In a novelized account of her time working in an Amazon warehouse in Leipzig, Germany, Heike Geissler writes: “You ought to prove to your employer you’re alive.” Her narrator fantasizes about disrupting the warehouse where she receives inbound units and enters them into the computer. She could “conceal products from others and thus remove them from the commodities cycle.” She could “sprinkle dust inside the books (only the bad books and the badly made ones).” She could “insert Post-its with insults directed at the product’s buyers.”¹ Geissler actually scrawled the notes that became the basis of Seasonal Associate on Post-its while working, as a way to preserve herself. When I interviewed Geissler for the Los Angeles Review of Books, she said: “By simply writing down names of products I kept a certain distance from my surroundings and what was being asked of me. The company ate me up every day.”²
An October 2019 news item about Amazon warehouse workers said they were commanded to continue their shifts after a coworker died on the job.³ The implication was that the life of workers doesn’t matter. Only their labor does. Jeff Bezos’s first name for Amazon was Cadabra, like a spell, but he changed it when people on the phone heard it as “cadaver.”4 The anecdote is horrifically apt.
Amazon is a totalizing system that has changed how we buy everything from books to groceries. In 2018 it announced a plan to enter the health care industry. The corporation seems to have its fingers in almost every sector. It’s no surprise, then, that Amazon’s negative effects are many. Amazon Prime’s free expedited shipping means packages from a single order are sent separately, which leads to more cardboard in landfills and more cars and trucks—and hence exhaust—on the road. Amazon has also inserted itself into our daily lives via surveillance and automation. It has been criticized for collecting customers’ data from Alexa, the smart-home AI assistant, and the Ring, a home security system that connects to Alexa. The largest employer in the tech industry, Amazon has come under fire for its poor labor conditions for warehouse workers and delivery drivers, who are expected to perform “like robots.”5 Employees have faced threats for speaking out about Amazon’s role in perpetuating the climate crisis.6 Bezos makes $2,489 a second—a fact repeatedly shared by Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign on social media to emphasize the massive wealth disparity that Amazon exacerbates. Even with all this information, it is difficult to comprehend Amazon in its totality. For me, the word “Amazon” conjures the Amazon Spheres, nicknamed Bezos Balls, a group of greenhouses that put plants from around the world in downtown Seattle. These bloated glass spheres are supposed to be Amazon’s idea of itself: a powerful force, a marvel of logistics and engineering that has become an almost organic part of the landscape. To me the balls reflect a glossy, corporate substitute for art, a pretentious symbol of Bezos’s wealth and power.
Geissler and others who make work about Amazon often seem to emphasize smallness and human vulnerability in their projects, in contrast to the behemoth they seek to understand. San Francisco poet and playwright Kevin Killian posted 2,638 customer reviews to Amazon; the last one went up just a few weeks before his death in June 2019. Many of them reflect on books and movies, but he also shared his thoughts on products like fish-bone earrings and duct tape. In the process, he became a “Top 100” reviewer and earned a spot in the Hall of Fame. Although a number of Killian’s vignettes have been published in books by poetry presses, they are perhaps best enjoyed on Amazon’s website, where they appear as a sprinkle of magic dust on the corporate platform: charming, heartfelt, often anti-capitalist, and wonderfully digressive.
A review of a slim banded money holder becomes a reflection on his environment. “When I bought this little carbon wallet I didn’t realize that what I wanted was more simplicity in my life,” Killian writes. “I looked around my apartment in the South of Market section of San Francisco—on a spring morning with a hint of freesia in the air,—and what I saw was mess—the mess of lived struggle against the capitalist machine choking our lives.” Killian goes on to recall moving to his building after the 1989 earthquake, when rents were cheap, and how the wallet is slim enough to fit under his skin, like the sort of implanted chip seen in sci-fi movies, or one that could have tracked his cat. He traces a loose history of gentrification in the Bay Area, which of course is tied to the tech industry’s presence there. While Amazon has made its home in Seattle, it is a peer to Facebook, Google, and the others in Silicon Valley.
I like to think of Killian saving his discount wallet from a lonely existence in a warehouse. While Geissler’s narrator in Seasonal Associate understandably projects her frustrations onto the cheaply made goods she is forced to package day in and day out, seeing her own dehumanization and disposability as a worker reflected in sad coffee mugs and misshapen toys, Killian gives the objects he reviews a dignity that the purchasing platform has denied them, as if to suggest they deserve better than adjacency to “buy with one click” buttons and one-star reviews. Killian’s reviews are a reminder that capitalism not only objectifies people, but also humiliates objects.
For his Amazon Boy performance (2016–17), New York–based filmmaker and performance artist Matt Starr took to the streets on summer days, wearing an Amazon delivery uniform and carrying a giant slablike sculpture of Amazon packages on his back. The work spotlighted the excess of cardboard hitting our doorsteps with alarming, often daily, frequency. It’s also about the difficult physical labor of the Amazon delivery worker. Like Killian’s reviews, Starr’s piece is playful. There’s a whimsy to his funny stack of boxes. And yet it is also depressing to see him wandering through the streets with that many packages on his back, a listless Santa Claus for the era of online shopping. Starr’s project also makes me think of news stories of Amazon delivery workers during the holiday season driving around alone all day, peeing in their water bottles because they have no time to stop for a bathroom break, trying to make sure customers get their items more quickly than is humanly possible.7
In her Lauren project (2017–), LA-based artist Lauren McCarthy attempts to become an equivalent of Alexa. It’s another insertion of human empathy and frailty into the Amazon machine. The artist goes to her clients’ homes and installs the smart devices she needs to remotely watch over them on her laptop and control their locks, light switches, and plumbing. Going beyond Alexa’s capabilities, Lauren not only responds to commands but also anticipates people’s needs. In an email, McCarthy said that during the initial installation period, she and the participants discuss how their interactions might play out. They discuss whether there is anything they do or don’t want her to do. She emphasized that each iteration of the project is different.
“Some moments are awkward and confusing, others are hopeful and intimate,” McCarthy writes in a reflection on the project. “Together, we have a conversation. Do we feel any limits when it comes to letting AI into our data, our decision making, and our most private spaces?” Later, she describes her experience with one person in particular: “I’m watching him watch TV and worrying I’m not fulfilling his desires, but also hesitant to act in case I annoy him.”8 The fear of being annoying is so human, beautiful in its agitation. Alexa never worries about being annoying, even when she is.
McCarthy said most people didn’t seem to mind when she was slow or failed at things, like when she couldn’t remember whether or not someone had taken a pill. In a documentary about the project shot by David Leonard, the people Lauren watched over expressed a variety of responses to her constant, remote presence. With someone always watching, they worried about things like whether their hair looked messy. But they liked that she was someone who might sympathize with their problems. One man said that Lauren had encouraged him to get his hair cut every three weeks, and he now had enough confidence to talk to potential dates. Another said his relationship with Lauren was like a friendship that was all about him, implying a narcissism inherent in the one-way relationship with AI.
McCarthy’s project raises questions about how social relationships are changing as they are increasingly facilitated through corporate interfaces. This kind of mediation is central to the gig economy. One estimate suggests that by 2027, nearly one eighth of American workers may do contract work online.9 Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) is a crowd-sourcing website for businesses to hire remote workers to perform discrete on-demand tasks—such as identifying specific content in a video—that will likely one day be done by AI. The marketplace was founded in 2005 and grew rapidly. Worker exploitation was built into MTurk from the beginning, just as it was with other gig economy work, like driving for Uber. The platform is not well-regulated, and workers are paid very little, averaging about half the US national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour—a rate that has not increased in a decade and is not a living wage. According to The Atlantic, one MTurk listing with a 45-minute time limit offered workers 80 cents to answer a survey about a restaurant review. Another task was an allegedly fifteen-minute psychological questionnaire with a caveat that it could take up to three hours. It paid $1.10 One dollar for three hours of work compared to Bezos’s $2,489 a second is another example of the grotesque inequality at the basis of Amazon’s business.
The Future of Work (2016), a zine that is part of a larger, ongoing project by the collective Anxious to Make (Liat Berdugo and Emily Martinez), aggregates more than one hundred results from a survey asking participants about the sharing economy and gig labor. Many respondents were contract workers found on MTurk, where surveys are a common form of work. Anxious to Make’s survey questions are equally serious and playful. “Do you ever feel like algorithms are your boss?” asks one. The zine paints an absurdist, ambivalent picture of the present. Some workers feel tenuous and uncertain about the gig economy while others embrace it.
Sebastian Schmieg’s digital project Segmentation.Network (2016) attempts to highlight the sheer quantity of invisible human labor that workers have been putting into the development of the artificial intelligence that will eventually replace them. The project is a website that plays back over 600,000 line segments created over the course of 70,000 hours by crowd workers for Microsoft’s COCO image recognition data set, which is derived from photos on Flickr and used in machine learning for training and testing purposes. When a viewer comes to the Segmentation.Network website, the page begins to fill with partial outlines of people and objects drawn by invisible hands, quickly overlapping one another. They disappear, and new images take their place. This goes on indefinitely, evoking the long spans of time that workers put into the project. While the data set is fixed, its large size and the randomized combination of source photos means a viewer never sees the same segment twice.
Segmentation.Network doesn’t immediately capture the feeling of human fragility that Geissler’s book, Starr’s performance, or McCarthy’s project does. But it nevertheless attempts to give shape to the collectivity of these forms of work. The project conveys a sense of many workers at their computers, touching their keyboards, alone but connected through invisible networks. The animated drawings, when imagined as being drawn by actual humans, have a sensitivity to them, like scribbles from ghosts suddenly appearing on a wall.
In November 2019, I saw a Facebook post by New York–based artist Brett Wallace, founder of Amazing Industries, a one-man think tank devoted to studying Amazon, the gig economy, and the future of work. Wallace conducts research on Amazon and its poor labor conditions through extensive interviews with workers, regular participation in city council meetings, canvassing efforts, and other local political events. He joined Amazon warehouse employees and activist groups in Staten Island to campaign for better working conditions, such as more break time during ten-hour shifts and better transit to the warehouse. He presents his findings in short films, installations, and zines. Some of the works Wallace presents as part of his Amazing Industries project—the zines and installations particularly—seem more valuable for the information they convey than as artworks. But Wallace’s integration of art and activism is compelling. Direct action aims to make tangible changes in the world. Art creates space for contemplation—a space that can allow for a broader, more sensitive perception of all things. Activism requires both a clear-eyed understanding of how systems of power work and a forceful vision of the future. By offering images of vulnerability, collectivity, and resilience, art can be an indispensable partner in this project.
1 Heike Geissler, Seasonal Associate, trans. by Katy Derbyshire, South Pasadena, Calif., Semiotext(e) 2018, p. 169. The books was originally published in German as Saisonarbeit (Spector Books, 2014).
2 Geissler quoted in Kate Durbin, “A Little Private Space: A Conversation with Heike Geissler,” Los Angeles Review of Books, Jun. 15, 2019, lareviewofbooks.org.
3 Dana Schuster, “Amazon workers ‘forced to go back to work’ after fellow employee dies on shift,” New York Post, Oct. 19, 2019, nypost.com.
4 Shana Lebowitz, “Amazon is celebrating its 25th birthday. Here’s how the e-commerce giant got its name,” Business Insider, July 5, 2019, businessinsider.com.
5 Emily Guendelsberger, “I Worked at an Amazon Fulfillment Center; They Treat Workers Like Robots,” Time, July 18, 2019, time.com.
6 Oliver Milman, “Amazon threatened to fire employees for speaking out on climate, workers say,” The Guardian, Jan. 2, 2020, theguardian.com.
7 Hayley Peterson, “‘We sped like crazy’: Amazon delivery drivers say they feel pressure to drive dangerously, urinate in bottles, and sprint on the job,” Business Insider, Sept. 12, 2018, businessinsider.com.
8 Lauren McCarthy, “Feeling at Home: Between Human and AI,” Immerse: Medium, Jan. 8, 2018, medium.com.
9 Freelancers Union survey cited in Elaine Pofeldt, “Are We Ready for a Workforce that is 50% Freelance?” Forbes, Oct. 17, 2017, forbes.com.
10 Alana Semuels, “The Internet Is Enabling a New Kind of Poorly Paid Hell,” The Atlantic, Jan. 23, 2018, theatlantic.com.
This article appears under the title “Bottom of the Supply Chain” in the March 2020 issue, pp. 48–53.