Current Affairs

The Bezos Future

Why Jeff Bezos must be stopped before it’s too late.

Unless you are Jeff Bezos, you should not be excited to live in a world designed and controlled by Jeff Bezos. And even if you are Jeff Bezos, be warned: it’s still not going to end well. If we peer into the Amazon future, if we try to imagine the endpoint of its unfolding structural logic, we can see that it isn’t going anyplace desirable. And unless we change its course, the Bezos Future will come, and it will be dystopian.

Amazon.com started as a bookseller, but for Bezos it was never really about books. While working at a hedge fund in the early 1990s, he realized how quickly the internet was growing, and knew that whoever acted quickly would be able to corner the market on online sales. Bezos started with books because there are so many different titles, meaning that it was easy for an online retailer to have a wider catalog than any physical bookstore. The aim, though, was to become an “everything” store, which is exactly what it now is. In fact, it’s more than a store: Amazon Web Services dominates cloud computing, and the company owns everything from Whole Foods to Zappos to Goodreads to its own award-winning movie and television studio. Amazon’s creepy “Ring” doorbell is expanding video surveillance across the country and it’s “Rekognition” facial detection software is coming soon to a police department near you. A New York Times investigation in Baltimore showed Amazon had infiltrated many aspects of the lives of people in one city. Merchants conduct their business there, people in need of work perform low-paid menial tasks for the company’s “Mechanical Turk” service, a major homebuilder is building houses rigged with Amazon Echo, public libraries have Audible audiobooks, Amazon lockers are at dozens of convenience stores, Amazon trucks buzz around all over the place from Amazon warehouses, and Amazon Pharmacy is now trying to disrupt the drug provision. As tech commentator Amy Webb put it, Amazon has become “the invisible infrastructure that powers our everyday lives… most of us don’t know 95 percent of what Amazon is doing.” It conducts itself, she says, more like a “nation-state” than a company. It is now the largest internet company by revenue, and growing constantly. 

What is the endgame here? Amazon appears to want to “win the market.” The goal is endless growth. Amazon everything. There should be no doubt that Amazon will eventually try to destroy public institutions like the United States Postal Service. In fact, the USPS should be an easy target. Amazon has, after all, a giant fleet of trucks and an efficient delivery infrastructure. How long will it be until it decides to let people send packages and letters through Amazon, at costs well below that of government mail? Amazon is ruthlessly predatory; it infamously referred internally to small book publishers as sickly “gazelles” that it (the corporate cheetah) was to devour, and it squeezes merchants for as much as it can. Because Amazon is the online marketplace, it operates almost like a privatized city, where it has absolute power to determine who gets to say and under what terms. 

Amazon can even dictate to local governments. When it was searching for a city to house its second headquarters, Amazon had hundreds of municipalities around the country to see who was most willing to rewrite their tax laws to exempt Amazon, and how many public assets (such as land) they would be willing to turn over to the company in exchange for the promise of jobs. It was pitiful to behold; struggling cities who would never be given the headquarters desperately groveling to Amazon, pledging that even with cash-strapped city budgets they would give Amazon as many handouts as it wanted. It was a particularly stark example of the competitive “race to the bottom” that so many local governments face: because they need the jobs, they have to outdo each other in handing the public treasury over to a private company. If Amazon said that in order for it to move to a city, it would need to have the power to choose its mayor, there are places that would seriously consider accepting. None of this makes cities better off in the aggregate: Amazon was going to build a headquarters and create the jobs somewhere. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others criticized the deal New York City had offered Amazon (with colossal tax “incentives,” i.e. exceptions to the rule of law), and the company decided to scrap its plans and leave, AOC was criticized for “killing jobs.” But she didn’t. Some jobs might not come to New York City in particular, but it didn’t make human beings in the aggregate any worse off. If cities cooperate instead of competing, they can dictate terms to Amazon rather than Amazon dictating terms to the government. As it stands, however, Amazon rules. 

“Nation-state” is a useful way to think about giant corporations, actually. Corporations are, in Elizabeth Anderson’s term,“private governments”: they are the rulers of the spaces they own, and because they are structured hierarchically, they operate as dictatorships. Everything Amazon does is outside of the sphere of democratic oversight. The more infrastructure we let them build, the more we come to rely on them in our day-to-day lives, the more we turn over to an institution that we do not really control. And someday, perhaps too late, we may find that it controls us, and that a revolution in “who governs” has occurred bit by bit over time. Unable to resist low prices and technological innovation, we installed its surveillance cameras in our house, relied upon it to deliver everything we need, and gave us jobs. Right now, Amazon is a dictatorship within a democracy. Someday the democracy may wither, leaving only the dictatorship. 

We know Jeff Bezos is not much of a believer in democratically-run institutions. Amazon treats low-level workers as fungible robotic parts, who exist more as data than as flesh-and-blood humans. You optimize the output of each unit, which means that workers in fulfillment and delivery positions are giving intense quotas. If they could do more, the quotas rise. If they drop below the quotas, they are fired via algorithm, with a system that “tracks the rates of each individual associate’s productivity… and automatically generates any warnings or terminations regarding quality or productivity without input from supervisors.” Of course, any attempts to form a union in order to negotiate about some of this are immediately crushed. The company culture is infamously stingy and punishing; staffers have to turn in their company backpacks if they ever quit, and in the early days Bezos nixed a proposal to pay for staff members’ bus passes because he thought it might incentivize them to leave at a reasonable hour. A 2015 New York Times investigation of white-collar workers found that they “are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are ‘unreasonably high.’” The company’s “internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses.”

All of this is done in the name of Amazon’s core value: “customer obsession.” Everything, supposedly, is about the customer: the prices are made as low as possible, the delivery as quick and seamless as possible, the recommendations as finely-tailored as possible. Amazon takes “the customer is king” to the next level, and justifies its inhumane work culture by pointing to the wondrous benefits delivered to people buying on Amazon. Indeed, because of its customer focus, Amazon is now the second-most “admired” company in the world (after Apple). People have good experiences using Amazon, even if those good experiences depend on an army of hidden laborers exhausting themselves. Notably, the original “mechanical turk” that Amazon’s menial-task service is named after was a fake chess-playing machine that appeared to be a technical marvel but was actually simply operated by a man squashed in a tiny box.

Amazon’s “customer obsession” is an irrational principle, and to the extent that people in the company actually believe in it (and I think many are indeed true believers), they should stop. If we think about the delivery of goods from the internet, and how that should optimally be organized, it makes no sense for the person receiving the goods to have their interests prioritized. The person driving the truck, the person packing the box, the person making the goods: their satisfaction deserves just as much “obsession.” In a rational society, “consumer” interests wouldn’t be given priority over worker interests, because workers and consumers are frequently the same people. Institutions (and people) that focus single-mindedly on one thing end up damaging countless other things that are also important. So, for example, we maximized economic growth but we accidentally committed ecocide in the process. Capitalistic institutions can be like the “paperclip maximizer”—the machine whose one mandate is to make paperclips, and which ends up turning the entire world into paperclips—because they are designed to pursue missions without regard to what the consequences of maximizing a single value are, whether that is profit-maximization or power-maximization or even Customer Satisfaction Maximization. Amazon would surely justify its extraction of city tax dollars by saying that it returns this money to Amazon customers in the form of lower prices—but there are values in the world beyond low prices. 

Now, one can doubt that Amazon cares soley about the best interests of the customer. If it did, it wouldn’t put sponsored products before highest-rated products. What the company cares about is its volume and power. As one former high-level employee put it, it was discomforting that “the consumer, who was after all supposed to be our god, the person whose ecstasy was our very reason for being,” was instead approached like “getting a cow to a milking stall and extracting as many pails as possible during each visit.” “Customer obsession” is a means toward Jeff Bezos becoming extremely rich and powerful, not the end in itself. 

But an interesting question is: for what ends is Jeff Bezos becoming extremely rich? Once you have ten billion dollars, you can do anything you want. There is almost nothing you cannot have. Bezos bought the largest private residence in Washington, D.C. (27,000 square feet). He bought the Washington Post. These were to him like pennies are to us. How much is enough? What is the mission? Is it just for Amazon to take over everything? Well, yes, that’s the goal. But Bezos has made it clear that he is doing it all in the service of something much larger, something almost completely bonkers: giant space colonies.

He is very open about this. He gives talks about it. He’s been obsessed with it since high school, when a local newspaper reported he wanted to “ get all people off the Earth and see it turned into a huge national park.” He says that establishing human colonies in space is “something we have to do” and describes it as his “most important work.” We’re going back to the moon, he says, “this time to stay.” He sells $1 billion in Amazon stock every year to fund a private space program, in the form of a company called Blue Origin. In lectures, Bezos insists that there is no alternative but to embrace his plan. His reasoning is simple: “The earth is finite, and if the world economy and population is to keep expanding, space is the only way to go.” In a lecture, Bezos says that “we have ever-increasing demand for energy,” and “will run out of energy on earth.” He asks: “What happens when unlimited demand meets finite resources? Rationing.” But, he says, “if we move out into the solar system, for all practical purposes, we have unlimited resources.” 

“Do we want stasis and rationing or do we want dynamism and growth? This is an easy choice. If we’re out in the solar system, we could have a trillion humans… a thousand Einsteins. This would be an incredible civilization.” 

Bezos says he has no idea how the colonies, these “manufactured worlds” with “artificial gravity,” will be built. But, he says, this is a job for future generations. His role is to build the “infrastructure” necessary to get it done. 

Art by Chris Duffy.

It all sounds completely demented, and makes Bezos something of a real-life Bond villain. For one thing, the whole premise is wrong: there’s no reason that endless growth in energy use needs to persist. Bezos recites the economics textbook dogma that human wants are “infinite,” but that doesn’t have to be true. Most of us want fairly basic things out of life, and it’s only the people like Bezos who want to accelerate consumption at all costs who make human life unsustainable. Bezos’ company is creating the very problem his space colonies are meant to solve; as Franklin Foer wrote in the Atlantic, “a reasonable debate about planetary future would at least question the wisdom of the same-day delivery of plastic tchotchkes made in China.” Bezos is actually strikingly unimaginative: since high school he has maintained a simplistic vision of a civilization where quantity is quality; a “trillion humans” is an amazing society, because of the sheer number of Einsteins it possesses. But why? Why is more better? Bezos explains that if we have to reduce our energy consumption, it will end our progress toward better and better things; in his view, your grandchildren will live “worse” lives if they consume less, which Bezos describes as “rationing.” He describes his project as one of saving the planet, which he calls a “gem.” Yet his vision for saving the planet does not involve changing the way we live, but fleeing and doing it elsewhere. “We have to go to space to save Earth,” he says.

This is dangerous madness. Bezos doesn’t have to think about the climate consequences of Amazon—he has donated money to climate causes, but Amazon has threatened to fire workers who pressure the company to do more on the issue. He sees himself, after all, as building the infrastructure we will need in order to flee the planet.

I am not quite sure how Bezos reconciles his missions; on the one hand, he sees himself as conducting a grand plan to move human beings to space, on the other, he sells books and kitchen appliances on the internet. I have a sense that he doesn’t, that the space thing is just a grand delusion used to avoid confronting the possibility that what he does is ultimately quite banal and he’s just a glorified postmaster. It must be hard having billions of dollars but no real understanding of what the good life is or how people achieve it. 

Unfortunately, though, Bezos is extremely powerful, and having someone that powerful and that delusional is alarming. His internal logic is that amassing endless power and wealth is objectively good, because it serves the Customer and the ultimate mission of fleeing the earth for space. So Amazon should do everything possible to avoid paying taxes, because taxes saved can go toward the all-important Mission. It should extort whatever it can get out of cities. It should try to take over the U.S. government. After all, if the public doesn’t share Bezos’ belief that we must urgently build the infrastructure to flee the earth, their will must be overridden.

When you are surrounded by yes-men—and when you’re a billionaire, you will be—you may not notice when you’ve drifted off into craziness. Bezos’ company is pathologically devoted to growth, even as he says that growth is destroying the world. He cannot and will not stop the company, so he has developed a crackpot plan to put a trillion people in space. Because he has power on an awesome scale, he will get to do many things that further this vision, even if they are a terrible use of human resources.

What if he did succeed in his space mission, though? What if the Bezos Future came about? It would be wretched. For one thing, it would be a dictatorship; Amazon is never going to be a democratic company, because democracy and efficiency are in tension with one another. Because Bezos doesn’t really care about people’s working lives, and sees it as ok to keep them in windowless warehouses packing endless boxes for hours and hours on end as fast as possible, life may be an endless circle of boxes being moved around the moon.

The socialist vision is quite different. Not “as many people as possible, as many products sold as possible.” We understand that if jobs are hard and endless, that’s a social failure. We want to reduce the workweek, give people the leisure to pursue things that truly make life good. Fleeing the earth is a social failure, too. Instead of resigning ourselves to having to live on the moon—I would stress, this is literally a thing Bezos thinks, lest you ever lapse into thinking that the extremely rich are sensible geniuses—let’s create a beautiful Earth together, one where work is as much of a pleasure as possible, consumption is not gratuitous but thoughtful, and we live sustainably valuing quality of life above volume of goods. This can be done. But to do it, we must ensure that people like Bezos are not given the power to shape the destiny of our species.

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