My long-departed (from my house, not from this earth) first wife had a lot of suggestions for me during our marriage: Stop skipping work! Don’t leave stuff all over the kitchen! Quit buying things you don’t need! Tucked in among those absolutely ridiculous ideas, however, was a rather brilliant one. She thought I should write a book called Self-Service Nation about the bizarre lengths to which modern corporations will go in order to offload labor from employees to customers. I told her I’d get around to it as soon as I cleaned up the kitchen, which never happened.
Too late now, of course. We now expect as a matter of course that we will be self-servicing much of our interaction with everybody from Wells Fargo to Kroger to Google to the airlines, via Byzantine web forms with unique logins and mandatory 12-character passwords that expire every afternoon at 3:01. We understand that when we call for help that we will be forced to navigate through a deliberately confusing touch-tone questionnaire in which the penalty for making a single mistake is to be disconnected and pressing the “O” key out of frustration results in a snippy-sounding recording of a stoned Valley Girl saying, “Hmmm… I didn’t get that.” Bitch, of course you didn’t get that! You’re not real!
They promised us that service and retail work would replace the factory jobs that were sent to China, but the minute people got uppity about wanting to earn the inflation-adjusted equivalent of 1968’s minimum wage the corporate cash taps get opened and all of a sudden an insane amount of money is being spent on machines to replace those service and retail jobs. The most obvious and obnoxious example: the self-checkout machines at grocery stores and Wal-Marts across the country, which cost about $20,000 per lane and last five years, thus theoretically saving money over the $60,000 per year it would cost to staff a checkout lane sixteen hours per day.
The numbers really work. You could arguably have $250,000 worth of additional theft and shortages over that five-year period and still come up ahead compared to a human cashier. That’s about $150 a day of theft that you can just wink at.
Well, if recent reports are any indication, there’s a lot of winking going on.
The Atlantic just published an article about stealing from self-checkout lines. There’s some attention paid to the various methods used, most of which you can find in a dozen other articles online and in the Reddit shoplifting forum, but for me the true interest of the article is the why, not the how. Why do up to a third of self-checkout users knowingly steal from the machine?
What I’d like to suggest is that human beings react badly when they see a social contract being broken, and that they often feel released from what they consider to be the obligations of that contract. You might never have thought about it, but when a grocery store opens in your area there’s an unspoken social contract, and it goes something like this:
* We (the store owners) won’t knowingly sell dangerous or expired food.
* You (the customer base) won’t just bum-rush the place as a group and take everything.
* We will try to charge a reasonable price.
* We will hire local people to work here.
* You won’t act crazy in the store.
* You won’t steal from us.
The reason there are no conventional grocery stores in most “ghetto” areas is simple: the social contract can’t be maintained. The less trust you have between parties to the contract, the more constrained things become. At the top of that scale is the Whole Foods in your local suburb, filled with FREE FOOD for the eating and stocked to the gills with hyper-expensive boutique products. At the bottom of the scale you have the Philly convenience stores where you hand dollar bills through a bulletproof turntable and receive overpriced generic stuff back. Between those extremes you have a thousand tiny gradations that affect how the store operates.
I’ve worked in the grocery business from both retail and brokerage sides. I can tell you that people steal more from dirty stores, they steal more from stores with tired-looking facings and fixtures, they steal more from stores with dim yellow lighting. They will even steal more from stores when the overall noise level in the building goes up, as is the case on weekends. It’s all part of their unfortunate but very human response to the slight perceived breakdown of that social contract between them and the store.
Adding self-checkout machines to a store doesn’t necessarily increase that sense of theft entitlement — when they are an option. The minute they become the only choice, however, it’s on like the proverbial Donkey Kong. Because the hyper-attuned sense that makes people feel more entitled to stead when the floors are dirty — well, it runs absolutely rampant when stores are obviously trying to save money on labor. It dehumanizes the store, and that’s bad because unlike the Supreme Court the average American doesn’t consider a corporation to be a “person”. This has been shown time and time again, particularly when it comes to online shopping and shopping with no human interaction.
Stealing from a person feels like a crime, even if that person is “just” an employee. Stealing from a faceless company can feel like a game. I’m curious to see what’s going to happen with these “unmanned” Amazon Go stores. For some people, every trip to an Amazon Go store will be an attempt to steal — and what’s the worst that happens? You end up getting a bill for something you were going to buy anyway.
This is all more important than it seems. As we move at fast-forward speed into a world where the majority of our interactions are with unmanned devices, the effects of basic human psychology on the situation will become increasingly important. Imagine a future where flatscreen displays are made in China on completely automated lines, then packed by robot onto container ships, then loaded by robot into an autonomous tractor-trailer. If you “hijack” that tractor-trailer electronically and make it bring a couple hundred free flatscreens to your neighborhood, what kind of crime is that, exactly? Is it even a crime, since you haven’t stolen a single moment of a single person’s time or life? If it just a crime against capital?
In the end, I’m reminded of an apocryphal story about someone showing Henry Ford II a bunch of plans for a roboticized assembly line and The Deuce asking, “How many cars will the robots buy?” In the long run, the future of Western society probably depends on the answer to that question nearly as much as it does on the current demographic changes taking place from California to the former East Germany. In the medium term, however, the more relevant question might just be: “How many cars would the unemployed people steal?”