The story begins with the online bookstore’s wildly optimistic beginnings way back in the dial-up Internet era 25 years ago and charts the company’s inexorable growth in recent years, becoming a somewhat Orwellian presence in retail competition, warehousing, large-scale (and lower-wage) labor practices, delivery systems, grocery shopping, surveillance techniques, Web security and, arguably, the economy itself.
Reported by correspondent and director James Jacoby (and co-produced and co-written by Anya Bourg), “Frontline” is equally interested in Bezos, the 56-year-old innovator whose very good idea made him the richest man in the world. In news footage, he morphs from a bright-eyed Trekkie to the muscle-bound divorcé who dropped $165 million last week on the Beverly Hills, Calif., Warner Estate — the priciest-ever residential real estate transaction in the state but which represents just a fraction of his personal wealth.
In addition to Bezos’s extracurricular ambitions for colonizing the moon and his dreams of suburbs in space (and, it must be noted here, his private ownership since 2013 of The Washington Post), what are his intentions for Amazon and all the data it controls?
“Everything that is admirable about Amazon is also something we should fear about it,” observes Franklin Foer, an Atlantic staff writer and one of many journalists interviewed here who have scrutinized the company’s practices.
It’s about cardboard boxes stamped with Amazon’s trademark smile, piled as high as the eye can see. It’s about Alexa, always listening from her perch in the home, collating her artificially intelligent notes about who we are and how we behave as consumers. It’s cops helping themselves to data mined from our video doorbells. It’s about cities and states locked in a tawdry skirt-hitching competition as they tried to lure a new Amazon headquarters with promiscuous tax breaks.
Where does this all take us, as a nominally free (and enthusiastically capitalist) society? Where will it end?
“Frontline” didn’t get an interview with Bezos, but in one of several archival clips, he explains his approach as an explorer rather than a conqueror. Internally, the company has worked hard to develop and then project an image of being cool — a powerful yet benign force for good, a casual friend.
Interviews with former and current employees poke holes in that image. From the corporate level down to a handful of warehouse employees who gave up trying to outpace the algorithm that compelled them to work harder and faster, those who no longer work for Amazon offer plenty to worry about, anecdotally, when it comes to the company’s zealous fixation on the customer and its tendency to work around legal or ethical obstacles.
As with most symptoms of monopoly, sheer size is the issue. A mere announcement from the company can seismically disrupt whole business sectors. New York University business professor Scott Galloway notes that the health insurance industry shed billions of dollars in value on the morning after Amazon merely hinted, in a news release, at an interest in health-care costs. “Amazon has these Darth Vader-like abilities to just look at a sector and begin choking it of oxygen,” he says.
Amazon’s unchecked growth means, for one example (uncovered by journalists at ProPublica and BuzzFeed), that its network of independently owned delivery trucks are just small enough to elude federal regulations, which gives it an edge over FedEx and UPS and makes it difficult to track the trucks’ safety records.
Current executives — including Jeff Wilke, Amazon’s global consumer CEO, and Jay Carney, the former Obama White House press secretary who is now Amazon’s senior vice president for global corporate affairs — return Jacoby’s harder questions with the expected neutral tones of tech corporatespeak, in which everything is fine, just keep clicking. Rather than reassure, the effect of their words can be unsettling.
Nowhere was the company’s prickliness more evident than when it reversed its decision to locate half of its “HQ2” headquarters and 25,000 new jobs in New York (the other half is coming to Northern Virginia), after a wave of complaints from citizens about wages, labor rights and billions in tax breaks.
New York’s City Council insisted on a public hearing reviewing the agreement, after which Amazon’s retreat had the look of a tantrum. As New York Mayor Bill de Blasio observes: “In what world are there no critics? Well, yeah, in an autocratic, totalitarian world maybe they’re not allowed — and maybe that’s the world Jeff Bezos, somewhere in his mind, thinks he is entitled to.”
What “Amazon Empire” lacks (besides an interview with and direct responses from Bezos himself) is a wider reflection on the consumer’s complicity in all this. Are we really so tech-besotted that anything goes? No one forced us to hand over all our personal data and install Amazon’s listening devices or surveillance cameras in our homes — we just did, because we, too, want the future to be cool. We rationalize our immediate need for its delivered products against environmental impact or any other effect, be it physical or psychological.
The creepiness of all this comes through in Amazon’s recent holiday campaigns, where its smiling cardboard boxes sing Supertramp’s ’70s rock ballad “Give a Little Bit” on their journeys to customers’ doors.
“Even in Amazon’s commercials, the people are almost like shadows and silhouettes,” says Bloomberg News e-commerce reporter Spencer Soper. “Happy boxes singing and bumbling their way to your door. They don’t even want you to think about how they do this, they just want you to be wowed. . . . They wanted people to think, ‘Whoa, magic!’ ”
Frontline: Amazon Empire — The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos (two hours) airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WETA and MPT. (Disclosure: Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)