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Big Data meets the Cashless Gig Economy
A report from a lab.
[Two shots of one store in inner Sydney. The column on the left of the left hand image is the same as the column on the right of the right hand image.]
A Report From a Neo-Colonial Economic Laboratory
The "neocons" and "neoliberals" could be collectively thrown under a warning sign labeled Neocolonials, the servants of the late stage US empire. This brief report from a single of the inner city suburbs in which I've been living these last months is of a manifestation of the current result of two tragedies.
One one hand from the mid-1970's the labour rights won in a struggle that stretches well back into the preceding century, secured in the post-WWII economic wealth possessed by the USA and invested in certain economies via surplus recycling have been slowly and inexorably undermined. First came the union busting visited upon the English speaking west by both Reagan and Thatcher. Then from the 1990's the US, and other western nations deconstructed their manufacturing industries in which many of the achieved labour rights rested. Parallel to this reliable job deconstruction was a freeze in real wages. The working classes largely bore this because the production costs of the goods which they were consuming were minimized by the industrial shift to the "Tiger" economies providing cheap labour and very little unionization in southeast Asia. Meanwhile the information technology and other "advanced" sectors grew through a focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
On the other hand was the hollowing out of the liberal arts at English language western universities. Concomitant with the removal of studies of the classics and philosophy was a replacement in the new generation of academics who had been trained into their new focus and promoted for following it, the new all dominating "human rights" agendas. These colour revolution supporting ideologues were promoted to replace or merely survived more traditional advocates of core topics like the study of class dynamics, inherited wealth as a stabilization of class structure, and labour rights, among other topics.
This report is unfortunately flippant. Its tone should be more serious and gentle. The topics glanced at would be better served by the brutality of statistics. This flippancy is a coping strategy by the author, for which I apologize.
I hope you can find some humor in it.
Developments in transitioning finance towards newer systems has been an ongoing thing since forever, though particularly since the development of the computer. This has progressively made redundant the old profession of the bank clerk. The cheque book has been consigned to the dustbin of history and replaced by the EFTPOS card which has now already evolved into the "contactless payment" card not even requiring a form of authentication for use (no PIN for small transactions). The march is onward to replace the beauty and convenience of cash with the data and digital network mediation of near field networking via mobile phones and RFID chips to credit card transaction processors and banks.
I recall years ago the initial outrage and then joy at Australia's invention of the plastic monetary bill. It incorporated many modern forgery protection technologies and made whoever was doing the washing happy that failure to check pockets did not randomly result in a personal fine for using the washing machine. Little bits of clean destroyed bank notes did not appear in unexpected places.
With the new version of "Big Oil" being "Big Data" the banks want in on it too. They're still hedging their investments for security and loaning between 5 and 10 times as much as their deposits which is a sham which should be banned, but that's another fractional reserve banking story. The data that is up for grabs is everything that occurs in the "black economy", all of those little transactions of a small amount, which like a constant feed of your telephony metadata reveals an extraordinary amount of information about you. Any information stream which is this revealing is one of the valuable assets being sought and sold in the "Big Data" marketplace.
Due to the union busting begun in the late 1970s and the deindustrialization of the 1980's many previously unionized industries are now filled with non-unionized labour. The modern term is the "Gig" economy. There are no labour protections. The labourer is essentially fulfilling a whole sequence of micro-contracts each day; an insecure, unprotected, underpaid micro-contractor.
I see them riding their delivery bikes around Sydney creating danger for pedestrians on the sidewalks. I am surprised that none of the bus drivers who have been chauffeuring the buses I've been riding upon have not let it rip with their horns at the constant, dangerous flow of these mosquito-like gig workers around them. The delivery workers are in danger, the bus driver's ability to continue to be employed is in danger and the pedestrians are too. Soon enough all of the motorists will be paying increased insurance costs too. It is yet another abuse of the commons by global megacorporations exploiting labour and people's ability to withstand dangerous intrusions into previously secure public spaces.
To add insult to injury, as soon as Sydney managed to make sufficient progress implementing bike lanes on streets which were not designed to accommodate them, the bike rental, international, startup, venture-funded, garishly coloured, contactlessly billed via a smart phone bikes turned up too. They are an ever present mechanical vermin. They are left on streets in the most obstructive of locations causing lord knows how much difficulty for persons with physical disabilities such as those in wheelchairs or the blind. They constantly obstruct pedestrian flow.
Australia is a testing ground for the new shit they want to throw at all of us in the west. The USA is too, but the testers like Australia because we tend to just "go with the flow". The next monstrosity, the core topic of this article, is not as bad as it looks, though at face value you'd want to find the people who came up this and have a word with Beelzebub about creating a special hell for those who were involved its creation. A timeless interaction with the robots they created is given to them with three items to be purchased, no cash, one contactless payment card and a broken network with Beelzebub himself playing the role of robot watcher.
This is Big Data meets the Gig Economy in a national retail food distribution business duopoly. The duo-poles are Coles and Woolworths. The consumer is me. The laboratory is inner Sydney.
As a quick background "secure transactions" became possible on the internet due to a 3am 'quick hack' by Netscape that produced the Certificate Authorities which we are still plagued by. But, don't get me started on cryptographic shitshows. The ability to perform commerce via the network bore internet shopping which has since evolved into businesses renting or building warehousing on inexpensive land and using logistics systems as a more efficient manner of filling a customer's basket and getting the goods to them. The behemoth Amazon is representative of the more general business model.
Food retailers have a slightly specialized market. They deal with perishables from the very short to medium term and need to have points of sale or delivery systems distributed proportionally to the density of living in urban areas. They have two primary labour costs, the shelf stackers and the checkout chicks (okay, all genders are involved, but I liked the alliteration). Phase 1 is to replace the chicks with robots. Apparently they're looking to Amazon to work out how to replace the stackers too.
These duo-poles have developed checkout robots which perhaps some of you have seen. These have been gradually introduced to gently familiarize the consumer class with them. Those who learn how to use them efficiently can get out of the store with their purchased goods faster. As we have all been trained that time is money and we all need to live in a hurry because "there's not enough time" (TM) use of the robots, and thus learning how to use them, becomes almost essential; a clever strategy, Coles and Woolworths. I see what you're doing here.
As a quick aside, the other thing I've observed is that human employees are now prevented from accepting cash. You either do the contactless card digital near-field network thing or you feed your cash into a different robot for it to count it and then tell the human how much cash to return to you as change. You cannot give a human any cash, except to the homeless person being moved along on the street outside.
[A cash counting robot from the store.]
The staff that remain at the checkouts do not do that which is the norm in northern Europe where the checkout chick scans the things to the place them on the conveyor belt which delivers them down into the collection area where you do the packing. No, in this Australian model, the chicks or blokes also pack as a service to those who may have a challenge doing this. The point is that they are instructed to always do this unless the customer gets sort of edgy and, like me, says "give it here". They are instructed to follow "how are you today" with "do you need a bag" so they can sell this to you irrespective of the fact that you have just taken as mostly empty backpack off your back and are opening it.
[A robot, close up, with an item for scale.]
Their constant scanning and packing ensures that the lines to the chicks are always slower than the lines to the robots, and Bob's your uncle, the robots win. Now you're not only packing but scanning too. The supermarket is essentially co-opting your labour because you want this over and done with as soon as possible because there are more important things pressing on your time. This, of course, is a common misconception that we'll revisit.
I've now played both sides of this game with the chicks and the robots. But before we get to that, there is one absolutely essential investment that I recommend before living in a densely packed city full of rushing people and robots if you've been living out in less dense areas for a while, as I had.
Purchase a set of noise canceling headphones with very good to excellent quality speakers. You can go for the "in ear" things if you want. I say, no. Gimme proper speakers over my ears and noise cancel the fuck of the world around me when I want that. Invest in this. It is a revelatory revolution. Your world in densely packed living spaces is mindblowingly transformed, especially if you're an audiophile like me.
As an another aside, I would not suggest that you use the download tool I'm commonly promoting, yt-dlp, to download the sound only version (using the '-x' flag) of the official version of music you like from GooTuube or that you use a FOSS client of the
BitChute BitLocker BitWarrant or whatever its called protocol to access the gargantuan sharing library which exists out there on the da Internet. No, I prefer to calculate the risk assessment of the cost to monopoly businesses incurred by using available tools which are only illegal because monopoly funded lobbyists bribed law makers to create the legislation making them illegal but whose use would disrupt the monopolies if used, rather than advocating their utility.
Equipped with these life saving headphones and a set of playlists stuffed with music you like, or listening to podcasts or whathaveyou, you can then choose to just wait in line and be rather chilled about it, watching the lemmings tapping their feet waiting in line to play with the robots. Or, you can watch the checkout bloke and see how new he is, still learning to sort the dense and hard surfaced items from the less dense and soft surfaced ones and take internal pity on him. Or you can off to your own la la land contemplating whatever the crap you want as you wait for your turn to not allow the bloke to have to decide the wrong order of packing your items for you.
Then, you can come to the realization that despite all of your calm and your desire to defend the shitty jobs that the chicks and blokes are doing at the checkout, its a busted arse strategy and almost nothing that is going to stop the march of the robots. So, what the hell, gimme a try.
Then one must go through the, lets face it AnnOYInG and fRUstRaTinG, phase of learning how these robots which have been programmed by people who've never used them. There is yet another topic top avoid engaging me in. Onwards to the font of the robot queue.
[A streetscape two minutes walk up the gig-economy bicycle delivery worker using street from the robots.]
These robots have to do a mass balance. That which is put on the side of the robot, where paid for items are placed to be later packed by you, need to match the calculated weight.
One of the first options new soulless employee will you is "I've brought my own bag". Do NOT select this under any circumstance, for next the robot will go into thumb twiddling mode requiring the less expensive labour of the robot watcher to come and interact with the thing before you can do anything else. What it really wants to do is to weigh your bag so it can "zero" the scale. But, the robots are not very good at this and the entire process can be skipped. Once you've got a receipt for your items you can do whatever you want with the scale. So, I repeat do NOT select "I've brought my own bag", just be careful to not put it on the scale before paying.
Sorry about all these asides, but I'm in a good mood and can't help it. If one is not actually interested in purchasing things, lets say one has an afternoon off and the park was just not inviting enough, and one is still in the middle of leaning about these robots. One could visit robot after robot with one irrelevant low cost item in hand, scan that and then press the I've brought my own bag button and bring the entire operation to a screeching halt. I shalln't mention these opportunities again. I'll trust that you shall be able spot them as we go. If you're tickled by ideas like this it is wise to plan them. Choose the locations to fill with upset robots carefully. Also, do not carry any id and wear appropriate clothing, and possibly makeup. Make it a afternoon out. One can create a competition or and art project out of this type of activity if one gets creative. If you're going to go that far, I suggest involving a local acting group for access to their skills and equipment, namely working with make up and a costume rack.
So, you didn't bring a bag, even though you did. Got it?
The next trick they do, and this is where I know that each of the two duopoly food distribution business use different software, is for models which allow either card payments or cash, after you've scanned the first item their first question is for you to choose between these payment methods. You, of course, still have the item in your dominant hand and naturally, you'll put that down on the scale side before attempting to press the robot's dumb touchscreen. But, no, putting anything on the scale after scanning an item before having answered this question which belongs after all scanning will again force the robot into thumb twiddling mode.
Anyway, there are a few more of these gotcha's which one can use for whatever purposes one wishes. Recall they're robots and don't give a damn what you do to them. And, lets face it, giving the robot watchers something to do is good for their job security. And trust me, they get really bored. I've had these young attentive people whisk away a shopping basket the moment its empty, before I've even go my contactless card in hand.
However, when one has mastered the robots one can then join the faster queue still armed with the sanity preserving headphones and wait your turn to get everybody else to leave-you-the-fuck-alone while you take all the time that you wish to play with the robot and load your stuff into the bag you've informed the robot that you don't have. This is the serene approach.
Make sure the music is good. Scan your items in whatever order makes you feel good. Place them on the weighing side in the order which will make them most enjoyable for you to pack them. Always get the receipt before you start packing. For the local duopoly, one issues receipts with a blank side on actual paper making them useful for sticking on the fridge to
plan your robot adventures write lists. The other keeps printer ink manufacturers happy by printing shit that nobody ever reads. Look around and enjoy the view while the robot prints this out. Watch the peeps playing with the bots. Then, engage in the joy of packing your shit taking all the time you want.
Need to take a call mid-packing? Go for it. Feel like admiring an item, or double checking its ingredients list while scanning? Have at it. And now for the pro tip.
The persons who are paid to design the product layout in stores are not paid to make finding items easy for you but to make you buy as much as they can tempt you with. The primary mechanism is to stick yellow "SPECIAL" signs in front of you. In a proper AI assisted world these would be scrubbed from one's vision and every single price would be converted to a common measure (cost per weight or unit etc.) and compared with the other prices available in the store and local area so that you know how much you are under or over paying per item. But, we're a way off that yet. This is the sort of thing that the CypherPunks would do with VirtualReality given a chance. They're not disappeared either and their turn may come.
In the meantime, the policy in Australia is that if one of the duopoly charge the incorrect amount for an item then you get that item for free. Thus, one of your optional tasks is to memorize the prices of things. Recall most people can hold about 7 things in short term memory. Work within whichever limits are comfortable for you. Now, if you see a whole bunch of those yellow SPECIAL stickers on very similar items and you need one of those type, see if you can pick the one which is incorrectly labeled as on SPECIAL and grab that. If you are correct you get the item for free and you get to talk to the robot watchers and give them something far more interesting to do. When I hit the jackpot, the watch asked someone else to run away and confirm the advertised price, so two people got to do something interest. Paydirt! If you were wrong in your attempt to choose the most likely to be mislabeled, you get the thing you needed at a marginal discount, but nobody gets any fun being distracted from the drudgery of working with robots.
Recall the financial data acquisition, agglomeration and repackaging for sale to other financial elements, like insurance brokers, of the neo-colonial economy. They really want this data, and you know this because they and the banks and payment card processors have invested in the cash scanning robots which they dont want you to use. It will be so much faster, more convenient to just wave your card nonchalantly at the little cashier in a box attached to the robot!
Yes, you could deliberately choose to only use cash, and should you do so, you have my admiration. If, however, you are receiving the playful hint embedded in the flippancy of this little story you could mix in a little creativity and a small team to create some fun games. I like coffee, and the best internationally available reliable quality coffee of which I know and have become accustomed in Lavazza Qualita D'Oro. This costs $40 (AUD) per kilo at standard price. It comes in a vacuum sealed and foil lined pack which means it keeps forever. It can regularly found for $24 per Kilo at one or the other of the duopoly. A game for your troupe could be that when one spots this good discount they inform the rest to assess their local store. Then, at a coordinated raid is run in which at all of the identified stores all available stocks are purchased, and this is the tricky bit, at exactly the same time. Here, your "taking calls when scanning" and "admiring the view" will come in handy. For you and your colleagues need to complete all of your transactions across all of the stores within seconds of each other. I'm sure this can be done. And what an interesting blip that will create for the inventory assessors and transaction processors. Perhaps they'll never know. So, hints could be left behind. Choose a flower which is common for the time of year, can be harvested at parks and leave the same flower on each of the robots. I'm confident that your creativity will shine in finding even more fun games to play.
Lastly back to that "we're running out of time" misunderstanding. The illogicality of it is just staring you in the face (of your watch). Time is not a discrete thing. Yes, there are limits on the precision of measurement (hi there, Heisenberg), but not on time itself. It is continuous and unending. It is impossible to run out of time both theoretically and practically. And if you want to get arguing about the end of the universe that is the mutest of all moot points. At that point time doesn't even exist to run out of. Lastly, running out of something means you possessed it in the first place. You do not possess time. Your are in its grip. The relationship is entirely the other way around.
Then there is the infamous "I wish there were more hours in a day" codswallop. Well, more-time-in-a-day wishers, the moon is on your side and has been since there were liquids on the surface of our gorgeous planet (aka a long-arse time ago). The tidal forces the moon creates have been slowing down the length of the day for this long-arse time, and every single day the length of that day is just a weensy bit longer than the one preceding it. Your wish is continuously being granted. So, STFU with this idiocy and learn a little about your local neighbourhood.
And lastly for the rushers, there's a well known song which presents a different approach. But, you probably don't have time to listen to it.
The streets and vendors of Sydney.
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