Life in incognito

Head in the Cloud

Photo of Bianca Lee

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A few weeks ago, I shopped at an Amazon Go store. When I walked in, I received no acknowledgment nor greeting. I simply picked up a breakfast burrito from the shelf, placed it into my tote bag and walked out of the store. And that was it –– no line, no watching my burrito being made, no usual “Did you find everything okay?” from the cashier.

The only thing I needed to interact with was my burrito. And that’s what the Amazon Go market wants. In the process of maximizing efficiency, personal interactions have been cast aside as inefficiencies.

When I order online from Amazon, I’m able to search for products, order them and get them delivered to me without any interpersonal interaction at all. I’m not thinking about the sellers, the people who have left their recommendations and ratings of whatever product I’m buying or the people who prepare my packages for shipping. By creating an interface that renders these people abstractions, Amazon strives to expedite our shopping so that we don’t have time to acknowledge the emotions that drive our consumerist behavior –– so much so that purchasing anything from a thumbtack to a television becomes as emotionlessly instinctual and instantaneous as a subconscious click of a button.

But in minimizing our perception of all the work that goes into getting our items shipped to us, companies such as Amazon blind us from the tiresome work of distribution center employees, who are breaking their backs sorting, packaging and shipping our items. Amazon’s faceless interface strips away the humanity of these employees, allowing us to forget the sweatshop-esque conditions that power this cheap and easy service. Even when I get to the door when my package arrives, the deliverer is already gone.

If I really want to, I can go through an entire day as a full member of society without any real human interaction. Apple Support’s chat feature lets me get help with my Macbook through the clicking of buttons to minimize how much of my problem I need to explain to employees. When I order takeout on Snackpass, my interactions with people during food preparation and checkout are simplified so that I only need to tap the “place order” button in order to pick up my food on a shelf at Chipotle 20 minutes later. In this supposedly idyllic world, I’m like a ghost drifting through the city.

But as “efficient” as tech seems to make all these processes and more appear, it eliminates the emotional dimensions of our day-to-day interactions. When purchasing in-app rather than in-store, we lose the “Have a great day”s and small talk with store owners. In succumbing to the tech bubble’s preference for chains that promise consistency and sleek experiences, we lose the potential to become recognizable regulars at cozy coffee shops that we visit every morning and we drive out the mom and pop shops that could have provided a sense of community. In exchange for speed, tech pushes us to opt for a sterile, bland and most of all, lonely experience.

Even things that contribute to shaping our identities, such as receiving personal recommendations, have become faceless. Whereas recommendations from friends were once my main exposure to new books, music and everything in between, apps now offer just as many algorithmically generated recommendations. And through their influence, we relinquish parts of our identities to faceless calculations, which continue to learn more about what we like so that other people don’t have to.

While it’s nice to receive an influx of books, songs, videos and products that algorithms predict I’ll like, there’s a certain emotional blankness to these sterile recommendations. Without the credibility of humanity and the real understanding of who I am that my friends have, I can’t help but feel as though the computer-generated recommendations that increasingly shape who I am are missing something.

In a world that’s becoming more reliant on the tech industry to power our lives, tech trains us to depend more on machines and interfaces than each other. And as we gain access to millions of more people and places in online cities, I start to lose my sense of groundedness and feel like I could be anyone and anywhere. 

Despite the efficiencies that tech promises by cutting the middlemen out of the picture, I feel a sense of willful reluctance to accept the disconnected illusion of human interaction. I admit, there are days when it’s a relief to be able to spend a day by myself. But solely interacting with interfaces and buttons runs deeper than mere loneliness. When I passed through that Amazon Go market, there was such little interaction between me and the world that the entire experience felt illusory. The store was minimal and emotionless, my visit feeling as bland as if I were clicking around on the market’s digital counterpart.

As the ubiquity of online products becomes even more prevalent, the anonymity of being online permeates our real world. And without the need for interpersonal interaction anymore, I’m able to go through life without acknowledgments of my physical presence –– almost as though I’m living life in incognito mode.

Bianca Lee writes the Thursday column on the intersection of technology and society.