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In what way might supermarkets harm local communities with technology?

Perhaps one of the most important issues surrounding any development of business and trade is that of the increasing growth and power of supermarkets. With their increasing stranglehold over more and more products they are fast becoming the new super powers, the particular area that we shall be concentrating on is the technological aspect. With the ever increasingly popular role of the Internet and computer technology we have witnessed a new trend in consumption, one that has access to a vast database of information about its customers. What will be discussed over the course of this debate is the effects and harm that supermarkets can do to communities with technology. In order to look into this we will need to take in to account a wide number of perspectives such as the different ways in which a corporate company can invade our public lives and how our privacy is intruded by certain actions that these businesses take. By looking at the much harm that can be perpetrated through the use of loyalty cards and other devices we can look at the harm done to aspects of the community such as our work places, personal spaces and local community spaces. With specific reference to digital spaces we should come to some interesting findings about how supermarkets can harm local communities with technology. To give the points raised in the discussion some more validity we shall look at the work of key theorists in this specific area, by doing this it will enable us to put the question in to a wider sociological context enabling us to understand it in relation to our society and how it operates historically in comparison to now. In order to assess our findings we will recap over the main issues that have come to light over the course of the debate and hopefully come to some sort of conclusion over the exact harm that supermarket can do to communities.

First of all we have to understand the extent and power of supermarkets. We can do this by simply looking at our streets and see how many old bakeries and fruit and vegetable shops still exist compared to 20 years ago. The supermarket has taken over many aspects of trade and has continually out priced local businesses to continue to succeed and prosper maintaining huge profits. With the introduction of technology we face a new morality over the harm done to local communities. In some regards because of the nature of this technology it is somewhat hard to quantify the exact extent of the damage done. Lyon (2001.p17) discusses the term ''co-presence'' and how the society we live in now doesn't revolve around this particular action. According to Lyon (2001) 'co-presence' is when our physical bodies have been available to each other for numerous interactions, trade and social exchange. A way of living that is becoming less prevalent no thanks to the numerous ways supermarkets have embodied face-less interaction. Such things as internet shopping make it easier for people to stay within the confines of their own home whilst purchasing food and goods to live on. Whilst this technology encourages alienation and less integration there is some argument to suggest that this technology does some good as well. For instance without such an option many elderly and disabled people would struggle to cope with their weekly shopping, so there is some case to say that internet shopping does more good than harm. Or are they just taking advantage of a certain vulnerable area of the market?

Another aspect of technological harm that may be caused by supermarkets is that of the invasion of digital space. Something that Poteet (2004) talks about is how peoples' personal lives are affected by the continuous bombardment of Spam emails in our digital mailbox, which can in turn lead to viruses on our computers causing massive inconvenience to individuals. This is something that can quite easily be traced back to businesses and supermarkets because these corporations sell our details on to the third parties to promote other products and offers. Rheingold (1993) raises the same issue where other businesses know about individuals' actions, personal details and habits due to third parties obtaining them without full trust. It is true that whenever you are asked to give your details by supermarkets for loyalty cards for example it is usually written in small print where they ask you if you would like your details to be passed on or not. This kind of activity can harm work places as well as immediate digital spaces within our homes. Lyon (2001.) also discussed this kind of harm where the boundaries of 'public' and 'private' and becoming less clear. In fact he states that ''The fiction that the inside of a home is a haven from outside demands and pressures is subverted by the ways in which electronic devices take data in and out of the house, sometimes without our knowledge.'' (Lyon.2001.p17). This shows how our physical space is not safe from harm, something that can be exploited by supermarkets and any other information systems that have the will and capability to invade such space.

To understand the harm that supermarkets do to local communities we have to understand their motivation for wanting to keep their customers shopping in the same place every week and what they do to enable this. Boni (2000) argues that knowledge is power and the more that businesses and supermarkets know about an individual and the way they consume then they can target them with specific products. A good example of this is how supermarkets place products next to each other to increase sales and on their internet sites show related products or show recommendations for customers based on previous purchases. This often or not results in people buying things that they didn't originally set out to purchase and therefore spend more money than anticipated. The same kind of result can be seen with the use of loyalty cards where customers are rewarded with an accumulation of points that they can spend in the store. This has two harmful effects on a local community; firstly it stops people from shopping elsewhere causing other more personalised local businesses to suffer and secondly it entices people to spend more money than they usually would within that supermarket just to gain the points that are rewarded for shopping there. Perhaps the biggest monopoly today in our society is that of the nectar card which incorporates the largest businesses from a wider range of consumer patterns gaining a bigger stronghold over the market. In order to gain a full picture we need to separate the motivations of big corporations and supermarkets from previous businesses in times gone past. These aren't charities and are run simply by profitable motivation, any financial monitoring or surveillance of our consumer actions happens because they need to find ways to make the most money. You could say it is a false rapport. The sociology of Tonnies (2003) paid particular attention to the differences between small-interrelated communities where people interacted for a number of self-less purposes and the profit driven mass-produced type of society that we live in today. The whole philosophy of the supermarket embodies the harm drawn out in Tonnies' (2003) work. With supermarkets there is no development of trust there might have been in traditional communities where shop keepers knew their customers by their first name and totalled up the cost of the items in their head. Taking in to consideration the introduction of tills and chip and pin is there an argument to suggest that supermarkets are also partly responsible for people's mental arithmetic suffering? This harm to interpersonal relationships can greatly affect the community as people become less integrated and are less familiar with the person who supplies them with their products.

We also have to look at certain more obvious technologies such as the introduction of self-service machines. The harm done to the local community by the implementation of these is blatant as they are replacing the skills of people and ensures that less and less people are employed within the area concerned. This modern day mechanisation harms communities because there is less scope for providing more employment opportunities. This type of technology can only be a one-way flow to a society where many more jobs are lost due to further supermarket technology being introduced. Williams (2004) talks of digital vandalism and how cyber communities suffer the same type of crimes that occur in real life, in relation to supermarkets you can see how you need to be technologically prolific in order to defend yourself against such things as pop up ads. If a person is uneducated in certain aspects of technology such as the internet, especially people of older generations then they may well find themselves in territory they don't want to be in downloading products or ending up within other web intrusions.

In conclusion we can clearly see that the issue of supermarkets causing harm to local communities with technology raises many important questions. What we have seen is that there are two types of community that can be effected; firstly the cyber community and secondly the physical community with both being impacted on through corporate activities. We have seen the implications of spamming and digital vandalism and also the impacts of the introduction of loyalty cards and self serve machines. What we need to ask ourselves now is this way of consuming a problem or is it just the way forward? It is a relatively new area of debate and it may not be until a few years down the line we start to understand the true nature of the harm done to communities by supermarkets. Another issue is the definition of community; this is because what may be local for some people may not be local for others. An example of this is the harm done to local communities in Africa through the importation of products such as mange tout where workers undoubtedly get an unfair deal in comparison to their efforts in their labour. This kind of exploitation and harm done to other communities elsewhere in the world also has to be considered when debating the harm done. It is important to look at these supermarkets as multi national companies and any harm done is far from local and revolving around one single issue but instead reaches far and wide encompassing a number of other interrelated problems. It is also an area of constant flux and any harm done to local communities may be repaired by the next action that the corporation may take in its progress within society. If this issue was to be researched in the future then it may be best served with a longitudinal study and also look in to individual's accounts and experiences of being harmed or having their privacy invaded by supermarket technology. 

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