Amazon owes the U.S. government $1.5 billion in taxes. Instead of paying that bill, it got a $129-million tax rebate in 2018 and continues to bully the cities that house its ever-growing number of warehouses for tax breaks, secret deals and immunity from regulations that protect residents (such as the more than 50,000 Seattleites who work for it). A large percentage of its revenue, which totaled $11.5 billion in 2018, comes from government contracts. It skirts safety and seems to think humans are robots who exist to do nothing but gobble up more and more jobs, which of course pay so little that those “robots” (the majority of whom are contractors, not employees) qualify for food stamps. Workers sustain major injuries and even die violently on the job — but many of them “don’t blame the company.”
After reading Alec MacGills’ “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America,” I wondered what it would take for people to start blaming the company. While there is mounting dislike of Amazon in what MacGill calls Seattle 3.0 (after first discussing the original two iterations of the city), efforts to curb, regulate or at least mitigate the damage done by Amazon have been insufficient.
The disdain for Amazon in Seattle makes sense. MacGills tracks the city’s history over the last two decades, saying what locals all know — that it’s “hard to find a modern precedent for a major American city so transformed in a matter of two decades.” The details might surprise anyone not from the area; MacGills reports how Seattle grew roughly 25% faster in this period than cities that were previously its peers, such as Millwaukee, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. By 2016, Seattle “matched San Francisco for high levels of income inequality,” though it had previously celebrated its strong middle class. The median cost of a home by 2018 in the Seattle area “had increased by 57% in three years … three times higher than anywhere else in the country.” All because Paul Allen, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos each randomly chose Seattle in the 1970s.
The anger in the city is understandable. The writing about Seattle is so validating, even as it triggers nostalgia for a city I barely knew and wish I had (I moved to Seattle not for the tech but for the beauty, just before it started getting cool, in 2006 — back when it was still weird and full of misfits).
Now, a flock of construction cranes seem more permanent than the people (it really is like an overgrown college town). There’s a constant development of ugly “luxury” buildings, with more and more encampments populating their shadows (when the sun actually shines). There are cafés that cook food only for dogs, while humans handing out food to other humans get ticketed by city cops. The $100-per-meal restaurants are full of wealthy people staring at their phones after leaving their dogs tied up outside. Human-sized terrariums contain 40,000 species of plants from all over the world, kiosks sell donuts for $4.25 a piece and someone installed “treehouses” as corporate meeting space, which of course they clear-cut hundreds of trees to build. Or, as MacGills summarizes it: “[Seattle] had few children, but it had many adults with the disposable income needed to reenact childhood.”
MacGills is adept at weaving together seemingly unrelated places across the country, and he happens to gives context to another place I have lived, worked and witnessed the suffering of: Ohio.
I had no knowledge of Amazon’s stranglehold there. Albeit different than in Seattle, it was all familiar: from the way Amazon bullied the suburbs of Columbus into special treatment to how easily this megacorporation controls our data and our government to how it manipulated cities into keeping the megacorporation’s presence quiet and refusing FOIA requests unless compelled by a court (and not always then) — even when it resulted in the death of a warehouse employee.
In the same way MacGills connects places, he links social issues and economic realities that might have no connection were it not for Amazon. He shows the company has a hand in the suffering of nearly every American, even those who sing its praise (and it’s hard not to, honestly; lethal though it is, convenience sells in our breakneck, keep-up-if-you-can culture).
While this may not have been MacGills’ intention, he summarizes life in the technological development malaise quite well: “The addition of the robot wasn’t so much replacing workers yet as it was making their own existence more robotic.” Even as more of life came to depend on computers and as the internet gets replaced by robots, the mechanization of everyday life is the hardest part. At least for me. That and, as MacGills quotes one Amazon worker, “you can be fired by an algorithm.”
Lest he leave out one of the major results of the astronomical growth of select Big Tech giants, MacGills provides glimpses into how cities are responding to homelessness during the pandemic, which has increased due in part to the winner-take-all approach of Amazon, et al. The most striking example, though likely not an anomaly, was Las Vegas, where “officials painted rectangles on the asphalt of a parking lot to try to keep the homeless people sleeping there six feet apart.” This was the best the city could — or was willing to — do for its most vulnerable during a global disease outbreak.
And yet, informed outrage is only so satisfying (and only so sustainable). I appreciate learning that there was resistance before Amazon took over, but it was clearly insufficient. We are reliant on Amazon in more ways than we know, even as it continues to vacuum up profits, consolidate control, collect our data, violate our rights and provide scant protections in the face of multiple injuries and deaths of workers — the backbone of the company’s operations — and we think convenience is a fair exchange?
Is this how we want life to be? No hope of buying a home, increasing homelessness, fewer and fewer non-chain stores, techified everything, suspicion and coldness from neighbors and fellow residents, worse social isolation, deeper invasion of our privacy —all while Amazon and a few other huge companies do whatever they want for their (and not our) gain? How much more abuse will we put up with? Why are we allowing this abuse to continue? And how much longer are we going to defend our abusers?
Unfortunately, this is the world we live in, and we’ll probably put up with it as long as we fail to connect the dots between seemingly disparate issues like domestic violence, the homogenization of industries — from food to clothing to healthcare — and access to the internet. MacGill’s “Fulfillment” connects those dots.
What this book doesn’t do, just like so many nonfiction projects, is provide any clear way out or any call to action. At some point, nonfiction writers cannot simply foist the responsibility to figure out what to do about the giant and scary problems they write about onto their readers. To keep readers engaged and avoid exhausting them, they need to provide avenues for action.
Megan Wildhood is a neurodiverse creative/freelance writer and MSW student at UW. More of her writing is available at https://meganwildhood.com
Read more of the July 21-27, 2021 issue.