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.