#134: Shoplifters of the World Unite

A few months ago, @turtlekiosk tweeted an idea that I keep thinking about: “In the future shoplifting won’t matter, not because loss prevention or surveillance will be really good but because everything will require a subscription service that subsidizes the price of the thing you stole.” It’s not so difficult to imagine a scenario in which some version of an Amazon Prime subscription turns Whole Foods into the supermarket equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet, with a monthly or annual price calculated based on how much an average customer (or even a specific individual) might realistically carry out of the store—the formerly opposite acts of shopping and shoplifting converging upon the same process. That isn’t such a departure from the present-day flow of CVS self-checkout, made possible by a dystopian tradeoff between the increased probability of theft and the reduced labor costs that offset those losses. None of this should really bother me—I don’t shoplift—yet it unsettles me in a more abstract way, as a restructuring of the world that offers us complete freedom within an increasingly constrained and controlled space, where transgression is impossible as well as unimaginable.

The subscription model seems to be the essential mechanism for extending that logic across more unclaimed territory, and it has flourished in digital space during the past decade, with Amazon promising to map it back onto physical goods. Observe how “stealing” music via peer-to-peer filesharing evolved into legitimized streaming on platforms like Spotify, whose abundance dwarfs that of any record collection so completely that $9.99 a month feels effectively free while erasing the distinction between owning media and just having access to it. As in the above analogy, we enjoy so much freedom within a benevolent enclosure that we never even notice its walls (the same way we disregard privacy because we have nothing to hide). Bad behavior thus transforms into good behavior without demanding any change in our attitudes as users. Subscriptions are interesting now because they seem to be growing as a share of our total expenses: Amazon Prime shifts some of our dollars away from distinct purchases and toward its $99 annual fee, while Uber and Lyft offer their own monthly subscriptions to defray the price of individual rides. And of course, the non-rivalrous nature of digital goods makes them especially well-suited for subscription-based consumption, even as media companies like Disney attempt to simulate the scarcity of would-be theatrical releases via expensive a la carte consumption.

As the supermarket thought experiment above suggests, the biggest obstacle to realizing a fully subscription-based future is mapping it back onto the rivalrous goods of meatspace. Chenoe Hart has posited a world in which increasingly-efficient supply chains could streamline the ordering, delivery, and returning of merchandise to a point where consumers effectively “stream” physical objects rather than owning them and every possession become as anachronistic as a shelf of CDs: “The more fully shipping logistics can be automated, the more delivery boxes can become like digital files. Automated circulation of objects with robots could make accessing them similar to downloads.” Meanwhile, if Amazon continues expanding its reach into more industries and more facets of life, such as education and health care, that raises the hypothetical possibility of a single annual subscription for all of life, a Prime membership that covers rent, utilities, tuition, entertainment, and everything else one would ever buy. What would the AmazonBasics version of college look like? Such a monolithic outcome would resemble a Soviet planned economy more than any Jeff Bezos simp would admit (replete with a lack of employment opportunities anywhere but Amazon), although by the time it arrived we’d probably have learned to welcome it. As for the social safety net those economies historically provided: Who knows, maybe Amazon would offer a tipping option?

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