Amazon.Go: New Heights of McDonaldization

Not that I can take any credit for it, but Amazon has unwittingly managed to wrap up much of what I have been thinking and writing about for the last three decades in one nice little material world bundle, Amazon Go. The prototype of this updated version of a convenience store now exists in Amazon’s new office building in downtown Seattle.

It is a highly McDonaldized setting in which, as in all McDonaldized settings:

  • Its operations are very efficient (e.g. no checkout lines; just “walk-through”, “grab-and-go”, and “walk out”),
  • It is calculable, with an emphasis on speed in getting through the store and offering quickly eaten finger foods
  • It is predictable, specializing in pre-prepared meals and “chef-made meal kits”
  • It makes great use of non-human technologies: smartphone apps to gain entry; sensors to keep track of what is being taken off the shelf and is purchased; automated technologies to total the purchases and to charge them to the consumer’s account. This is made necessary by the fact that few employees are likely to be present since there will be no checkout counter- a clear threat to the 3.5 million cashiers in the United States.
  • The threat to jobs is one of the irrationalities of this rational system. It will help to further reduce the number of paying jobs (using technology similar to that used in driverless cars that is costing taxi drivers their jobs) and to add to the working class discontent that helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump, Brexit, etc..

 

From the point of view of consumption, Amazon Go is a place (a new means of consumption, or cathedral of consumption) to which people are drawn to consume. However, it is better thought of as a place (a means of prosumption) where people go to prosume, that is, produce what they consume. Consumption is traditionally a process where others, especially employees, produce in various ways what others consume. This has declined in recent years as there are ever-fewer employees to do such work. Consumers are required do an increasing amount of that work either on their own (carrying their own trays in fast food restaurants, gathering their own food in supermarkets) or with the help of new technologies (e.g. self-checkout and check-in systems). This is especially the case in online sites and stores, including Amazon.com, where the consumer does all of the work of finding, ordering and paying for a purchase. This kind of a system is more difficult to create in a bricks-and-mortar store, but Amazon’s Go, if it is successful and widely implemented, will be an important step in that direction.

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Snap’s Spectacles: Another Small Advance in the Development “Prosuming Machines”

In 2015 I published an article in the Journal of Consumer Culture on prosuming machines. Snapchat’s sunglasses fitted with a camera (“Spectacles”) are such a machine. They enter a market that was sought most recently by Google Glass. Google Glass has not been a success, but Snap’s Spectacles has been a great success initially and promises to succeed where Google Glass did not. The sunglasses are equipped with a small camera that the wearer can turn on with the tap of a button near the left temple. That permits a 10-second video of whatever one is looking at. The advance here is that rather than taking out and using a smartphone and its camera, one can video the scene without the interference of such actions; one can be more of a participant rather than merely an observer of the scene.

In other terms, Snap’s spectacles are a prosuming machine. They allow one to produce a brief video while the producer is consuming an event and, further, that the producer (and others) can consume, shortly thereafter, on his/her smartphone. However, Spectacles remain a human technology since the person wearing them must act- push that button- in order for the camera to operate. As a human technology, Spectacles represent only a small refinement in prosuming machines. They are yet another “wearable” (another example is monitoring devices worn by patients leaving the hospital) that allows one to prosume. However, they do not constitute a further step in the direction of prosuming machines that are non-human technologies. That step would require spectacles that are truly smart machines that tape whatever they- or their mini-computers- see and decide is important. Such spectacles would operate on their own consuming events and producing videos of them. An even further advance would be implantable devices that do much the same thing and intrude even less, or not at all, on the unfolding scene.

There is no question that such technologies are possible and that Snap’s spectacles, or some competitor, will soon offer them. Since they are invisible to those being videoed, such technologies would pose a far greater threat to the privacy of others than current technologies such as Spectacles. Snap is conscious of this danger since the current iteration of Spectacles lights up when a video is being shot. I suppose an insertable technology could be created that not only videos, but also lights up the videographer’s nose- a la Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer- when it is operating. That would certainly make for a more colorful world, but that should not serve to obscure the dangers associated with that world.

“Deglobalization”? Not a Chance

In a recent (November 13, 2016) New York Times essay, Ruchir Sharma argued that the lesson of globalization’s past, and of President-elect Donald Trump’s proposals that relate to globalization, “is that just as night follows day, deglobalization follows globalization- and can last as long”. This, of course, is a deterministic “grand narrative”. It is derived from generalizing from a single historical case of the great wave of globalization in the early 20th century (there were a number of other epochs, or phases, before that) and its descent into what might be termed deglobalization with the start of WWI. Determinism, grand narratives, and generalizing from a single case are all “no-nos” in contemporary sociology and most other social sciences.

A more nuanced view requires a perspective on globalization that views it as a dialectic of a series of “flows” and “barriers”. We have recently experienced a period in which the flows (of people, money, ideas, etc.) have been in increasing ascendancy over the barriers. These flows have gone through, around, under and over many different kinds of barriers (especially national borders in Europe). However, the pendulum is now swinging back in the direction of strengthening some of those barriers- and creating new ones- in at least some sectors of society and parts of the world. However, that shift should not be seen as deglobalization, but rather as an aspect of the globalization process itself. Thus, we are not undergoing a process of deglobalization, but rather we are at the early stage of another phase of the globalization process.

Sharma, Chief Global Strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, not only fails to see this, but he has a limited view of globalization as primarily an economic phenomenon (with a little politics thrown in). Such a narrow perspective means that he fails to see that globalization has continued apace, and even accelerated, in many other sectors of society, especially on the internet and, more generally, in the cultural, social, and intellectual realms (among many others).

We may be an era in which there is increasing interest in creating barriers in some sectors of society (e.g., trade, migration), but that is decidedly not the case in many others. Sharma, and those who adopt his perspective, need to develop a broader (especially less economistic) and less deterministic view of globalization. Yes, night does follow day (at least for the foreseeable future), but one should not leap from that to the idea that deglobalization follows globalization. There are trends, but no inevitabiities, in the social world.

“Shadow Work” and Prosumption

Shadow work is defined by Craig Lambert (Shadow Work, Counterpoint, 2015) as “all of the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of businesses and organizations” and as work we do “outside our jobs” and “generally for some profit-making purpose”. He argues that shadow work is increasingly the norm because people are now able to accomplish tasks themselves that were formerly handled by paid workers. Almost all of Lambert’s examples are the same as those usually dealt with under the heading of prosumption (and related concepts such as co-creation). Shadow work encompasses a wide range of online tasks including online learning and taking courses on MOOCS, as well as shopping for and booking travel. Many other forms of shadow work are performed offline (e.g., using ATMs and 3-D printers; self-service in fast food restaurants, supermarkets and retail establishments; self-check-in at airports and hotels; self-monitoring of medical conditions; citizen science) that are only now possible because of increasingly sophisticated automated technologies. Lambert adds several offline examples that I hadn’t thought of before as exemplifying prosumption such as the sorting and washing we do in recycling and the fact that we perform storage and warehousing functions for Costco.

However, there are some questionable inclusions under the heading of shadow work including housework, commuting, driving kids to school and extra-curricular activities, involvement in children’s sports, coaching one’s kids and monitoring their independent coaches, and even young athletes working to get scholarships. It is not clear that these activities are done on behalf of businesses in order to enhance profits. Furthermore, even if these traditional forms meet the definition of shadow work, they are conflated with the new forms largely made possible by the computer and other new technologies.

We are poorly served by Lambert’s use of the old concept of work, even prefaced by “shadow”. Work has a productivist bias and ignores the consumption involved in all of the activities discussed under the heading of shadow work. As a result, the concept of shadow work tends to obscure what is truly new in this domain. Lambert is clearly dealing with prosumption, more specifically prosumption-as-consumption; that is the prosumption engaged in by consumers. It is increasingly the case that prosumers produce as they consume. Indeed, more and more of the work associated with consumption that was formerly performed by paid workers is now being done- without pay- by prosumers. This is the secret source of the success- and profits- of “prosumer capitalism”.

In focusing on shadow work Lambert is using one of many modern binaries (work/shadow work; work/leisure) that permeate his work and that of many others. This kind of modern thinking is increasingly outmoded and must be replaced by more contemporary post/modern thinking employing more integrative and fluid concepts. Prosumption is one such concept that allows us to think of the recent developments discussed by Lambert in a much more contemporary and edifying way.

The Selfie as a Form of Prosumption

As is the case with most recent forms of prosumption, the selfie is made possible by a series of technological innovations including cellphones, their front-facing cameras, the computer and the internet on which photos are posted, and most recently selfie-sticks. While it has long been possible to photograph oneself, that process is now infinitely easier and the photos can be disseminated more quickly and easily. Taking selfies is clearly an example of prosumption in that the producer of the photo is almost always its first, and frequently only, consumer. As a recent newspaper article points out, at the production end of the prosumption-as-consumption continuum, those who take selfies “have become their own Hollywood directors” (Kate Murphy, “What Selfie Sticks Really Tell Us About Ourselves”, New York Times- Sunday Review, August 9, 2015: 5). After the subjects have viewed (consumed) the photos of themselves, they can then engage in a range of additional acts of production such as using “body-slimming, skin-smoothing and age-defying apps” in order to improve their appearance.
Furthermore, the viewer of other’s selfies is not merely a consumer of the photos, but is also a producer in the sense, according to an art historian, that “`the viewer of the selfie is free to interpret the work not governed by the intent of the person who took it’”. While making clear the productive role played by the consumer (viewer), this is a surprising statement since such interpretation is, and has always been, the case not only in all photographs, but in art, movies, theater, symphonies, operas, and the like. The viewer of these, and of most other things, is always free to interpret them and in fact they must interpret them in order for them to be meaningful. Meaning does not come only from the prosumer-as-producer, but also from the prosumer-as-consumer as well as from the interaction between them and their interpretations.
What do we gain by thinking of selfies as a form of prosumption? For one thing, it underscores once again the utility of that concept in our technologically advanced age. For another, it allows us to compare selfies to other contemporary forms of prosumption such as blogs and writing on Facebook walls. The more examples of prosumption we have, the better we will be able to get a broader sense of the phenomenon and of the similarities and differences among its increasing, and increasingly varied and important, manifestations. We cannot truly understand the nature and significance of prosumption unless we view various contemporary manifestations through that lens. It remains the case that few can grasp the increasing importance of prosumption because they continue to operate with a dichotomous production-consumption lens rather than the far more appropriate integrative lens of prosumption.

The “Sharing” Economy, Uber, and the Triumph of Neo-Liberalism

Ride-sharing is a form of prosumption- those who are using (consuming) their cars provide (produce) rides for those in need of them. Ride-sharing can also be seen as part of the sharing (of cars in this case) economy, a collaborative system (the collaboration of those with rides to offer and those who need them), and a peer-to-peer (p2p) systems (drivers providing rides mainly to other drivers who happen to be without their cars). These ideas and systems associated with the sharing economy (another is airbnb) were, in principle, not based on a profit-making model, but were generally more communal and altruistic in nature. However, they all have, at least in part, been transformed by the entry of profit-making businesses that in the pursuit of profit are altering these systems, especially their more romantic characteristics.
Many drivers can, and do, engage in ride-sharing free of charge for altruistic and communal reasons. However, the rise of profit-making companies like Uber and Lyft that charge drivers a portion (roughly 20%) of every transaction for use of their online platforms has transformed ride-sharing into a job (at least part-time) and a profitable business. Unlike most forms of prosumption- using ATMs, scanning one’s groceries, using self-check-in kiosks at airports and hotels- the “producers” (the companies and the drivers) earn a money from the process.
These ride-sharing businesses been proliferating despite the fact that they have encountered opposition nationally, and to some degree globally, from taxicab companies and local governments. This is because their app-based system accessible via smartphone is highly attractive, especially to younger people, who can summon a car more quickly without standing on corners and hailing, sometimes fruitlessly, taxicabs. The latter characteristics make the taxicab seem old-fashioned to younger people. Thus, they are likely to continue to shift in the direction of ride-sharing, while the older generation will likely remain wedded, at least for a time to the taxi industry. However, while the taxi industry will not disappear, this generational difference suggests a long-term shift away from taxi industry and in the direction of the ride-sharing industry. While the traditional taxicab industry is being threatened, it is difficult to defend it because it has tended to be monopolistic and has successfully resisted unionization efforts. For their part, drivers are not well-paid and must deal with difficult (sometimes dangerous) work, with little in the way of job protection and benefits.
Yet, ride-sharing through Uber and similar companies is not without its problems. Uber drivers would seem to be even more powerless and difficult to unionize than traditional taxi drivers. Among other things, they work on their own, are widely dispersed and have little opportunity to come into contact with one another. This gives Uber great power to release them and to alter the percentage they earn from each ride. The income of Uber drivers is limited because unlike taxi drivers, they are not supposed to accept tips. While the income is attractive for those who now do this in their spare time, it might be less satisfactory for those who try to do it on a full-time basis
Another point worth mentioning is that unlike in paid jobs, those working for the ride-sharing business provide many of their own “means of production”. Uber does provide the crucial (and expensive) online system that supports and drives ride-sharing, but the drivers provide and maintain their own cars as well as the smartphones that connect them to the online system.
This a near-perfect neo-liberal system in which capitalist organizations earn profits while giving those who work for them relatively little and leaving them largely on their own to fend for themselves.

E-Games and Prosumption

People have long played e- (or virtual) games, especially those involving many players. They have traditionally consumed multi-player games by buying them and by observing the actions of others playing them. Of course, they also produced them by creating the action that is the game. That is, people have always prosumed of e-games. These games are an example of playbor, a phenomenon with much in common with prosumption, because those involved labor as they play.
Many throughout the world continue to play e-games; in fact, the numbers involved are growing rapidly. However, the games are rapidly becoming mass spectator sports with millions of online viewers, thousands of others viewing the games in person at sports arenas, and millions of dollars in prize money. A major on-line site for these games is Twitch. The coming of age of these games was heralded by Amazon.com’s recent $1.1 billion purchase of Twitch, which had 55 million visitors in July, 2014 (Wingfield, 2014a).
While gamers were always prosumers, the consumption aspect of the process was dominant at first as they purchased computers, internet time, games and products associated with many games. While that is still true for gamers, some are now more involved in producing games, often as members of teams and for prize money. Others consume these games either online at home or in a stadium with thousands of other fans. The most successful of these gamers are earning large sums of money.
Prosumption is key to the profitability of these games and why Amazon.com was willing to pay over a billion dollars for Twitch. The secret of Twitch’s success is “because it supplies its own content and audience, comparable to an oven that produces its own food” (Carr, 2014: B5). In other words, the consumers (audience) of these games are also their producers.This is made clear by the creator of Minecraft: “’No fake doors that don’t lead anywhere, no trees you can’t cut down, and no made-up story being told to the player to motivate them…Instead, the player would make their own story, and interact with the game world, decide for themselves what they want to do’.” (Wingfield, 2014b)
It is clearly the most avid of the consumers who eventually become producers of these games for others to consume. Furthermore, even the most successful producers of today’s games must continually consume the actions taken by competitors in a game and, more generally, the entire gaming environment.
As in many cases of prosumption, it is the prosumers who do the vast majority of the work involved in production and consumption while owners of sites such as Twitch reap most of the economic benefit. Twitch succeeded because it invested the money needed to provide the infrastructure and huge bandwidth needed by those involved in multiplayer games, the major competitions, and the commentators on them. The audience flocks on its own to the site to provide the content. The vast majority of those who do so earn little or nothing for their efforts.

Carr, David. “Amazon’s Bet on Content, In a Hub for Gamers.” New York Times September 1, 2014: B1, B5.

Wingfield, Nick. “Virtual Games Draw Real Crowds and Big Money.” New York Times August 31, 2014a: 1, 13.

Wingfield, Nick. “In Games Like Minecraft, Tech Giants See More Than Fun.” New York Times September 11, 2014: A1, B2.

Wingfield, Nick. “Virtual Games Draw Real Crowds and Big Money.” New York Times August 31, 2014: 1, 13.

Customer Service or Disservice?

Consumer Reports (September, 2014) offered a revealing analysis of the accelerating trend toward customer self-service, or one aspect of what, in my terms, is “prosumption as consumption”. Customers who engage in self-service are, by definition, producing as they consume. To its credit, Consumer Reports makes no bones about why self-service has been embraced so enthusiastically. The reason? “To save money”. For example, if customers themselves place an online order, the cost to the company is pennies, while ordering from a live agent could cost between $2 and $10. In most cases, the corporations involved do not pass the savings on to customers in the form of lower prices. When multiplied by thousands, if not millions, of transactions, such savings mean much greater corporate profits. While such cost savings and profits have long been possible, they have been greatly increased in recent years by new digital technologies and by consumers who are not only familiar with them, but greatly prefer using them to interacting with paid employees.
Why do consumers do this work without pay or economic gain of any kind? Among the reasons offered by Consumer Reports are consumers’ feelings of empowerment, the ability to handle transactions more quickly, and the possibility of avoiding contact with employees who are increasingly likely to be less than stellar in their work. In fact, because corporations much prefer self-service customers, they are likely to hire fewer workers of lesser ability, to offer little training, and to accept marginal performance of the job. While many customers are cognizant of the incapacities of service workers, they generally seem unaware of many of the costs of self-service such as the loss of human contact, the paid jobs that are lost because they are willing to work for no pay, and the dehumanization of their relationships with corporations.
Because of the increasing acceptance of self-service by consumers, some corporations have taken the outrageous step- with nary a peep from consumers- of charging them fees for handling tasks the corporations used to perform without charge. Among the examples are airlines charging customers $50 for a paper ticket, $25 for having the audacity to make a reservation by phone, $20 for asking for a receipt for an e-ticket, and a $10 fee for having a boarding pass printed out by an agent. Fees such as these are likely to increase in price and to proliferate in number and variety in the coming years thereby further increasing the costs to consumers and profits for the companies.
Profit-making organizations have discovered that they can increase their profits by cutting personnel costs and by exploiting consumers to an ever-greater degree. There are many more customers than employees to exploit, they accept their exploitation meekly and, indeed, they often embrace it eagerly. This system greatly reduces the possibility of class consciousness among the declining number of employees who are ever-more fearful of losing their jobs. Worse, the system can operate without fear of the development of class consciousness among consumers who are too diverse and self-interested to think of themselves as a class, to become a class, and to act as a class. As much as one might like to hear it, we are not likely to hear consumers utter the clarion call- “Consumers of the world unite, you’ve nothing to lose but your iPad”.

McDonaldization without McDonald’s?

McDonaldization without McDonald’s?

In its key U.S. market, McDonald’s sales and customer visits were down in the first half of 2014 and they were flat globally. That, in itself, is not terribly worrying to the company since such declines have occurred before and McDonald’s has always roared back. However, a recent survey in ConsumerReports (August, 2014) makes those declines much more worrisome for the company. A survey of the dining experiences of over 32,000 subscribers to the magazine showed that of 21ranked burger chains, McDonald’s was tied for last with Burger King. McDonald’s, like Burger King, had a score of 71. This compared very unfavorably to the top-ranked chain, In-N-Out Burger, with a score of 88. While McDonald’s customers were satisfied, they were not nearly as satisfied as the customers of all the other burger chains (except Burger King). McDonald’s also ranked last when customers were asked to rate burgers on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being the least delicious burgers they have ever eaten and 10 being the most delicious. McDonald’s burgers got a score of 5.8 (the next lowest was 6.6 for Jack in the Box) compared to the best score (8.3) at The Habit Burger (In-N-Out Burger was 2nd with a 8.0 score). Overall, the mass burger chains, those that are the most McDonaldized, tended to rank toward the bottom in both ratings. The same can be said other kinds of chains. Of the chicken chains KFC was at the bottom in terms of the taste of its chicken and the same was true among the Mexican chains of Taco Bell and the taste of its burritos.
McDonald’s (as well as the other mass chains) is in no immediate danger, but these data should lead us to wonder about its long-term future. Other retail giants have fallen in the past (e.g., Woolworth’s, Montgomery Wards) and still others are presently in danger of collapse (e.g. Sears). There will come day when McDonald’s falls, but given its global power and its public relations skill, such a collapse will not occur any time soon. Similarly, these developments do not spell the end of the process of McDonaldization. However, it may well be that McDonald’s position as the paradigm of that process is being undermined leaving us with the possibility of a new paradigm (In-N-Out Burger?). In that case, the lack of fit between the paradigm and process would be awkward, but whatever the new paradigm, it would still be highly McDonaldized.
One of In-N-Out Burger’s great advantages is the higher quality associated with using fresh hamburgers rather than the frozen burgers of McDonald’s and other large chains. The calculability dimension of McDonaldization points to the tendency to emphasize quantity rather than quality. More frozen burgers can easily be stored, shipped, cooked and served than fresh burgers. However these quantitative gains come at the cost of lower quality. In the end, a high degree of McDonaldization brings with it the tendency toward mediocrity. Thus, McDonald’s may be done in by the very process that bears its name, but that is not to say that chains like In-N-Out Burger (as well as others like Chipotle) are not McDonaldized. They are simply less McDonaldized in some ways and on some dimensions that give them various advantages over the most McDonaldized systems. The success of these somewhat less McDonaldized chains promises to reduce, but certainly not eliminate, the irrationalities of rationality (e.g., the tendency toward mediocrity) associated with McDonaldization.

Prosuming Machines and the Internet of Things

Many prosuming machines interconnect, and will do so more and more, on what has been termed the Internet of Things (IoT). A recent Pew Research Center Report sees IoT as encompassing a wide range of interconnected sensor-laden devices and parts of the environment that feed back to one another. However, discussion and conceptualization of the IoT has failed to see that smart prosuming machines constitute a large part of what is, and will be, interconnected on the internet. The IoT will include smart prosuming machines that communicate with, and get responses from, other smart machines. In fact, IoT is a machine-to-machine (M2M) system. For example, in the health area there are contact lenses that measure and report glucose levels to doctors’ computers, bands that report heart rates to hospitals’ computers, and pills that are ingested and let caregivers’ computers know whether the patient has taken proper dosage.
While many prosuming machines will communicate with one another, many others will communicate with humans (e.g., bracelets that let users know where they stand in a particular exercise program). Since in this case humans retain agency, even power (they can ignore feedback from their bracelets), this is a less worrisome scenario than one in which prosuming machines communicate directly with one another and action is taken as a result of that communication (e.g. a quakebot that bypasses a human editor and causes an erroneous alert that panics the population).
An ever-expanding web of interconnected prosuming machines will be infinitely more powerful than any single machine or small subset of these machines. We are in the process of creating a system where the human prosumer will have less and less of a role to play in the prosumption process. The machines will produce and consume (both really forms of prosumption) in a seemingly endless loop.
There is no question that interconnected prosuming machines on the internet will bring with them an endless array of advantages (e.g. heart monitors that indicate an imminent heart attack and that elicit an automatic response from another smart machine inducing an electric shock or administering a dose of intravenous nitroglycerin). However, from the perspective of a critical sociology, these interconnected prosuming machines on the IoT bring to mind a dystopian image of a reified world in which they communicate with one another, are self-organizing, and operate largely autonomously without human intervention. As a result, humans will be increasingly dependent on, if not controlled by, smart prosuming machines that communicate with other machines of this type. This promises to create an extreme post-human and post-social world similar in many ways to the one dominated by the fictional Skynet system in the Terminator movies.