Do We Really Need the Future “convenient store”? and What Does Humanities and Social Sciences Has To Say About It

I live in Japan and research the effect English has on Japanese culture. I usually try to dodge the bullet that is called “Japanese TV,” but when I have to watch it (no choice), it teaches me a lot, not about the world or anything too complicated, but about Japanese culture (though not the way one should expect).

They always have some special on TV, so the one on new year was about inventions and the future. It dealt with various fields, but the one I watched was about the “convenience store of the future.” They showed the evolution of the cashier since everything was done manually until the bar-code scanner. Then they showed the viewers the future, as it is being designed in the R&D section at “Lawson.” In the future, you might have guessed; everything will be automatic. You will put all the products in a basket, put the basket on a designated space, and then automatically the basket will be inserted into a machine. The machine will identify and scan all the products, and give the total sum the customer have to pay. After the payment is complete, everything will already be inserted into a bag for the customer. So only have to take the bag and leave.

Now, the superficial thinking is “how cool” and how convenient. The second or the third (or fifth) thought must be “why do we need this? Why do we need to make things so trivial MORE efficient and straightforward? I can understand when someone wants to create a better metal; there is a need to consider the process and find ways to make it better and efficient. However, why does this thinking is diffusing into spheres that don’t need it? Why does it matter if a person needs to put the groceries in the bag or a machine?

In my neighborhood back home, the guy who ran the mini-market still works as he worked back in the 70s. No one has ever complained about it. Even though sometimes people get the feeling that he “invents” prices because there is no way he remembers everything by heart. On the contrary, it felt warm and personal. He ignores debts of poor customers and gives food for free to people in need. He has donation boxes all over the place and he is always cheerful and nice. His mini-market act as a center of the neighborhood, when people meet they can have their “gossip” quota filled up. We will lose all this Value if it will be done by machines. This value is transparent to way the market operates and values things. This is important, and this will go away by the same people who argue that “it will make our live easier”. Who made you in charge of our lives?

This “Fordism” idea, which I guess came from the famous pin factory by Adam Smith, is to make everything simpler and more efficient in increasing profits. But this comes at a price. As Marx argued, it alienates the workers from the creation (production) process, and well, to put it bluntly, it’s tedious and degrading human beings. The market that puts profits on top of everything pushes business to find ways to make everything cheaper and faster. So, if they can save money on workers, great. Machines are better than humans in many things, and the more technology is moving forward, machines and robots come on top in more areas of life.

So many starts to be terrified of the day when all the cars will drive by themselves. How can we find to all those people new jobs? Will the market create them? Well, the way the car replaced the horses, is not the same as autonomous cars replace drivers. People had to “drive” horses, so the “tool” just changed. Now we don’t need drivers at all. And maybe we won’t even need people to take care of the cars. About driving, due to the number of casualties caused by human error, It’s inevitable. But, and that is a BIG but, why do we need to replace cashiers? No idea. Nobody stops to think about it; they only think in the manner the market has molded them to think in.

Humanities and social sciences are free from this “market” thinking and free to say “why do we need this?”. That is why Humanities matters, though those fields usually regarded poorly. People at the top of the market and engineers might come with good ideas, but only if you measure them in the way the market does. But, when you think outside of the box, sometimes those ideas are just plainly stupid. I believe that these people believe that those things will make our lives better. But, they lack the tools to critically think about the way those things will affect our society. Because while they can program, they have ZERO understanding of social sciences, history, and humanities. Sadly they are entirely ignorant of this fact. It is sad to see how some smart people, who specialize in a certain field in science, like computer science, fail to see that they are not specialized, and have no idea what so ever, about our society. If someone reads newspapers, it doesn’t mean he is an expert on politics. If someone is a part of our society, it doesn’t mean he is an expert on it, or has a better understanding over people who dedicate their lives to research it. When technocrats will be honest enough to realize that, we, society, might have a chance. More technology won’t save us from problems technology has created. Only humans can deal with and heal our society. And the people to do it are scholars, not technocrats.

There is more to say about this, but I’ll leave that to next time.
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