The future is apparently upon us.
It’s true that we don’t yet have flying cars, cities built on clouds or Back-to-the-Future-style hover boards.
But we are on the verge of having self-driving cars. And we already have telephones with more computing power than the system that successfully landed men on the moon.
And now, thanks to retail giant Amazon, we will soon have “smart” grocery stores — stores that operate entirely without cashiers.
Don’t worry — that doesn’t mean consumers will be lined up for their turn at a self-checkout stand. As it turns out, the new Amazon grocery store does away with those as well. In fact, there is no checkout process at all.
When you walk into the store, you call up your Amazon Go app on your smartphone and hold it up to a scanner. A gate opens and you proceed to take whatever you like off the shelves and then walk out. The items selected will be automatically charged to your Amazon account.
Behind the scenes, the store is a complicated mass of tracking devices, algorithms, data collection and old-fashioned surveillance — but for the consumer it is a huge step toward an even more convenient shopping experience.
The latest innovation from Amazon is technologically impressive. But, best of all, it is entirely focused on making life easier for consumers.
Well, actually it is focused on creating higher profits and expanding Amazon’s brand among the public — but customer satisfaction is a necessary component of achieving those goals.
Amazon’s success in this regard will transform the way Americans expect to shop in future years. Other brick-and-mortar retailers, such as Sam’s Club, are on the same road — making the holiday rush at the mall less about waiting in lines, and more about getting in and out of the department store with little or no hassle.
After all, if it works for Amazon and Sam’s Club, it won’t be long before the technology is affordable enough for even small businesses.
That is the beauty of innovation. It is contagious. It is also a hallmark of free-market capitalism: consumer needs, desires and concerns drive the market.
Consider the evolution of Amazon over the last 20 years. Starting as nothing more than an online book retailer, the company is now a world-wide retail juggernaut. It is in vigorous and innovative competition with Netflix and Hulu (backed by Disney, Time Warner and Fox) — streaming movies, music and television shows online. It has amassed an incredible distribution network for its products, ensuring that “same-day shipping” soon be standard practice. It has even created a grocery delivery service for certain regions.
In fact the tech sector in general — being relatively free from government interference — has thrust us into an awe-inspiring world of innovation.
Now, consider the utter lack of such progress in the public sector.
The DMV, for example — aside from texting the next person in line, rather than shouting for a number over a megaphone — remains pretty much the same dreary experience it has always been.
Public schools, while using iPads and computers instead of slide-rules and typewriters, still operate basically the same as they have for the last half century.
And just last year the Internal Revenue Service — arguably the least customer-friendly operation under government’s control — spent millions of dollars to upgrade computers to an operating system that was over 6 years old, and on the verge of being obsolete.
Clearly, innovative consumer-driven solutions are not a mainstay among government agencies. It’s no wonder then that industries heavily controlled by government diktats are equally unresponsive to changing consumer needs.
Health insurance, for example, is so micromanaged by the same bureaucratic machine that runs the IRS, it is unsurprising that customer satisfaction is largely ignored. Where are the Uber-style apps for connecting patients with qualified physicians? Where is the breakneck innovations we’ve seen in other industries, such as technology or automotive?
Just as innovation is contagious, so too are the stagnating effects of government.
After all, regulations and rules are imposed by government for all kinds of reasons: safety, consumer and environmental protections, to be sure — but also to protect entrenched interests from competition, to hobble innovation and to preserve state and local government employment.
What regulations regularly ignore are consumers’ wants — the very force spurring the age of innovation we’re currently enjoying. After all, regulations aren’t designed to create profits. They’re designed specifically to restrict corporate and individual behavior.
As Amazon’s leap into the future demonstrates, a free-market fuels progress. Isn’t it about time government let the rest of the economy catch up?
Michael Schaus is communications director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.