That Short, Meaningless Conversation You Have with a Cashier Could be Saving Your Life

  The internet has conditioned us to short news cycles, so there is a certain nostalgia to seeing last Friday’s Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report of tumbling Kroger shares and mention in that article of similar pressure on other grocery chains, including Whole Foods. Of course, within hours, Amazon announced that it would offer $13.7 billion for the grocery giant.

Amazon is already beta testing its own version of a grocery store in Seattle. The model, promoted in this video, logs customers in as they enter, and then records each item that a customer takes as s/he exits. The process eschews human interaction, which is roughly perfect for a society in which the 1990s television show Friends could never be set (in a recent interview, actress Jennifer Aniston mused that vast portions of the show that revolved around coffee shop conversations would never exist in a world in which most customers have their noses buried in their phones). And, yet, as this report demonstrates, the rise of decreasing interaction could have deleterious impacts on public health: citing social isolation borne of on-line activities, the video comments that loneliness increases mortality risks by 26 percent, and surmises “that short, meaningless conversation you have with a local cashier could be saving your life.” Whether Amazon intends to transition Whole Foods to an Amazon Go-type experience remains to be seen, though Forbes warns that the deal could have adverse impacts on entry level jobs and efforts to increase the higher minimum wage.

Groceries are not the only industries poised for change. As the WSJ reported Kroger earnings, it noted that “on-line merchants, discounters and meal-kit delivery systems” are all taking a toll on traditional supermarket earnings. And, in another recent report, a large hotel magnate predicted that the impacts of Airbnb will eventually hit the luxury hotel industry. Disruptive technologies tend to have ripple effects.

But, threats are also opportunities, and the distinction need not be drawn on different sides of a fence. In an insightful interview published yesterday, Arun Sundararajan predicted that healthcare will be “Uberized.” He explained, “A whole host of noncritical services – not things like open heart surgery but things like I cut my finger cooking and I need someone to stitch it up for me – can be platform-mediated. You find a registered nurse in your neighborhood. You don’t actually go to an emergency room for a noncritical thing. You instead find a platform-mediated solution.”

Sundararajan also notes that the interface will ultimately matter more than the brand, and that top executives will become even more critical as the “complexity of the mesh of resources” that needs to be managed increases.

For rural operators, these constructs present new (or, perhaps not-so-new) perspectives with which to view the role of a local technology company: in some respects, the need for regular human intervention may decline, but the quality, depth and impact of personal interactions are poised to increase.

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