Me policing me in Broadway QFC...
Me policing me in Broadway QFC... Charles Mudede

The responses to my recent post about the new me-monitoring-me monitors (what I will always call them) installed at the QFC on Pike and Broadway, and also the QFC in the Broadway Market (a once architecturally respectable place), revealed that many who live in the neighborhoods and cities surrounding Seattle are long accustomed to this bizarre form of surveillance. It's now a normal part of the shopping experience at, apparently, Walmart and Fred Meyer. Worst of all, many thought that the me-monitoring-me monitors were not all different from the black en-globed or hidden security cameras. My impression is that this kind of mis-recognition—the me-monitoring-me monitors seen as unexceptional—made it possible to easily assimilate them.

This technology does not, in the minds of many, constitute a rupture in the policing of consumer spaces. Instead, it forms a smooth continuum that begins with the raw eyes of the shop owner and/or a loss prevention officer. There is an infestation of thieves in this bad old world of ours; they were raised by people no better than snakes and raccoons; their crimes take a big bite out of hard-earned profits; therefore, a businessperson is totally justified in adding animal (dog, human) and technological (cameras, screens, detectors) shoplifting checks to their total costs. Sounds reasonable enough. But me-monitoring-me monitors are doing something radically new. They are, in essence (and an essence which can only be revealed by more than a few moments thought), transferring the job of a loss prevention officer to the customer.

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I have written about self-checkout machines transferring the job of both a grocery clerk and bagger to the customer. And in this sense, they are not really robots. They are not like Rosie in The Jetsons—a machine that works for you. This, instead, is a technology that, weirdly, makes you work you. More amazing yet, the shopper must pay for this job (you are not rewarded in any way for all of this hard work). This is not universal progress as it is commonly understood; it is a one-way advancement—a machine that produces not just unpaid labor (slavery) but self-paying labor (the real future).

We must not disconnect this local technological development with those in the wider and higher parts of the economy. What else are massive tax breaks to corporations but a state or city or community buying jobs? This is what Amazon demanded of its HQ2 contestants. Pay us for our jobs! In the contemporary economic order, it is considered good business sense to spend a large amount of the public's purse on purchasing employment. And what's structuring the general economy is expressing itself locally in our supermarkets on Capital Hill. You enter these supermarkets and you become not only the clerk and the bagger, but also the loss prevention officer. You are buying these jobs.

This is the ultimate function of me-monitoring-me screens. It's not that someone is watching you—a camera can do that, and, to be effective, must preserve or add jobs to a business's costs. No, it's you seeing yourself. This yourself is not you as shopper, but you as a loss prevention officer. You the officer, watches you the shopper. And for no pay.