Amazon Prime Air – convenience, surveillance and more from your “friendly” ecosystem

On: September 22, 2019
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“The pleasure of consumerism is so widespread that it is has reached the status of a universal human right” (Lovink 4). But for a right like that to exist, others had to fall – such as individual and collective privacy. Amazon is one of the actors that promises to innovatively reconfigure space, time and life through services such as Prime Air, transforming the commodification of life in an asset; this may look like a win-win, yet, as some argue, “the new political economy of subjectivation (or subject making) sees an intensification of datafication to sell commodities, manipulate moods, inject ideologies, and influence behaviors” (Langlois and Elmer 1). Amazon seeks to provide public value essential services (Plantin et al. 299), creating an intricate infrastructure that seeks, fundamentally, to maximize its profits.

Introduction

Do you remember when Amazon was merely an online retailer? Me neither. Some argue it never was. What happened with Amazon? In time, it shifted from retailing to the largest company by revenue and market capitalization and part of constructing a whole ecosystem in the industry of cloud computing, e-commerce, AI, consumer electronics and digital distribution. It started as a platform and became an infrastructure.

This evolution was afforded by the expansion of the palette of services and their naturalization – devices such as Echo, Key and Ring are created to become not just tools, but rather integrated parts of your home and of your life, thus watching (after) you closely.

One could argue that this is part of Amazon’s strategy to make its products highly accessible through an easy to use interface, which seems to be true, yet David Hill makes a provoking claim: “Platform ubiquity encourages unconscious consumption” (4). Thus, the success lays in the ability of making the consumer always ready to purchase automatically (Hill 5).

This ubiquitous commerce is made even more interesting as it erases space and time boundaries, making its delivery seem as automatic as the process of buying a product. Amazon has invested in creating a same-day delivery service for prime users (“Prime Free One Day”), but they do not intent to stop here; this June, the CEO – Jeff Wilke, revealed at a conference the company’s drone design, whose purpose is to “deliver packages under five pounds to customers in less than 30 minutes” (“A Drone Program Taking Flight”). It is described as an efficient, stable and safe device, fully autonomous and unique (“A Drone Program Taking Flight”, Amazon.Com).

But there’s more to it than what was presented: Amazon receives a US patent for surveillance as service – “An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) may perform a surveillance action at a property of an authorized party” through geo-fence technology (Yeturu et al. 1) this could be a secondary task to product delivery, yet it seems more like the company goes beyond its platform status, acquiring even more data extraction tools.

Print screen from Amazon’s patent for “surveillance as service” (Patent Images)
Print screen from Amazon’s patent “surveillance as service” (Patent Images)
Infrastructuralization of platforms

The word “platform” implies a “discursive positioning [that] depends on terms and ideas that are specific enough to mean something, and vague enough to work across multiple venues for multiple audiences” (Gillespie 349), which makes for a great go-to word to hide the obscurity under the tone of neutrality. An online platform is a “programmable digital architecture designed to organize interactions between users”, designed for “monetization of user data” (van Dijck et al. 4), and Amazon seems to incorporate “new monetization opportunities [that] are thus associated with a new global architecture of data capture and analysis” with the goal of “modifying and commoditizing behavior for profit” (Zuboff, Big Other 85). It becomes clearer that Amazon’s aim is to infiltrate deep into the life of individuals so that it can deliver the products and services they “need”. But, in doing so, what boundaries does Amazon cross?

Its attempt to become embedded into everyday life resides in becoming the one only solution to one’s needs, the one entity that contains all the requirements to fulfill a comfortable life. The underlining of this approach makes it into an infrastructure, characterized by “ubiquity, reliability, invisibility, gateways, and breakdown” (Plantin et al. 294); it’s just there, combining continuous unconscious surveillance and data retrieval with a sense of what some would call “intimacy” (West 31) – instead of being regarded as an intruder, Amazon succeeds in identifying with a familiar entity (like Alexa), forging a strong user-brand relationship. However, in this almost instant purchasing mechanism, one might lose sight of what is the price of convenience.

Commodification vs. logistics

So… you got the product in less than half an hour by just pushing a button. It is the end of a process you never got to acknowledge. This is what David Hills calls “the injuries of platform logistics”; Amazon does not reconfigure space, but it rather obscures it and its materiality under the concept of weightless economy; the risk that arises is losing sight of materiality, focusing only on the experience of consumption (Hill 2). The experience itself is the focal point of the ads for Prime Air (Amazon.Com) – the service is presented as the situation saver, an effortless way to solve so many problems in such a convenient manner. You just have to be “wired” to the Amazon ecosystem and things are basically being done for you by your personal assistant.

Amazon does a great job at hiding crucial operation elements from users’ sight, as well as hiding the precarious workforce conditions that have to be endured for a convenient fast delivery process, as well as “concealing from awareness the conditions that sustain its operation” (Hill 2).

The platform acquires a kind of logic that repurposes information – from what you order to how you do it, what you search for and click on. This “logic of accumulation” “produces hyperscale assemblages of objective and subjective data about individuals and their habitats for the purposes of knowing, controlling, and modifying behavior to produce new varieties of commodification, monetization, and control.” (Zuboff, Big Other 85)

Conclusion

Amazon’s Prime Air “30 minutes or less delivery” and the additional surveillance service constitute a matter of concern. It becomes obvious that their access to information, already enormous, will benefit from yet another source of environment discovery. At the same time, Amazon tries to blur the lines between human and nonhuman elements, limiting worker-user contact to the bare minimum and concealing the struggle endured by the warehouse and distribution employees. The appearance of personal, intimate assistant is kept, and its security is granted by Prime users’ experience of a safe ecosystem that acts like a guardian and friend. Privacy (and many other rights) become what we pay for commodity in a naïve manner. After all, “surveillance capitalism preys on dependent populations who are neither its consumers nor its employees and are largely ignorant of its procedures” (Zuboff, The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism 4).

Works cited

“A Drone Program Taking Flight.” US Day One Blog, 5 June 2019, https://blog.aboutamazon.com/transportation/a-drone-program-taking-flight.

 Amazon.Com: Prime Air. https://www.amazon.com/Amazon-Prime-Air/b?ie=UTF8&node=8037720011. Accessed 22 Sept. 2019.

Dijck, José van, et al. The Platform Society. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Gillespie, Tarleton. “The Politics of ‘Platforms.’” New Media & Society, vol. 12, no. 3, May 2010, pp. 347–64. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1177/1461444809342738.

Hill, David W. “The Injuries of Platform Logistics.” Media, Culture & Society, July 2019, p. 016344371986184. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1177/0163443719861840.

Langlois, Ganaele, and Greg Elmer. “Impersonal Subjectivation from Platforms to Infrastructures.” Media, Culture & Society, vol. 41, no. 2, Mar. 2019, pp. 236–51. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1177/0163443718818374.

Lovink, Geert. The Society of the Query and the Googlization of Our Lives. p. 7.

Patent Images. https://pdfpiw.uspto.gov/.piw?docid=10313638&PageNum=3&IDKey=E35B86F8E2E5&HomeUrl=http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO2%2526Sect2=HITOFF%2526p=1%2526u=%25252Fnetahtml%25252FPTO%25252Fsearch-bool.html%2526r=1%2526f=G%2526l=50%2526co1=AND%2526d=PTXT%2526s1=10313638.PN.%2526OS=PN/10313638%2526RS=PN/10313638. Accessed 22 Sept. 2019.

Plantin, Jean-Christophe, et al. “Infrastructure Studies Meet Platform Studies in the Age of Google and Facebook.” New Media & Society, vol. 20, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 293–310. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1177/1461444816661553.

“Prime Free One Day.” US Day One Blog, https://blog.aboutamazon.com/amazon-prime/prime-free-one-day. Accessed 22 Sept. 2019.

West, Emily. Article Amazon: Surveillance as a Service. p. 7.

Yeturu, Kalidas, et al. United States Patent: 10313638 – Image Creation Using Geo-Fence Data. 10313638, 4 June 2019, http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO2&Sect2=HITOFF&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsearch-bool.html&r=1&f=G&l=50&co1=AND&d=PTXT&s1=10313638.PN.&OS=PN/10313638&RS=PN/10313638.

Zuboff, Shoshana. “Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization.” Journal of Information Technology, vol. 30, no. 1, Mar. 2015, pp. 75–89. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1057/jit.2015.5.

Zuboff, Shoshana.The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism. Frankfurter Allgemeine, Mar. 2016, pp. 1–11

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