Welcome to the United States of Amazon. Picture a not so far-off future where the online retailer has gobbled up all other businesses, automated all tasks and decisions previously carried out by human workers, and created a government full of AI bots uncorrupted by individual self interest who function as a singular, efficient machine of management. Oh and don’t forget that Amazon the omnipotent knows your thoughts, needs, and desires. You don’t have to be a sci-fi geek to access this vision relatively easily given the massive corporate consolidation we’re witnessing across industry lines.
We like to think of the United States as a country full of opportunity, with checks and balances that keep any one individual in government from having too much power, but what about business? Jeff Bezos already owns a newspaper, a studio producing award winning entertainment, and of course, your one stop online shop for nearly anything that can be produced, packaged and shipped. Soon will come the food supply and all that will be left for Bezos to become a major geopolitical player are a military and some natural resources!
Ok fine, maybe I took it a little too far, but doesn’t imagining the worst help us identify potential pitfalls of market forces and innovation? The announcement last week of Amazon’s plan to purchase Whole Foods for $13.7 billion has dominated headlines and led to mixed reactions. Some see the positive prospects of lowered costs and increased convenience for consumers. Others have pointed out that there will be losers in this scenario - primarily low income employees like cashiers and local chains that won’t be able to compete.
Gaming out all angles isn’t paranoid, it’s rational. That’s why another piece of Amazon-related news that garnered less attention amidst the Whole Foods hoopla deserves another look. According to the Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos), Amazon has been granted a patent for something called “Physical Store Online Shopping Control”. Basically, it allows the retailer to block customers from doing online price checks while in its physical stores.
The irony of Amazon, the company that has benefited from customers engaging in mobile price checking, now having the ability to block that option if it interferes with their own profit, has not been lost on many tech reporters. Neither has the fact that Amazon is joining in to protest the FCC reversing course on Net Neutrality - rules that are supposed to keep the internet free and fair. Filing a patent to block traffic doesn’t quite line up with that principle.
This news doesn’t immediately spell out doom and gloom. The technology reportedly will only affect customers using Amazon’s wi-fi networks and for all we know, the company may never even choose to put it to use. But it does raise questions about who will ultimately hold the keys to consumer choice.
For now, I’m thankful for all the ways in which Amazon has simplified my life, but I’m also keenly aware of the many businesses it has already threatened into near extinction. Hopefully the mechanisms we have to stop a dystopian nightmare will be put to use before it’s too late, but it requires us to think critically about what we sacrifice in the name of convenience. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be asking Alexa to play an audiobook before I go to bed.