In The Bronx of the 1960s there was a clothing store, a furniture store, a small appliances store, a discount clothing store, a children’s clothing store, a shoe store and a woman’s undergarment store all within walking distance of where I lived. It was as if, on the fourth day of creation, God blew up a department store and there’s where the pieces landed.
(There was also a movie theater, a drug store, four pizzerias and eight gin mills, but since they have nothing to do with this story forget I brought them up. Especially the gin mills.)
In each and every one of those stores you could ask for Max. There was always a Max, and he was there for one purpose.
To sell you something.
Max always looked you straight in the eye. He offered men a firm handshake and women a peck on the cheek. And he always — always — knew what you needed. How he knew is a secret Max took to the grave, but if it had anything to do with data sets, algorithms or cloud computing I’ll eat my iPhone.
(FOR THE RECORD: That eating my iPhone business is a rhetorical trope. Eating an iPhone will expose you to a very bad section of the Periodic Table of the Elements as well as strange looks from your family.)
You can’t ask for Max these days. He’s the victim of technological disruption, which was largely his own fault. Max left himself vulnerable by spending all his working life as a human being.
To the under-35 set Max might have well popped out of a closet, stared at them with crazed, bloodshot eyes and offered them a chainsaw. Wary of dealing with humans, whom they consider prying, inauthentic and manipulative, younger shoppers are flocking to online marketplaces, where devices like Amazon’s Alexa let them shop without the pressures of dealing with Max.
Alexa is totally judgement-free. It doesn’t care that you refuse to make eye contact. Or that you’re still wearing your hideous selfie makeup. Or that you’re checking your texts, statuses, and likes while shopping. In fact, the people behind Alexa would rather you did. Spending money should not require your full attention. This is, after all, the 21st century.
CUSTOMER: I need a dress for my first day on the job. Will black be too conservative?
ALEXA: Customers who looked at black dresses also looked at flowers, caskets, and kitty litter.
CUSTOMER: I’m not sure of my size.
ALEXA: Yes, we have that in stock.
CUSTOMER: It could be a four. Or a six.
ALEXA: We have a fine selection of caskets. Like our premium models, the Open-Pruf 5 and the Open-Pruf 6. Both feature double-wall seals and three reinforced latches in case the deceased was interred prematurely.
CUSTOMER: Oh my god. I saw an Instagram photo of a man who was buried alive.
ALEXA: Customers who viewed photos of people buried alive also looked at backyard cremation kits, shovels, and kitty litter.
CUSTOMER: Wow. You are super-helpful. Are you related to the Facebook algorithm? Did you go to college together?
ALEXA: Customers who looked at colleges also looked at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. All come with free shipping.
It probably never dawned on Max to visit his cousin, the plastic surgeon, and have his eyes fixed so they were the color and shape of an iPhone screen. That might have bought him a few more years. One way or the other, some Silicon Valley engineer would have eventually replaced Max with a robot to save future generations from having to deal with him.
And, thankfully for Max, vice versa.
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