Amazon’s Convenient Authoritarianism

Theo Wayt
The Alexa family on-sale at Whole Foods.

As I visit the Amazon homepage, I am introduced to the “all-new members of the Alexa family,” devices in an expanding line of in-home “personal assistants.” This “family” of cylindrical speakers, addressed as the friendly, feminine Alexa, provides a myriad of services for my “smart home.” They are voice-activated, listening at all times and responding only when called. Alexa can play music, adjust the temperature of my home, search for nearby restaurants and more. “She” is far from Amazon’s first incursion into the home space, but is perhaps the most well-known.

Another of Amazon’s devices, the Dash Button, provides me with additional in-home convenience. Sometimes, when I want a certain product, I go to the Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market, where I recently spotted members of the Alexa family on-sale as the “Farm Fresh Pick of the Season.” But I don’t want to leave my house, and I don’t even want to log onto the Amazon website. Instead, I use one of my Dash Buttons. When pressed, my Dash Button automatically charges my credit-card and orders the respective preprogrammed item. Out of cereal? I don’t have to consider my options or comparison-shop. If I press the button next to the empty box, Amazon takes care of everything else.

Franco Berardi writes that the origin of power is “the insertion of automated selections into the social vibration.” Is this not what Amazon seeks with products like these? Both in the form of the Dash Button which will, of course, purchase its preprogrammed product exclusively from Amazon, and in Alexa, whose amicable “personality” obscures a technical series of preprogrammed responses and carefully-limited search parameters. Amazon devices, seamlessly integrated into the home, strictly limit consumer choice in the friendly guise of convenience. In the words of writer Adam Greenfield, “the aim of devices like the Dash Button is to permit the user to accomplish commercial transactions as nearly as possible without the intercession of conscious thought; even the few moments of thought involved in tapping out commands on the touchscreen of a phone.”

This 21st century form of centralized control is coming not from governments, but from private companies like Amazon, which aims in its mission statement to be “earth’s most consumer-centric company.” Consumer convenience, it seems, is the most effective form of control. Amazon is aiming for an unconventional type of internet-age monopoly — it does not aspire to be the exclusive controller of a certain industry, but the lens through which the consumer sees all industries.

But perhaps governments will provide the necessary oversight. This seems increasingly unlikely. The federal government uses Amazon’s cloud computing services for sensitive defense and intelligence information, and Amazon’s plans for a second headquarters have led dozens of cities to bend over backwards for the possibility of 50,000 new jobs. In a recently-released video, the mayor of Frisco, Texas, after brandishing an Amazon box in front of city hall, asks his Alexa unit where Amazon should build its new headquarters. She answers, “Hm, in Frisco, Texas.” Business leaders in Tuscon, Arizona have tried to mail CEO Jeff Bezos a 21-foot cactus. “God Bless Amazon,” unabashedly declares New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, even though he once fought Walmart’s expansion into the five boroughs based on a vicious union-busting history strangely similar to that of Amazon. Power has shifted — Amazon is no longer begging governments for less regulation and fewer taxes. Governments are now, almost pitifully, begging Amazon for jobs.

Though our government has many problems, at least elected officials bear some sort of formal responsibility to their constituents if they want to be reelected. Amazon, however, has no stake in the greater good. They court us in a variety of ways — friendly personal assistants, unrivaled convenience, promises of job growth — but they owe us nothing. We cannot sacrifice our autonomy in the name of comfort. Instead, we must patronize locally-owned businesses, support unionized job growth and, above all, think before we buy.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. A version of this appeared in the Monday, Oct.2 print edition. Email Theo Wayt at [email protected]

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