Noah J Nelson on Tuesday, Mar. 31st
This has to be a joke, right?
That was the first thought in my mind as I watched the sizzle reel for Amazon’s new Dash program. If you missed it: Amazon has announced a new service that will provide Amazon Prime customers with little wi-fi enabled devices that allow people to order a refill of select items with a push of a button.
That’s all the device does, with each product getting its own dedicated button. It is not, apparently, an early April Fools’ joke, although I’m holding out.
What it is, however, is a glimpse into the corporate vision for the looming Internet of Things. One where a fool and his money is easily parted at the touch of a button, or perhaps automatically thanks to smart sensors embedded in aware appliances.
The Dash buttons, it seems, are a kind of stopgap measure on the way towards a world where IOT connected devices will keep track of their own inventories. Online shoppers already use subscription services to get refills on common items, everything from those despicable K-cups for coffee machines to disposable diapers. The future of Dash will take inventory management away from the household and into the electronic brains of the devices.
There’s a great efficiency here in terms of logistics, but it’s one whose benefits are easier to see for Amazon and retailers who adopt similar practices. Harder to see are the impacts that setting our roles as consumers on autopilot will have on the environment and economy at large.
Amazon has this uncanny ability to show us glimpses of a frightening future on a regular basis. Last week it the non-compete clauses in the contracts of blue-collar warehouse workers. A practice that they rescinded only after it was reported on in The Verge. Then there’s the whole “delivery by drone” program that Jeff Bezos and company are enthusiastically pursuing.
It could be in the long run that Amazon’s driving of costs on retail logistics down to a near-zero margin pushes society to evolve into something different from the consumer worshiping economic temple it is now. Or we could just be looking at an endless upcycle of transnational corporate control of the global infrastructure that makes the future envisioned in the William Gibson novels of the 1980s look quaint by comparison.
What I don’t want to do, however, is throw out the baby (the Internet of Things) with the bathwater (consumer tech a-go-go).
In his book The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism author Jeremy Rifkin talks at length about the rise of a new information/energy infrastructure which has the potential to reshape human economic activity. Rifkin is sweeping in his optimism—maybe a little too much for these cynical eyes— about the potential for a Third Industrial Revolution to change life on earth for the better. However his focus on the emerging Smart Grid energy technologies do provide me with a glimmer of hope that the Internet hasn’t just become a total waste filled with hate speech, witch hunts and buy now buttons.
A world where every building is generating some degree of its own power and storing that in—probably Elon Musk provided—batteries which can then be fed back into the general grid is a world where everyone is literally making their own power. And I mean literally in both it’s literal and figurative sense.
Couple that with devices—air conditioners, refrigerators, televisions, laptops—that are “smart” enough to regulate their own power consumption thanks to an IOT made possible through cheap sensors and the species just might make it though the massive extinction event that may already be underway.
It could be that the road to those cheap sensors starts in earnest with these stupid Dash buttons. Just don’t let me find one in your laundry room, I’ll think less of you while I’m borrowing your washer-dryer to run a load.