The Anti-Dystopians' Guide to Amazon
Everything you ever wanted to know about Amazon
Happy Monday, and welcome to another episode of the Anti-Dystopians! In our very first “The Anti-Dystopians’ Guide to . . .” Rowena Squires, an ancient historian and self-proclaimed luddite, asked me everything you ever wanted to know about Amazon. How did Amazon go from online bookstore to commercial empire? Is Amazon Alexa really recording everything you say? How was AWS cloud computing invented? And why is the Library of Alexandria such a good origin story for the Amazon Alexa?
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The Anti-Dystopians Reading Guide to Amazon
Long-reads on the history of Amazon
Business reporter Brad Stone wrote the literal book(s) on Amazon, which do a pretty good job at documenting the rise and reach of the company, first with his 2013 book “The Everything Store” and the 2020 follow-up “Amazon Unbound”
Alec MacGillis’s book “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America” documents the affect of Amazon on communities across the US, and is really, really excellent at weaving in local history, personal story and wider historical trends
If you are a true Amazon nerd, the US House Judiciary Report on Monopolies does a really excellent job at providing an overview of many of the issues around Amazon (no doubt because it was co-authored by Lina Khan). You can scroll to the sub-sections about Amazon, rather than reading all 500+ pages
Franklin Foer’s deep-dive into Jeff Bezos’s brain in the Atlantic, featuring one of my favorite quotes ever “If Marxist revolutionaries ever seized power in the United States, they could nationalize Amazon and call it a day.”
Charles Duhigg’s “Is Amazon Unstoppable?” (which came out at about the same time as Foer’s piece) is also an excellent long-read on Amazon
Amazon and your data
It’s under-appreciated how much data Amazon collects on you. As one former Amazon employee said: "Amazon is first and foremost a data company, they just happen to use it to sell stuff.”
If you want to request your own data dossier from Amazon, go here.
Reveal News and Wired magazine did an excellent investigation into Amazon’s data practices (spoiler alert: they are bad), the data it collects on users and the company’s issues with keeping it all secure. This comes after an in-depth Politico investigation into data security at Amazon.
Reuters journalists did a long-read investigation into how Amazon, helped by former Obama/Biden aide Jay Carney, has lobbied against privacy bills. They also wrote an accompanying article about what they found in their Amazon dossiers, including sensitive recordings of children and religious practice.
As Bloomberg reports, human Amazon workers are listening to your Amazon Alexa recordings (and sometimes hear disturbing or distressing things). For comparison, Michael Veale and others wrote about data protection by design and data subject rights vis-a-vis Apple and Siri
Lauren Bridges (who will be on a future episode of the Anti-Dystopians!) wrote about how Amazon Ring is one of the largest civilian surveillance networks , as well as an academic article about Amazon Ring’s surveillant assemblage.
Buzzfeed news reports on how Amazon Ring partners with police departments, and Vice reveals Amazon coaches cops on how to obtain surveillance footage without a warrant.
Amazon is also trying to get into health data, with reports emerging of health research labs in the company. (Friend of the show Stefanie Felsberger has something to say about corporations collecting sensitive health data . . .)
Amazon and the AWS Cloud
Wired has a quick read on how Amazon “invented” the cloud computing industry as we know it.
AWS dominates both public and government cloud computing market, with an estimated 6,500 government agencies using AWS, including NASA and the CIA.
ProPublica has a long-read investigation into AWS and the US Department of Defense’s $10 billion contract for the JEDI Cloud, which we also discussed at length in the Anti-Dystopians podcast “Biden and Big Tech.”
I first clocked onto how dominant AWS was with this article about a tech journalist who tried to cut the Big Five tech giants from her life, and found it was literally impossible not to connect to AWS Cloud.
Periodically, you can see how much AWS undergirds the infrastructure of the internet when it goes out, or prevents other platforms from using its services, such as when AWS banned Parler after the Jan 6 attack.
Amazon, along with other tech giants, is also getting into underseas cable construction and ownership.
Also interesting, hackers used AWS in the Solar Winds attack, although Amazon continues to point out that it itself was not hacked nor infected with malware.
Finally, Logic magazine has an interview with an anonymous Amazonian, who discusses the AWS cloud.
Really fantastic reporting in this Verge article “Prime and Punishment: dirty dealing in the Amazon marketplace” on the quasi-judicial system that has emerged to deal with the rules, regulations and appeals processes on Amazon marketplace
If you want a quick-read on the anti-monopoly concerns surrounding Amazon, I did a tl;dr version of the House Judiciary report on digital monopolies.
If you like legal long-reads, you can read Lina Khan (now the FTC chair)’s incredible “The Amazon Anti-Trust Paradox”, which is credited with kickstarting and framing many of the current anti-monopoly concerns around Amazon. For more on Lina Khan, and the back-story of the House Judiciary report, check out this Protocol article.
The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which is a fantastic organization, has a report on how Amazon uses its position as the dominant market platform (Amazon controls about 65 to 70% of all U.S. online marketplace sales) against small businesses that rely on it.
Wall Street Journal reports that certain suppliers are asked to give Amazon the right to buy shares at potentially lower-than-market rates as part of their contract
Even though it pays very little in tax, Amazon is making big bucks in government and public sector purchasing, as ILSR reports
Amazon showing off its market dominance by playing corporate chicken with the credit card companies
Frank Pasquale, author of the excellent book “Black Box Algorithms”, has some thoughts on how digital firms will displace government roles making citizens subject to corporate, rather than democratic, control.
Maha Atal, who was on a previous episode of the Anti-Dystopians, discusses the “Janus Faces of Silicon Valley” businesses. Also, Joshua Fairfield has a very interesting book “Owned” about property and privacy in the digital age (including Smart cars that turn off when you miss a payment).
Amazon and labor violations
There is seemingly no end to the reporting on the poor conditions of Amazon’s most precarious workers . . .
Amazon is notoriously anti-union, and as Lauren Kaori Gurley reported at Vice’s Motherboard, has literally hired the Pinkertons (the original strike busters) to spy on warehouse workers and monitor labor unions and activists.
Some of the best reporting on Amazon warehouse workers and union drives has been by Kaori Gurley, such as this recent article “‘You Want Me to Die So You Can Get Your Slippers?’ Amazon Workers Say They’re Pressured to Work in Dangerous Weather.”
Kim Kelly wrote a long-read on the union-drive among Amazon warehouse employees in Bessemer, Alabama, last year for Vox
ProPublica also did an investigation into last-mile delivery couriers contracted by Amazon, and their unsafe and precarious working conditions.
Inside the mind of Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos and his tax returns were featured in ProPublica’s trove of billionaires’ taxes
An ex-girlfriend of Jeff Bezos once said that the reason he was trying to make so much money was to get to space. I wrote a bit about Bezos’s political ideology and the billionaires’ space race in the Boston Review.