The man behind the curtain

The lure of the techno-utopians is that we can abstract away the hardships of life with technology. The Jetsons is just around the corner.

Take Amazon’s stores with no cashiers. I remember talking to tech-bro types that thought I was a wild luddite when I pointed out they were just hiring cheap overseas labor to work as cashiers. No fancy technology. No building the future.

And now that’s come and gone:

Amazon is phasing out its checkout-less grocery stores with Just Walk Out” technology, first reported by The Information Tuesday.

Though it seemed completely automated, Just Walk Out relied on more than 1,000 people in India watching and labeling videos to ensure accurate checkouts. The cashiers were simply moved off-site, and they watched you as you shopped.

I once worked at a company that used AI to automate various back office tasks. The AI was nothing other than cheap Ukrainian labor. You can sure get a lot done when it only takes 500 bucks a month to get a Ukrainian student to do an American white collar job remotely.

So many of our recent technological advancements feel like merely shifting externalities. Not having car exhaust in cities is a huge plus, but we’re just moving massive environmental destruction to the mines that are needed for car batteries and the coal power plants to charge them.

I’m not opposed to technology and progress. I’m opposed to not having conversations about the real costs and tradeoffs involved. Having someone in India watch you while you shop and tally what you pull off the shelf isn’t so glamorous after all.