded in the wrong social relations can be harmful and the latest spate of IT-driven change has the potential for extending social control and economic misery. Especially as it is used in production – the very core of capitalism – IT has the potential to create nightmare workplaces, where movements are constantly monitored, efficiency is squeezed out of workers to the maximum and computer-generated directions replace thought and skill. Amazon’s IT-driven “chaotic storage” that I’ve written about before is just the beginning.

The challenge, then, is to imagine alternatives and means of resistance that take these technical transformations enabled by capitalism seriously, while at the same time questioning what ends they serve. Take “just-in-time” production. It is currently used to flexibly respond to ever-new manufactured needs, to help generate profit from the seemingly never-ending search for the “new and improved” so as not to waste stock on making something that will no longer sell. Yet there is a revolutionary kernel within this practice: the idea that we do not need to produce items before they are truly needed. More targeted production is a value that can transcend the current profit system. Similarly, information technology allows for efficiencies in economic planning unimagined even several decades ago, a radical kernel. The possibilities for meaningfully attending to and integrating the needs of a complex society in a democratic manner are latent in many IT innovations.

Some technology is simply destructive (think “smart” weapons or drones, even though these too are based on some useful technologies) or has the radical kernel buried so far down that they should be abandoned. There is, however, much in technology that could not only power different social relations but be used to create alternatives in the present. The seeds of the future are always sitting latent in the present; the question is what future can they produce. So rather than fall back on a romanticism of the past, let us radicalize possibilities offered by the future.

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