Alas, Amazon | WORLD
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Alas, Amazon

How do we weigh convenience against principle?

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Do you remember all the old friends who turned up after you joined Facebook? Remember advising your colleagues to drop Alta Vista and set Google as their home page? Remember when Twitter was fun and YouTube was exciting? Remember when you finally joined Amazon Prime and entered the ultimate shopper’s paradise?

Since then, the bloom has faded from the Silicon Valley rose. Zuckerberg, Dorsey, Tim Cook, and Brin & Page no longer feature in glowing magazine profiles. Likewise, Jeff Bezos is nobody’s dream date, owing to some bad press about conditions for Amazon warehouse workers and drivers. But his creation goes from strength to strength, and credit for that belongs to no one more than Bezos.

He was one of the first to understand the possibilities of internet marketing—that customer data mattered much more than customer dollars. By generating profiles from customers’ book preferences, Amazon was eventually able to sell them everything else. In earlier days I would open the site to see a personal message: “Hey Janie! We have recommendations for you!” It was irritating at first, later commonplace.

Monopolistic tendencies, cultural bullying, and cutthroat business are not peculiar to Amazon, just more pervasive.

Now half my friends are Prime members, and it’s easy to see why. Imagine the choice for a mom with four kids under 6 years old: Do I shepherd two restless preschoolers, one clueless toddler, and one infant through a shopping expedition fraught with car-seat struggles and necessary items I can’t find? Or do I order everything on Amazon and receive it two days later with free shipping?

Amazon was never the only online shopping option, but it’s the easiest and most comprehensive. I’m wondering, though: Is it time to sacrifice convenience and slowly back away?

The most successful pioneers of last generation’s “information superhighway” are now behaving like 19th-century robber barons. In fact, the comparison is insulting to robber barons because the temptations and rewards of internet dominance are so much greater. Technology that promises freedom and innovation can just as easily bolster tyranny and strangle competition, and Amazon is a prime (no pun intended) perpetrator.

Offering more goods at lower prices is the American way, but Amazon throttles its vendors by withholding sales data and forbidding them to sell their goods cheaper elsewhere, even on their own websites. Controlling 50-70 percent of the world’s online commerce offers unprecedented power to exploit. An antitrust suit brought by the D.C. district attorney could start an avalanche of litigation, even at the federal level, but court cases are notoriously slow and compromised.

In the meantime, like most tech giants, Amazon grows insufferably woke. Its production company flaunts an “Inclusion Playbook” pledging to cast actors according to the identity of the roles they play and fill 50 percent of all creative positions by women or people of color. More ominously, Amazon Books blocks advertising for certain high-profile, incorrect titles, and sometimes even bans them altogether. The official reason for removing Ryan Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally last year (refusing “books that frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness”) made no sense, especially when similar books remain. It’s almost as if Leviathan is putting undesirables on notice: This could happen to you, anytime, for any reason.

Such concern for the oppressed doesn’t reach overseas. An extensive report from Reuters details the ways Amazon has cooperated with the Chinese Communist Party for a wider slice of a huge market. “Cooperation” means spreading propaganda and promoting Chinese culture through the China Books platform, striking negative reviews, and following the party lead for sales and web services.

Monopolistic tendencies, cultural bullying, and cutthroat business are not peculiar to Amazon, just more pervasive. I dislike boycotts; they don’t work and they thrust politics deeper into everyday life. And yet I’m wondering if it’s time to weigh convenience against principle. Thriftbooks is my go-to for printed matter, but as a source for obscure and esoteric items, delivered right to the front door, Amazon seems indispensable. Is it? Where’s the line or the Biblical mandate? What’s our responsibility?

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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