Exhibit A: Dash Button

Bruno Latour has famously argued that, ‘We have Never Been Modern,’ implying that what many perceive to be modern is in fact only a myth, in the sense that what is understood as modern is unattainable or unachievable [1]. From an ecological point of view, this is most pronounced with the decoupling of nature and society or nature and culture, where for centuries the role of nature has been disregarded in the context of progress and development.  The most recent example of this I have come across is the ‘Dash Button’ by Amazon. Though this product was announced two years ago on 31 March 2015 – leading many to believe it was an April Fool’s joke – it has just recently come to my attention, with the announcement of the inclusion of 20 new products available to purchase on the UK version of the site.

Source: Amazon.com

The product, available to paid-up member of the ‘Prime’ service consists of a physical, plastic, Wi-Fi enabled button instigates the purchase of a specific product from a range of household products sold by Amazon. When supplies are low the resident pushes the button and an order is automatically placed for Amazon to deliver this product. Sound straight-forward? It should do, as there is only a single button, which enables only one service. There is zero complexity built into this product. However, this hides the existing complexity involved in decision making when purchasing products.

When the button is pressed and an order placed, it is for a specified quantity. Consumers are tied into a particular brand and are given no information on the price (without consulting a mobile app). With a limited choice on offer, these buttons are clearly designed with humans who want to purchase brands that dominate the market and are relatively unconcerned with price fluctuation.

The buttons do not come disguised as smooth pebbles or other non-descript household ornaments, for which I am grateful, but they are an eyesore nonetheless. The buttons are emblazoned with the brand logo of the product in question. Aesthetically, a button ‘conveniently’ placed beside the toilet paper may be discrete, but when you add a button for soap, for shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, mouthwash, etc. the bathroom begins to look more and more like a control room. This is certainly at odds with notions of modern sophistication – perhaps a postmodern hybrid between a home and supermarket. The further out of sight they are placed, the further out of mind they become. Furthermore, there is always the potential for children or guests to play with the button out of curiosity, which could lead to unintended orders. Although there is the ability to cancel and return orders, the effort involved would contradicts the proposed efficiency of the button. The button also has a limited battery life and the AAA battery is not fitted to be easily replaced according to hacker Eric Caron [2].

As an aside, to borrow a analogy from Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s discussion of the film ‘Take Shelter,’ Berardi explores the practice of building a shelter in the context of impending apocalypse [3]. He argues that not only do people who build shelters submit themselves to the depression of impending doom, but more interesting, like the films protagonist, they are never at home near their shelter when the apocalypse comes. This anecdote may seem unrelated to the subject at hand, but it is a useful reminder of the limitations of intervention. While intervention can be made to alleviate future crises or labour, we are so often not in the right place or context at the right time to utilise our prior intervention. A person might push the dash button affixed to their washing machine when they run out of detergent, but they are just as likely to think of it while writing out their shopping list when they go to the supermarket, corner store or shop online. While the apostles of modernity in need of laundry powder will righteously pass by the detergent aisle, justifying their consumer loyalty to Amazon and press the hallowed button when they arrive home. The rest of us will be content with choosing our products in real life based on what we can afford and what we perceive to be least destructive to the natural environment.

The Dash Button, is superfluous and gimmicky. The petrochemical derived plastic used to construct it, and the battery used to power it are an unsustainable use of natural resources, providing no meaningful service to the users. The placing of branded paraphernalia in the home further reinforces the power of consumer culture, increasing passivity and reducing agency. The promotion of home deliveries of groceries is not a sustainable choice when compared to walking or cycling to a shop, or incorporating shopping into other essential journeys by motorised vehicle. Ultimately, Amazon have developed an unsustainable product that has no place in the Anthropocene of the present, past or future.

 

Cited Material:

[1] Latour, B. (2012). We have never been modern. Harvard University Press.

[2] Caron, E. (2016). Why I stopped hacking the Amazon Dash button and learned to solder. Online: https://medium.com/@ecaron/why-i-stopped-hacking-the-amazon-dash-button-and-learned-to-solder-84386a38bbd1

[3] Berardi, F. (2015). Heroes: Mass murder and suicide. Verso Books.

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