October 26, 2017

The Scramble for Amazon

Amazon, the online everything store with the arrow-headed smile in its logo, is ready to build its second headquarters (outside Seattle this time) in a post-industrial urban dreamscape.  And there’s barely an American city out ...

Amazon, the online everything store with the arrow-headed smile in its logo, is ready to build its second headquarters (outside Seattle this time) in a post-industrial urban dreamscape.  And there’s barely an American city out there that isn’t begging to be It. Fifty thousand ultra-smart tech jobs in the 100K pay range are the prize.  What’ll win the nod from CEO Jeff Bezos is some combination of a smart local workforce, an affordable standard of living and tax breaks galore.  So we squint our eyes over this coast-to-coast bidding contest, to see the outline, if we can, of jobs and the workplace coming next.  A raging hunger for work itself drives a race that most contestants will lose; that a master of monopoly has already won.  

To get a sense of the spot cities are in we went north in the rain this week to Haverhill, Massachusetts. On the Merrimack River between Lowell and Lawrence, Haverhill was in on the first industrial boom in the US, making shoes. It was and is a working-class city, once governed by America’s first socialist mayor. Today’s mayor of Haverhill, Jim Fiorentini, made clear he wants in on a post-industrial boom with the new Amazon HQ, but there’s caution in his voice.

Conor Gillies and Chris Lydon with Jim Fiorentini in Haverhill, MA

Lester Spence teaches political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. In his newsletter, The Counterpublic Papers, Spence raised some concerns about the Amazon video pitch of this hometown, Detroit. 

This is what stands for political imagination. In fact, this is what stands in for radical political imagination. They can easily offer the state’s tax coffers for a pie in the sky corporate project. But extending that political imagination in another direction? That’s crazy talk. And they can easily imagine Amazon helping the entire city, when in each of these cases and many others, the benefits Amazon bestows are only directly felt by a thin slice of the city’s residents. There are two reasons why you only see one black man in the Detroit Amazon pitch video. One reason is because black men generate a very different type of affect than the one marketers intend. Another reason is because they are the population least likely to fit in the modern economy. It’s not black people that suburbanites don’t want to have access, it’s young black men.


Shirley Kressel, a longtime Boston housing activist and BRA-gadfly, holds a skeptical glance at the prospect of what Amazon could do to Boston. She’s also analyzed the damage already done in Seattle. As she put it The New York Times, Boston should offer Amazon “no tax breaks, no free public land and no environmentally harmful zoning favors.”


We’re also doping the larger story of Amazon’s global ambitions this hour. Franklin Foer, the former New Republic editor, joins us to discuss his remarkable book, World Without Mindon the existential risk  in tech billionaires schemes. At risk, he says, is nothing less than the fate of the civilization and the human species.

More than any previous coterie of corporations, the tech monopolies aspire to mold humanity into their desired image of it. They believe that they have the opportunity to complete the long merger between man and machine—to redirect the trajectory of human evolution. How do I know this? Such suggestions are fairly commonplace in Silicon Valley, even if much of the tech press is too obsessed with covering the latest product launch to take much notice of them. In annual addresses and town hall meetings, the founding fathers of these companies often make big, bold pronouncements about human nature—a view of human nature that they intend to impose on the rest of us.

Ben Tarnoff, a fresh eye on Silicon Valley and co-editor of the radical tech mag Logic, steers clear of both Foer’s dystopian vision and Bezos’s pie-in-the-sky proposals. The choice between humanism and techno-futurism offers a false dualism—”We can have Twitter and Turgenev,” he says—the real problem is the money. Big data is the new big oil: an extractive model of capitalism that needs to be brought under democratic control. The “new technologies of connectivity” may be critical tools for reigning them in.