Amazon vs the Smiley Faces

Patrick Barkham’s Guardian article about an Amazon warehouse in the run-up to Christmas is a great piece of dystopian writing. At least, it would be a great piece of dystopian writing if it wasn’t about real people, working in a real warehouse, in a real place called Marston Gate.

The staff are governed by a computer-generated workflow, credited with little ability to discriminate and cajoled into not making mistakes. The most depressing fact (worse than the news that Scottish Enterprise have given the world’s biggest retailed £10.6m in grants and training awards) is that:

Goods are deliberately placed alongside very different things to minimise the risk of “pickers” choosing the wrong item – you really can’t mistake the Unbearable Lightness of Being for a Russell Hobbs slipstream iron, even at the end of an eight-hour shift in which you have walked nearly 15 miles.

No shit.

Unbearable Lightness of Being book cover

Russell Hobbs Slipstream Iron

Rather than storing items in a human-readable context, they are organised at random, in an untuitable system. This both minimises error and reduces the amount of reasoning required to something like:

if (x == “iron”)
{ pick_it_up = True; }

And it’s true that Amazon’s accuracy and customer service are extraordinary, efficient and seamless. But the reason this article shocked me, is that I’ve never imagined a human might be putting my book in a box. I don’t know what I thought, but I didn’t think that. The cardboard is too nicely folded, for a start. (And I say this as someone who has worked in several warehouses – summer holiday jobs in which I always managed to implicate my own fallibility.)

For me, buying a book from Amazon is like taking money from an ATM. And this impression is maintained throughout the online experience. Although I know there are (or at least, there were) category managers making decisions about products and promotions, there’s no hint of this on the website.

For starters there’s the comedically brutal logic of the recommendations engine. Besides being unfeasibly keen on a Barbra Streisand DVD I once bought as a gift, it wants me to fill my home with food processors in slightly different colours to the one I bought a year ago. The astonishing banality of the “Movers and Shakers in Groceries” singularly fails to understand the way we might buy necessities for the home. (Although I do mourn the “Top 10 Crisps” list, which was usually dominated by Scampi Fries. Similarly, I can never quite tell if the people who write reviews of crisps for Amazon are masters of acerbic wit or just, er, really big fans of crisps.)

The most human element of Amazon is the tragic disconnectedness of the “People who bought this also bought…”, suggesting a series of unlived lives – people rattling round the Amazon shell, limping from one randomly connected purchase to the next. (At this moment people who bought items in my browsing history also bought Andrex toilet roll, milk frothers, some 1930s murder mystery novels and a book called “Power, Interest and Psychology”. The idea of this person as a composite individual fills me with no little fear.)

And although price and convenience remain important factors in my purchases, I’m now less inclined to press the one-click ordering button. While I don’t want to be J. R. Hartley, I do want a a hint of vulnerability that suggests the human potential for serendipity and delight.

So while I’d be beyond annoyed to receive an iron from Amazon if I’d ordered a book, I wouldn’t be that upset if a book similar to the one I wanted arrived – if there was a simple human mistake that I could choose to mitigate.

From a customer-service perspective, I can relate this to an experience I’ve recently had with my bank. The HSBC Fraud Detection team are a singularly inhuman lot: rude, patronising, unable to deviate from a script, unable to offer sympathy or understanding for the connection another human has to his or her livelihood. Despite being a customer of twenty years’ standing, I was treated as a 16-digit card number that had been compromised, told repeatedly that I “did not seem to understand” when I asked if there was any way I could get access to my money. Likewise, the new secure key assumes that, to verify myself as a human, I need to use a machine and state a favourite colour. It recognises me on a sub-human level, while anyone who knew me at all well could determine at a glance whether a purchase was fraudulent. I’m a creature of habit, and those habits could be easily interpreted by an algorithm and be confirmed with me via SMS. But instead, every so often, they stop my card from working, just to check it hasn’t been cloned.

If more corporate logistics teams thought about the reassurance offered by Faces in Places, I’m sure customers would be happier – more loyal and committed. I already have an emotional commitment to the third box down on the left of this image, who looks like he’s having a great time:

Smiling Cardboard Boxesphoto by Jody Smith

It’s also why Bear Grylls’ PR person made sure he mentioned that he travels with a laminated photo of his family in his shoe on yesterday’s Desert Island Discs. It’s a token of his vulnerability that, if his life were ever made into a movie, would become a tearjerking talisman of his bravery and humanity. It’s the relatable aspect in his public persona that makes us all imagine we can climb mountains and swing from trees.

And it is, of course, the reason that BERG’s lovely Little Printer has nice hair and uses personal pronouns. It’s like a friendly technopet, making you feel good about the information overload one tiny print out at a time. And while there’s a terrifying hint of the uncanny in technology that can smile, it’s a lot better than systems like the Amazon workflow that want to remove mistakes and disambiguate the human experience.

While I don’t want to see mistakes in machines that fly planes or deliver oxygen to the desperately ill, I want to see design that admits of the potential for error – that allows us to see ourself and develop relationships. As my intimacy with technology grows, I want to feel a part of systems that are designed with my weaknesses in mind. Like the moment when iPod shuffle seems to read your mind, and then ruins it with an extract from a Learning Portuguese audiobook. And I want to know that a person has put my Amazon order in a yellow tote, that it isn’t just a robot hand that’s read a barcode.

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