The first time I heard of Amazon was in grad school, in the late nineties. In a seminar, we were discussing the reading list, some of which couldn’t be accessed at the USC bookstore. One of my classmates, with a twinkle in his eye that I wasn’t sure how to interpret, pointed us to this new thing on the web. (It was new to us, anyway. The site had existed for a few years by then.)
It might’ve been a devilish twinkle, now that I think about it. To a book-addicted twentysomething on a teaching assistant’s budget, Amazon seemed heaven-sent. It wasn’t. Even the name was a fake-out. You’ve probably already used faux Amazon in some capacity several times today, but its namesake has been burning for decades, a canary in the climate-change coalmine that most of us have grown to ignore—at least in part because when we hear the word “Amazon,” disappearing rainforest is no longer the first thing we think of.
Should any company be that large, wealthy, and ubiquitous? Obviously not, Danny Caine persuasively answers in How to Resist Amazon and Why (just out from Microcosm Publishing). Caine owns The Raven, an indie bookstore in Kansas—exactly the sort of establishment Amazon seems engineered to destroy. But this only makes him “biased” if you think caring about your community is a bias. In engaging prose, he sets out a head-spinning list of Amazon's abuses—it turns out that stealing the name of an endangered planetary wonder is the least of it.
There’s the predatory pricing—a loss leader strategy (cheap goods, quickly delivered) that decimates small businesses, to the tune of at least one bookstore closure every week in 2020, a year in which book sales overall actually rose. This in turn obscures the company’s true calling, which is collecting data and selling related services, like cloud computing, with all the attendant messiness around user privacy. There’s the cavalier approach to employee safety, and the recklessness that enables core elements of the Amazon brand—overnight delivery and free shipping. There are the conflicts of interest—Amazon hosting a marketplace it also competes in. There are the counterfeit or hazardous products—because when you’re an “everything store,” some of what you sell is going to suck. And there are the usual afflictions of the corporate super-rich—the aversion to paying even modest taxes, the pushback against antitrust legislation.
Maybe more than all that, though, is the numbing familiarity. I had to work to remember when I first heard of Amazon, because it felt like I had never not heard of it. As Caine suggests, we’re constantly tempted to use it even if we know it’s a problem, because it’s so damn convenient. In a way, convenience itself is the product. Amazon is a lifestyle store as much as anything else, selling the dopamine hit of the best deal. Yet it’s also what capitalism has brought us to. As consumers we assume we need companies like this—monolithic, top-heavy, gig-economy companies—to survive in an objectified, overpriced world. But do we? Should we?
Maybe there’s no quick fix, but slow fixes are better than no fixes. I’ve put Caine’s book next to my laptop as a reminder to stop adding shit to my Amazon cart. You should read it and consider doing that too.