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Amazon’s lockers gave me a shameful taste of a world without people

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March 28th, 2017

There’s an idea going round that we’ll all live like shut-ins in the future. Thanks to a combination of cashier-less shops, same-day deliveries, and work-from-home jobs, we’ll never have to leave the house. When we do, driverless cars will whiz us from location to location, ensuring we never have to actually speak to another human being.

Sometimes I think this is silly; that human interaction will always weed its way into our lives like grass through concrete. We’ll want it there, and go mad with out it. Other times, I think that not only is such a future inevitable, but that, shamefully, we’ll welcome it.

Let me put it like this. The other day I had to return a package to Amazon (no, not headphones this time). It was a Saturday and I had a full to-do list to work through. So rather than spend time queueing up at the post office, I decided to use Amazon Locker, the company’s self-service parcel pickup and delivery service.

Amazon places these lockers all over big cities (often in retail stores like 7-Eleven and Spar) and lets you send your packages there or use them for returns. The one I visited in central London was just a room in the basement of an office building, but inside, it felt weirdly calming. I walked in from a crowded, blazingly hot street, into a air-conditioned oasis. It was quiet, calm, and utterly devoid of people.

Inside, I found my designated block of lockers (there were five or six different rows, each comprised of different-sized compartments stacked together like Tetris blocks) and punched in the drop-off code into a waiting touchscreen, while an embedded camera peered up my nostrils. The moment I hit the enter button, a locker the size of my parcel sprang open a little way down the wall, with a satisfying whir. I dropped in my parcel, clicked shut the locker, and walked out. Simple.

The waiting locker. I was so impressed I snapped a lousy photo.
Image: James Vincent

Now it’s stupid to rhapsodize too much about a self-service locker system, but, for me, the whole experience was proof of how Amazon’s obsession with logistics and automation can make your life a little easier. I didn’t have to waste time, or think too much (I even re-used the packaging Amazon sent me) and, most noticeably, I didn’t have speak to anyone. On this particular day — when I was stressed and busy and stuffy and irritable — that last part felt like a particular blessing.

The tech world’s drive toward convenience and automation has a cost, of course. Amazon Lockers aren’t killing factory jobs in the American Midwest, but on the whole, people are being exploited. Their rights as workers are ignored, or their jobs simply cut in favor of robot efficiency. The worrying thing is how easy it is to forget all this when life gets a little bit easier for you. Using an Amazon Locker reminded me that although a world without people can make things run with the precision of a machine, without the other people around in the first place, you only think about yourself.