We are all in inescapable thrall to one of the handful of American technology companies that now dominate much of the global economy. (Photo: Doug Chayka © 2017 The New York Times)
NEW YORK: A few weeks ago, I bought a new television. When the whole process was over, I realised something incredible. To navigate all of the niggling details surrounding this one commercial transaction — figuring out what to buy, which accessories I needed, how and where to install it, and whom to hire to do so — I had dealt with only a single ubiquitous corporation: Amazon.
It wasn’t just the TV. As I began combing through other recent household decisions, I found that in 2016, nearly 10 per cent of my household’s commercial transactions flowed through the Seattle retailer, by far more than any other company my family dealt with. What’s more, with its Echos, Fire TV devices, audiobooks, movies and TV shows, Amazon has become, for my family, more than a mere store. It is my confessor, my keeper of lists, a provider of food and culture, an entertainer and educator and handmaiden to my children.
This may sound over the top. But what about you? I suspect that if you closely examine your own life, there’s a good chance some other technology company occupies the same role for you as Amazon does for me: As warden of a very comfortable corporate prison.
This is the most glaring and underappreciated fact of internet-age capitalism: We are, all of us, in inescapable thrall to one of the handful of American technology companies that now dominate much of the global economy. I speak, of course, of my old friends the Frightful Five: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Alphabet, the parent company of Google.
So, last week I came up with a fun game: If an evil, tech-phobic monarch forced you to abandon each of the Frightful Five, in which order would you do so, and how much would your life deteriorate as a result?
When I went through the thought experiment, I found that dropping the first couple of tech giants was pretty easy — but after that the process became progressively more unbearable. For me, Facebook was the first to go. I tend to socialise online using Twitter, Apple’s messaging system, and Slack, the office-chat app, so losing Mark Zuckerberg’s popular service (and its subsidiaries, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger) was not such a big deal.
Next, for me, was Microsoft, which I found slightly more difficult to quit. I don’t normally use any Windows devices, but Microsoft’s word-processing programme, Word, is an essential tool for me, and I’d hate to lose it.
In third place, full of regrets: Apple. There’s nothing I use more than my iPhone, and close behind are my MacBook and iMac 5K, which may be the best computer I’ve ever owned. Abandoning Apple would prompt deep and truly annoying rearrangements in my life, including braving Samsung’s bad software. But I could do it, grudgingly.
It’s when I imagine getting down to the last two that life becomes something else. It’s here that you begin to confront how thoroughly the Frightful Five have woven their way into our lives, and how completely we’ve come to depend on them.
In fourth place, for me, was Google. I just can’t fathom living without it. Without the world’s best search engine, my job would become well-nigh impossible. Without YouTube, it would become significantly less entertaining. Without everything else Google makes — email, maps, calendar, translation software, photo storage and the Android mobile operating system, which I’d need after ditching Apple — I’d be relegated to a life of some poor soul from long ago (say, 1992).
And then, finally, we confront the master of my domain. I have been shopping at Amazon almost since the moment it went online in the 1990s. (I was a curious college student, I liked to experiment.) Every year since, as my life got busier and accreted more responsibility (in other words, as I became more and more of a stereotypical dad), Amazon took on an ever-greater role in my life.
When the kids were born, it became my household’s Costco — supplier of diapers and other baby gear. Then it launched a series of services designed to remove any decision-making from shopping: My toilet paper, paper towels and other consumables now come to my house on schedule, no thinking required. Then Amazon moved into media, and I was more hooked: It had me for packaged goods, so why not movies and TV shows, too?
A few years ago I would have thought that was the limit. Then came Echo, the company’s talking computer, which speaks through a persona known as Alexa, and which has infected my family like a happy virus.
Echo has a way of ingratiating itself into one’s most mundane moments. I rewired my household’s lights to be able to control them through Alexa. I changed the kind of coffee I buy so that I could tell Alexa to reorder it. When Amazon announced, this week, a new screen-enabled Echo, and a feature to let Echos act as phones, I experienced another frisson of possibility. Amazon, I see now, is well on its way to becoming my household’s brain, a kind of butler in the sky that runs the place for me.
Which brings me back to my new TV. Did you know that Amazon now sells not just goods but also home services? If you buy a TV, it will offer to sell you a wall mount, and if you buy the mount, it will offer to send someone to your house to install the equipment for a surprisingly reasonable fee. What might, in the past, have taken a trip to several stores, a truck, some tools, some friends, and many hours now gets done in a handful of clicks.
One evening three days after I’d ordered the TV, the Amazon men came by and set up the whole thing while I cooked dinner. If such a future makes you blanch, that’s the right reaction.
I have fallen victim to the convenience trap, and you’re right to laugh at me, and also to spin dystopian visions from my behaviour — a future in which many others do as I do, in which vast portions of commercial activity flow through this single online store. And sure, you can decide to opt out; you can drive to Target, your life won’t end if you don’t patronize Amazon.
But if it’s not Amazon for you, it’ll be another of the five. Or, more likely, it already is. It’s too late to escape.