When Amazon announced the addition to its board of directors of General Keith Alexander, the controversial former chief of the National Security Agency, the condemnation came thick and fast. Alexander is the mastermind of a widespread surveillance program. His appointment to the board of Amazon only stoked the fears that Amazon and its Amazon Web Services are part of the new surveillance nexus. In other words, everyone’s worst fears might just be right.
“I argued last year that Amazon has become the world’s largest surveillance company,” tweeted Will Oremus, a technology writer with Medium-owned publication, One Zero, referring to a piece he wrote in June 2019.
As a critic of companies that tend to have abusive policies around personal data and information, I find it heartening to see people with more prominent platforms highlight the issues that need our collective societal attention. But the familiar drumbeat of tweets and criticism about big tech — a place holder for Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple — only seems to give way to the usual disappointment.
Everyone moves on to the next thing, apparently satisfied by our collective armchair morality. We tweet, we share our outrage, and we get angry. And then we go back to our Gmail accounts. Despite knowing it is a cesspool of hate and conspiracy theories, we turn to YouTube for distraction. Media people, too, go right back to Facebook, sharing links to their work, desperately hoping that the algorithmic gods of Menlo Park bless it with attention.
Of those who are upset about Alexander and speculating about Alexa spying on them, how many are giving up their Prime memberships? We might despise the App Store, but we are Charlton Heston-like in our insistence that our iPhones can only be pried from our “cold dead hands.”
Don’t get me wrong. I am no better. Sure, I quit Facebook’s empire. Sure, I buy books from Bookshop and support small and independent stores online. However, Amazon still delivers half my household goods, cables, and everything else. Like everyone else, I am helping create future traps such as Door Dash, that comes between people and the local restaurants they tend to patronize.
As I have written in the past, no matter how much we despise big tech, we are beholden to the conveniences they enable. The pandemic has made big tech bigger, and we have helped make that happen. Amazon grows each day. For all our collective handwringing and billions of bytes of outrage, Facebook has become more prominent and more profitable. Microsoft moves forward with impunity. And technology’s role in our lives is only becoming more pronounced.
Perhaps, deep down, we are aware of our hypocrisy, which informs our expressions of outrage. The tweets, the hot takes, podcasts, and talking heads on — everything is theater. We are simply distracting ourselves from ourselves, avoiding the feeling that we are ultimately powerless when it comes to meaningfully influencing the outcome.
“The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his essay on civil disobedience. And he is so right. All we can really do is be self-accountable.
I have a simple objective for the next 12 months — to further reduce what I spend with Amazon by another 50 percent. Additionally, very soon, I hope to move away from Google’s commercial mail offering and switch to Hey. I am sure none of these moves will dent the revenue stream of these giants. But it is way better than being trapped in the outrage theater of nothingness. To quote Thoreau again: “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then, but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.”
But getting back to the reaction to the news about Alexander’s appointment to the board of directors. To me, this was Amazon chief Jeff Bezos being Jeff Bezos. He needs powerful and connected allies in Washington, DC. On that front, I am sure Alexander can help. Besides, his Amazon Web Services now has to compete with Microsoft’s Azure for big government contracts — and it is losing.
Enter General Alexander!
For a guy who started off selling books online, Bezos has a habit of doing everything by the buck. People often forget that he doesn’t really care what others think. You don’t become the destroyer of all retail by being a nice guy.
September 10, 2020. San Francisco