Amazon’s new Dash Button, which will allow shoppers to reorder frequently used domestic products like laundry detergent or paper towels with the click of a real-life button, is not a joke. Many people assumed it was, mostly because the announcement came the day before April Fool’s, but also because the idea seemed to poke fun at Amazon’s omnipresence, making it visibly manifest with little plastic one-click shopping buttons adhered to surfaces all over your home.
There was also something slightly off about the promotional video. It opens with a montage of repeated household tasks—squeezing a tube of moisturizer, running a coffee maker, microwaving a container of Easy Mac, starting a washing machine—that gets interrupted when a woman reaches for a coffee pod, only to discover that there are none left. She leans forward and exhales, resigned. It’s going to be a long day. But then, thanks to Dash, the montage starts up again, with those familiar Amazon boxes arriving continuously in the mail—and in them a supply of coffee, lotion, and macaroni and cheese for as many days as we may live to need them. “Don’t let running out ruin your rhythm,” a voiceover tells us.
As propaganda, the video seems more like a condemnation of consumption than a celebration it. All that stuff, the same stuff, used and discarded day after day. It’s the kind of montage that a movie director would use to show just how sad and soulless a character’s life was. And the idea of shopping buttons placed just within our reach conjures an uneasy image of our homes as giant Skinner boxes, and of us as rats pressing pleasure levers until we pass out from exhaustion. But according to Amazon, these products represent the actual rhythm of life, any interruption of which might lead not only to inconvenience but to the kind of coffee-deprived despair that we see when the woman realizes that she has run out of K-cups. That’s the real dystopia: not that our daily lives could be reduced to a state of constant shopping but that we might ever have to, even for a moment, stop shopping.
But what do I know? I don’t have kids. I’ve never bought thousands of diapers and yet still constantly needed more. Now there’s a Huggies button, and if it takes a drone army to get them where they need to go, then maybe that’s worth it, too. So far, other than coffee, Amazon appears to be steering clear of offering addictive products with the service. There is no Cheetos button. No Oreos button. No Knausgaard button. And the buttons are set up to place only one order at a time, no matter how many times you press them, which means that Fido or your five-year-old can’t order ten thousand rolls of paper towels when you’re not paying attention.
Dash fits squarely into the current age of smart-home technology, where you can tweet from your refrigerator and your sentient thermostat can help save the world. It is not simply a matter of practical efficiency but of a proactive, preëmptive way of living, in which inefficiency is the worst kind of waste. The way we manage our chores is a measure of our worthiness. No one wants to live in a stupid home. No one should have to fight with his spouse over who drank the last grapefruit soda. And only a chump would ever run out of toilet paper.
But what if there is actual value in running out of things? The sinking feeling that comes as you yank a garbage bag out of the box and meet no resistance from further reinforcements is also an opportunity to ask yourself all kinds of questions, from “Do I want to continue using this brand of bag?” to “Why in the hell am I producing so much trash?” The act of shopping—of leaving the house and going to a store, or, at the very least, of one-click ordering on the Amazon Web site—is a check against the inertia of consumption, not only in personal economic terms but in ethical ones as well. It is the chance to make a decision, a choice—even if that choice is simply to continue consuming. Look, we’re all going to keep using toothpaste, and the smarter consumer is the person who has a ten-pack of tubes from Costco in the closet. But shopping should make you feel bad, if only for a second. Pressing a little plastic button is too much fun.
Soon we won’t even have to hit a button. Amazon is also working with companies on devices that will be able to restock themselves. As the Wall Street Journal explained, “Whirlpool is working on a washer and dryer that anticipate when laundry supplies are running low so they can automatically order more detergent and dryer sheets.” Water purifiers could reorder their own filters; printers reorder their own ink. This is the dream of domestic life as a perfectly calibrated, largely automated system. But the doomsayer in me likes to imagine some coffee maker gone HAL 9000, making its own decisions about what kinds of coffee it thinks it should be brewing. Or a washing machine, haywire and alone in a basement somewhere, constantly reordering supplies for itself long after we’ve all been wiped off the Earth.