Amazon and Automation: What does this mean for our consumers, retailers, and workers?

With months of speculation, Amazon finally seems poised to officially enter the Australian marketplace with a ‘Amazon insider’ telling The New Daily  that they’ll have arrived ‘no later than 2017 to early 2018’. This aligns with other sources such as Business Insider noting on January 17th that Amazon had ‘more than 100 job vacancies listed for Australia’, one of these roles detailed hinted at ‘revolutionising… the grocery shopping experience’ to include fresh food delivery in the roll-out. Amazon also surprise launched their ‘Prime Video’ service in November 2016 to compete with the already cut-throat local competition.

So it seems Amazon’s arrival is near, but what does this mean for retailers? Watermark Funds Investment chief investment officer Justin Braitling was quoted stating their plan is to undercut the market by ‘around 30%’, with their intentions to effectively ‘destroy’ the status quo. Looking at a report by Credit Suisse reflects these concerns, envisaging JB HIFI could see up to a 33% decline in profits, with Myer topping even that at 55%.

Despite these concerns, others such as Danny Ing, the founder of inventory management software ‘Cin7’, see Amazon’s marketplace as a miraculous opportunity for small businesses in particular who can now ‘open up a massive new market’ and become part of a ‘globalised cottage industry’. This means that Amazon’s global 300 million users will now be accessible and will facilitate rapid growth for choice Australian sellers.

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Amazon’s ‘Echo’ combined with ‘Alexa’ app automates your home and acts as a personal assistant.

With promise of creating jobs and expanding the marketplace for consumers, it’s important to remember that ‘the workers they are hiring aren’t the same ones being laid off’, so says Harvard economics professor Lawrence Katz. In the US we can see that department stores have felt the impact of online retailers, letting go ‘thousands of staff in recent months’. While businesses and employees around Australia haven’t been similarly affected yet, this will surely change soon with the ‘incredible efficiency of Amazon’s distribution system’ which is unparalleled locally.

Gerry Harvey, bless the man, boldly states that ‘If they’ve [Amazon] got a cheaper price we will match that price, and we’ll give them the service, delivery and after sales service and they will be a lot happier than if they dealt with Amazon.’ Professor Mark Ritson rebukes those claims however, noting that regardless of what Gerry says ‘in front of the cameras’, it will be different behind closed doors. ‘He wants to communicate that Harvey Norman will match Amazon penny for penny for the consumers, but the reality is you can’t do that, and he knows it.’

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Amazon Go, currently only available to Amazon employees in Seattle, allows customers to pick out their food and it will automatically bill you for it when you walk out the door.

Woolworths, taking a more pragmatic approach, has moved its in-house technology infrastructure over to Microsoft’s Azure network to ensure scalability and reliability for particularly busy periods. Understandably, they didn’t opt for Amazon’s own cloud service, Amazon Web Services.

In my preliminary research, I’ve seen two common concerns with Amazon’s entrance according to internet commentators. Firstly, that Amazon must have a solution to Australia Post’s woeful delivery times. A commenter using the handle ‘NegativeZero’ attributes the success of the free ‘Prime’ delivery system to the ‘godawful minimum wage… (so they can have more drivers doing deliveries)’ combined with the postal services in the US being ‘miles ahead of Australia Post in both cost and service quality’. Having both a comparably high minimum wage, and a lacking postal service, presents a barrier for Amazon.

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Amazon Fresh provides same-day delivery for groceries in US cities

Secondly, and the issue I’ll be most focusing on for my research report, is concern for the jobs of those affected by the automation of process like warehouse logistics, order fulfillment and distribution.

With unimaginable working conditions, and the cost to solve them, we can see why Amazon would be happy moving towards automation. The NY Times cites of Amazon’s efficiency; ‘they don’t use as much labor’. The profit of these ‘superstar firms’ is therefor ‘split among fewer workers.’

In Creating the Global Shopping Mall: The Case of Amazon, Voigt notes Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva Systems (now Amazon Robotics) which manufactured storage robot to improve the fulfillment process (p. 73, 2016). And, while Amazon’s warehouses aren’t devoid of human workers yet, ‘Amazon continues its work on removing the human element from this too’, according to David D’Souza of CIPD London.

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Amazon Prime Air‘s ’30 minutes or less’ delivery system is currently is trialing in the US, UK, Austria and Israel.

Co-Founder of Kiva Systems, Raffaeollo D’Andrea, wrote in A Revolution in the Warehouse: A Retrospective on Kiva Systems and the Grand Challenges Ahead that the ‘average mean time between failure of mobile robots at the time was 8 hours’. With a 1000 strong robotic workforce, there would be 3000 incidents every day. Using innovative but cheap sensors, GPS systems, and clever algorithms vastly increased productivity (p. 638, 2012). D’Andrea believes that ‘robotics and automation cannot only create new markets, but also revolutionize established ones’ as evidenced by Amazon’s domination ‘stateside’, and possibly soon in Australia.

 


This was a quick, preliminary look at sources of interest for my research project into the automation of the work-force, using Amazon’s Australian debut in particular as a case study. In the coming weeks I’ll be refining my inquiry, and definitely utilising more academic and industry sources.

Does societal ‘bigotry of low expectations’ exist?

Growing up in regional NSW, and living in a small town that regularly necessitated driving through the infamous East Nowra public housing district, I was always peripherally aware of the poor and downtrodden in my local community. But whilst listening to the BCM310 lecture on ‘Suffering, empathy and poverty porn’ however, the notion that suffering can be ‘visible but not seen‘ jumped out at me as particularly poignant; it struck me that I’d never truly considered what it would be like to live in such a publicly scrutinized community, and what effect that would have on my own self-esteem and personal outlook.

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Visible, but not seen — Via Tumblr

Indeed, the suggestion that suffering can be ‘visible but not seen’ is reflective of many contemporary issues that are acknowledged, but kept at arms length. We can plainly see the same apathetic behavior with the almost cyclical perceptions of climate change, and the seemingly indefinite detention of refugees on the Manu and Nauru islands. Despite strong public opinion as polled by Roy Morgan Research expressing ‘overwhelming concern and response to the human suffering’, there’s been no suggestion as to when their extended incarceration will finally end.

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Afghan refugee on Nauru — Via SMH

Thinking back, then, to this local community of East Nowra, I was curious as to the kind of effects that a community suffers when they’re looked down upon be those around them. Specifically, I wondered if an investigation into evidence of a perpetuating, viscous cycle involving criminality and drug use ties with occupants of public housing estates might be an interesting topic for my final project. Is this assumption an unfair generalization held by those privileged enough to not need public housing? Is there evidence to suggest that ongoing explicit and implicit condemnation of ‘the other’ groups and communities reinforces these ideals and behaviors?

As you can explore above, East Nowra (which features a street called, and I still can’t believe this is real, ‘Vendetta St‘) is unsurprisingly easy to draw assumptions from. Moving past these impressions though, lets have a brief look at research into the relationship between those in the bottom socioeconomic bracket and their conformation to (or success despite) society’s lower expectations.

In 1961, Oscar Lewis coined a phrase to help gather his findings in poor communities; the ‘culture of poverty’ which surmised his ethnographic studies in small Mexican communities. Lewis speculated that poverty stricken people ‘share a consistent and observable “culture”‘ and believed he could extrapolate and universally apply this concept. Since then however, the existence of such a culture has been thoroughly debunked. ‘Differences in values and behaviors among poor people are just as great as those between poor and wealthy people’ writes Paul Gorski of Hamline University.

Despite this, many false truths have ‘crept into mainstream thinking’ such as the view that poor people are unmotivated, have poor work ethics, are un-involved in their children’s learning, and they ‘tend to abuse drugs and alcohol’, all of which Gorski rebukes. Over 83% of poor families have an employed adult, and Gorski argues that schools are, in fact, to blame with the perceived lack of involvement as they don’t take the working conditions of these families into account. Evidently, one could make the case that ‘schools … do not value the involvement of poor families as much as they value the involvement of other families’ due to this. Similarly, drug use is ‘equally distributed’ among all societal classes. In fact, consumption of alcohol among upper-middle class, white students is ‘significantly higher … than among poor black high school students.’ Additionally, the Australian Institute of Criminology found that public housing itself wasn’t an ‘important factor’ in whether an individual uses drugs.

Gorksi also expresses concern reminiscent of what Michael Gerson described as the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations‘ which has seen wide recognition even among Australians researchers in educational settings. The phrase originally referenced the education system setting low bars for minority students and that being a crucial failing to their education, with Noel Pearson of The Australian stating that ‘high-expectations schooling is ultimately about high-quality teaching.’ Gorksi blames the ‘deficit theory’ for ‘suggesting that poor people are poor because of their own moral and intellectual deficiencies’, resulting in a view of the ‘undeserving poor’ as Herbert Gans coined. In practicality, ‘poor students are more likely to attend schools that have less funding’ which means larger class sizes, ‘a less-rigorous curriculum’ and less experienced/qualified teachers among other factors.

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Aboriginal classroom — Via Department of Education

Could it not, therefor, be suggested that this concept of ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ extends beyond just the educational realm and impacts many facets of impoverished life?

 

Selfies in the Mediasphere

While researching what the broader academic community postulates and proposes of selfies, I found these words encapsulated the debate nicely: ‘The term—and more so the practice(s)—remain fundamentally ambiguous, fraught, and caught in a stubborn and morally loaded hype cycle.’ (Baym & Senft, p.1588, 2015)

So, much like the debate over whether science fiction has a negative effect on the public understanding of science (shameless plug), we’re unsure as to whether selfies are a pox on our society. Baym & Senft state that there is in fact not ‘a single peer-reviewed piece of scientific literature that convincingly demonstrates that selfie production and mental illness are correlated’ (p.1590) despite the bastion of high-brow, journalistic gold ‘Adweek’ claiming otherwise.

Regardless, we see the almost inevitable ‘moral panic’ phenomenon as described by Cohen when a new ‘media form or practice is adopted by young people, women, or people of color’ (Baym & Senft p.1592). Approaching selfies as a tool, we begin to see their worth beyond expressions of individuals (whether narcissistic or not).

As argued by Koliska & Roberts, selfies can be taken not for just personal indulgence, but as a statement to say “I witnessed this take place” and provide a different, decidedly personable perspective on events which risk losing their important human element, such as a civil rights protest. Koliska & Roberts mention selfies taken during the military coup in Bangkok (2015) reminds us that real, human lives are being disheveled due to otherwise faceless events.

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A member of the press takes ‘soldier selfie’ on May 22 2014 – Source: CNN

 

Therefor, the subject of the photo can be beyond the ‘self’, but a form of citizen journalism acting more like documentation. If you were to change the circumstances to that of a ‘Black Lives Matter’ march, for example, interfacing with that selfie communicates what Senft (2008) refers to as “networked reflective solidarity”. This allows somebody on social media to feel ‘closer’ to that person and establish a sympathetic (if not empathetic) response.

Jenna Brager, in her essay ‘The Selfie and the Other: Consuming Viral Tragedy and Social Media (After)lives’, is concerned that the use publication of selfies posthumously often considers the subject as not any kind of ‘hero’ or influence, but simply as a ‘victim’. The juxtaposition of the presumably happy-looking individual in the selfie with the news of their death, I agree, very easily paints a saddening reality (the pessimistic among us might dare to call it lazy or exploitative journalism!).

Similarly, Brager points to an example of a selfie taken before a car-bombing in Beirut which killed, among others, notable political figure Mohammad Chatah. Despite this, the Twitter campaign #notamartyr focused on a teenager in the selfie not Chatah, ‘presumably because as a political figure, he constituted an ‘appropriate’ target of violence’.

Just as how selfies can help us identify with, humanise, and connect to individuals in extraordinary circumstances, they can unfortunately do the opposite and instead distract from the meaningful point of a story via the (petty and ultimately trivial) differences of ‘the other’. Brager notes that selfies of Lebanese teenagers Malak Zahwe and Maria Jawhari were circulated after their deaths, but were met with ‘minimal Western interest’ due to their living in ‘Dahieh’, known as a stronghold for terrorist organization ‘Hezbollah’. Brager exclaims their framing ‘by association, as members of a terrorist organization, rather than ‘innocent’ civilian victims” [who] wore hijab—“a visible marker of otherness.’ (p. 1665)

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‘This is the third bombing that I escape, I don’t know if the fourth will kill me’ – Maria Jawhari’s Facebook post Source: Naharnet 

 


 

Going through high-school, I was surrounded by people with iPod’s and smartphones ‘who took selfies’, as I would have framed them in my mind. Having not bought a smartphone until my senior years, I viewed them as (albeit harmlessly) self-indulgent and, perhaps a bit narcissistic.

But as an adult, living in the digital age where we’re more and more unwittingly documenting our whole lives via website cookies, digital receipts and location tracking etc., I feel like selfies are something that’s in your control and uniquely, definitively you. Yes, it’s likely ineradicable like many of your digital remnants, but by God, you are expressing yourself as a goddamn human being at this moment in time, and that can stand out among your otherwise boring, yet unspeakably, terrifyingly, inexplicably all-encompassing metadata.


 

References

Senft, T & Baym N 2015, ‘What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon’, International Journal of Communication, vol. 9 no.19, pp. 1588–1606

Koliska, M & Roberts, J 2015 ‘Selfies| Selfies: Witnessing and Participatory Journalism with a Point of View’, International Journal of Communication, vol. 9 no.19, pp. 1672–1685

Brager, J 2015, ‘The Selfie and the Other: Consuming Viral Tragedy and Social Media (After)lives’, International Journal of Communication, vol. 9 no.19, pp.1660–1671

 

 

‘Internet of Things’

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Before you ask, no, couldn’t find an appropriate facial expression from Ted to wiggle into this masterpiece.

‘IoT’ is predicted to encompass 6.4 billion devices by the end of 2016, and so there is a need for ‘investment in…bandwidth to cope with the information’ that each of these devices trades with. Maybe there’s not quite a necessity for such fervor as ‘The Internet of Things: it’s arrived and it’s eyeing your job‘ but it does pose the question: is Australia’s infrastructure up to the challenge?

The Australian‘s article on the topic suggests that while ‘Singapore, Barcelona and London’ are successfully ensuring they’re ready for the future of the internet, petty political squabbles and hindrances from both major parties have resulted in a lackluster NBN scheme. I guess only time, and the speed of NBN roll-out, will tell how able we will be to embrace the current ‘internet of things’ evolution. Personally, from my experience, my NBN connection is crippled most of the evening and the advertised speeds are rarely approached due to congestion, so the more people being connected isn’t going to be a boon for us existing NBN customers.

Social Media and Revolution

What follows is an old essay I did in my first year at UOW, debating the pros and cons of social media in such turbulent times as revolution. I stumbled across it while doing some digging and thought it wise to  pop it up on my blog for the sake of posterity 🙂


How does global media exacerbate conflicts and/or contribute to conflict resolution? Discuss with respect to a recent example such as the Iraq war.

This essay will aim to discuss the effects that both traditional media sources, such as newspapers, and alternative media like social networks have on ongoing protests, particularly those of the Arab Spring uprising in the 2011 period, and whether these mediums exacerbated the conflicts or made no impact. The focus on citizen revolutions as a ‘conflict’ instead of armed warfare means that a ‘resolution’ to the ‘conflict’ does not necessarily imply a positive outcome which one might argue it would in reference to a war, as revolutions don’t tend to just fizzle out and ‘resolve’ because of media reporting. Views such as that social media’s impact is felt most after initial protests instead of before, that the socio-political climate is always the primary propellant for change, and that online media triggered the first of major Egyptian protests as well as others will be explored in relation to the events of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions.

The curious view that social media becomes more popular after initial protests is one supported well by its proponents. Wolfsfeld et al states that the focus needs to be first and foremost held on the political situation, and we need to know what’s driving citizens to revolt. Whatever these factors are, they are driving unrest and smaller protests will form before social media is utilised to help organise and exacerbate a revolution (2013 p.116). Unsurprisingly, the more hardship faced by those in a country is contingent with the number of protests experienced in that country (Wolfsfeld et al. 2013, p.124). It’s argued that depending on the level of access a people have to an uncensored media, they might be more or less likely to have feelings of discontent towards a particular regime, so a uniform correlation between revolutionary actions and social media activity cannot be easily distinguished and must be looked at in a case-by-case fashion (Wolfsfeld et al. 2013, p. 119). The paper notes that, should social media be a significant force driving revolutionary protests, then surely registrations for Facebook during that early period would rise dramatically and continue until after protests had ceased? Instead, they found that the number of registrations for the Arab nations unexpectedly slowed in this preliminary phase before protests, and only rose again during their labelled ‘protest’ period from December 2010 – April 2011. This data indicates that social media didn’t do much to instigate conflict, but the rapid growth in registrations undeniably contributed to an exacerbation of the protests after they were underway (Wolfsfeld et al. 2013, p. 128).

Whereas the previous source doubted the effect of social media on the initial phase of the Arab Spring revolutions, Eltantawy & Wiest’s study claims that social media does play an integral part in ‘the birth and sustainability of the January 25 protests’ and so too the exacerbation of the Egyptian revolution (2011, p. 1212). The article points to the murder of a young Egyptian man by the name of Khaled Said who was targeted by the regime’s police force after he leaked a video of police officials participating in a drug deal as contention. His death at the hands of corrupt police officers caused pictures of his corpse and story to circulate across the Egyptian social networks accompanied by phrases like ‘We are all Khaled Said’ and this dissemination helped drive already existing dissent towards the Mubarak regime (Eltantawy & Wiest 2011, p. 1212). While factors such as corruption, poor wages, police brutality and unemployment were some of the key contributors to the revolution, alternative social media meant that these injustices could be quickly and widely spread among dissidents, circumventing state-controlled traditional outlets of information. A second argument raised by this source is that the global nature of social media means, despite being physically distant, activists can still be involved in revolution.

Omar Afifi, a former Egyptian police officer, wrote a book detailing the optimal ways to elude police brutality in the inevitable future uprising but it was quickly banned by the regime and Afifi was forced to seek asylum overseas due to ongoing threats to his safety. Despite his forced departure, Afifi was still able to help those in his home country that were rising by advising how best to act and present themselves during the protests, and how to counteract police weapons such as mace all via social networks like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter (Eltantawy & Wiest, 2011, p. 1213). In addition to support from those ousted from their country, the interconnected nature of the internet made it very easy to give voices of support to Egypt’s close neighbour Tunisia and support the citizen uprising there. The sharing of contact details, pictures, videos and other information gave Tunisian protestors support for what they were doing, which the Tunisians would reciprocate when the Egyptian people began major protests on 25 January (Eltantawy & Wiest 2011, pp. 1214 – 1215).
A final point made is that the government authorized internet blackout on 27th January 2011 wasn’t very effective, as the majority of previously potential protestors had already taken to the streets and become actively involved. Despite not being a key cause of revolution, the source sees the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution as a vitally important distribution tool because it, despite state-controlled media, enabled the arrangement and discussion of protests, provided a framework for the dissemination of vital information, as well as a platform for encouraging both protestors and to rally others in support (2011).

This third source again offers a different perspective. It compares the coverage of the protests in Egypt between a traditional news outlet (The New York Times), a NYT reporter’s Twitter feed, and the blog of ‘Global Voices’ which is a self-proclaimed ‘global community-based newsroom’ (Global Voices 2007). The source prefaces its findings by mentioning the well-known stance that traditional media takes on protest reporting, that of the ‘protest paradigm’ which focuses not on the actual motivations of the protestors, but the dramatic ‘spectacle’ of the event which takes away from the underlying purpose of any protest (Harlow & Johnson 2011, p. 1359). Paradoxically, the aim of a protest is to gather the government and public’s attention so as to bring about awareness and change. To achieve this, the media needs to widely distribute these principles, or the protestors will turn to alternative mediums such as online ‘social’ media. Harlow & Johnson make a concerted effort to evaluate whether or not online reporting has a similar ‘protest paradigm’ or has more of an opinionated, exacerbated style to it, and if so, why? To figure this out, they examined the portrayal of protestors, the level of information used provided by the protestors, and ultimately what media ‘frame’ is being used during the Egyptian revolution in each of the three mediums (Harlow & Johnson 2011, p. 1360). This analysis showed that Global Voices was far more likely to present things through an ‘injustice’ frame than either NYT (36%) or Nick Kristof’s Twitter (19%). Furthermore, NYT was, as predicted by the ‘protest paradigm’, much more likely (68%) to present its articles through a ‘spectacle’ framework than either Global Voices (49%) or the Twitter account (27%).
Global Voices, predictably, was most likely (84%) to present the protestors in a positive light due to their reporters’ close proximity to the conflict compared to either Twitter (17%) or the NYT (53%). Global Voices was similarly overwhelmingly reliant on citizen informants (90%) to tell their stories, where NYT preferred official sources (92%) with Twitter citing citizens 8% of the time and officials 18% (Harlow & Johnson 2011, pp. 1365 – 1366) .

From these figures we can discern that, while upholding journalistic integrity, the New York Times publication still adheres to the ‘protest paradigm’ by focusing too much on the inconsequential ‘spectacle’ and having little faith in first-hand citizen knowledge, choosing instead to rely on official channels. This approach isn’t necessarily inflammatory, but it does nothing to resolve conflict and instead arguably capitalizes off of it. The personal Twitter account didn’t fall into the ‘protest paradigm’ but, because of its character limit, is hard to discern anything other than its usefulness as a simple blogging tool with very little apparent bias by simply boiling down news into updates.  Global Voices, in the majority of its reports however, confidently stood on the side of the protestors. They avoided the ‘spectacle’ media frame and focused on the side of human suffering and the justification of protests, despite almost never including a chronological account of events so the reader can understand the reasons for revolution (Harlow & Johnson 2011, p. 1368).

Ultimately, we can conclude based on the assessed evidence that social media played an important role in the exacerbation of the Arab Spring revolutions. Despite whether that influence is felt before or after major protests begin its ability to spread information is an invaluable tool for the expression of a populace. We can also see observe that some of the tightknit nations like Tunisia and Egypt could use the internet to effectively provide support for one-another, bolstering resolve and conviction by thinking ‘if they did it, so can we’. Finally, we examined the statistical differences in media frames when comparing traditional legacy news to online, community-sourced reporting as well as the Twitter feed of a NYT writer. The takeaway being that the legacy media reported through a predictable ‘protest paradigm’ while the online news outlet was, for better or worse, more compassionate and sympathised with protestors due to a better understanding of local events.

 

References

Wolfsfeld, G., Segev, E., Sheafer, T., 2013, ‘Social media and the Arab Spring: politics comes first’, The International Journal of Press/Politics, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 115–137, accessed 14 September 2015,
http://hij.sagepub.com/content/18/2/115.short

Eltantawy, N., & Wiest, J., 2011, ‘The Arab Spring: social media in the Egyptian Revolution: reconsidering Resource Mobilization Theory’, International Journal of Communication, vol. 5, no. 18, accessed 2 November 2015,
http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/1242/597

Harlow, S., & Johnson, T., 2011, ‘The Arab Spring: overthrowing the Protest Paradigm? How the New York Times, Global Voices and Twitter covered the Egyptian Revolution’. International Journal of Communication, vol. 5, no. 16, accessed 2 November 2015,
http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/1239/611

Masouras, 2007, ‘…first global community-based newsroom’, Global Voices, Twitter description, unknown date, accessed 2 November 2015,