Alexa, Draw a Line Between Convenience and Control

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On Land of the Giants, a new podcast hosted by Recode’s commerce correspondent and in-house Amazon expert Jason Del Rey, a parade of the retail behemoth’s former and current employees stop by to sing the praises of the “customer obsession” modus operandi that has made it one of the world’s most powerful companies. But three episodes in, the show suggests that my description, “retail behemoth,” which is fairly common journalistic speak for Jeff Bezos’ juggernaut, is no longer just lazy or conventional. It’s wrong.

Amazon, as its observers and even casual users know, long ago expanded beyond the simple store that forms the core of its business. There’s Amazon Video, which one exec underscored as key to the expansion of Amazon Prime, Amazon Web Services, which would be one of the 10 largest companies in the world if spun out as its own enterprise, and Amazon Media Group, which is emerging as the legitimate third player in the digital advertising biz dominated by Google and Facebook. Pundits used to speculate about which company, if any, had the best shot of joining the duopoly at the top of the digital ad food chain. In retrospect, the answer we can now empirically verify seems obvious. Why not the company that appears to conquer new industries for sport and, most importantly, already commands the most valuable data in the business world on the purchasing habits of many of the world’s wealthiest households?

It’s that factor, consumer data and Amazon’s vast store of it, that stands out most in Del Rey’s reporting. Specifically striking is the episode on Alexa, in which Amazon employees openly speculate about a future in which smart microwaves will hook up with Amazon’s growing healthcare ambitions to tell you when it’s time to stop making popcorn and smart countertops will join the intelligent kitchen conversation. As Del Rey notes, Amazon execs talk about this future openly, dropping talking points about customer obsession along the way and appearing truly unperturbed by the thought that such interventions into our domestic lives may go too far or generate unintended consequences. Optimism for the quality of Amazon products and a fervent belief in the company’s benefit to consumers—without due consideration for products’ risk and would-be limits—seem to pervade the corporate culture.

That optimism and lack of reservation about the adverse effects of such a powerful company’s products, while a boon to boosting convenience and making Amazon even more dominant in e-commerce and other industries, strikes me, and some of the independent observers Del Rey interviews, as a cry for more official oversight. It’s belief in the goodness of moving fast and breaking things—the coarse way of saying innovation is always, or almost always, a good thing, which still passes without question in much of the tech industry—that brought us hacked elections from Facebook as well as disinformation, including false reviews in our own space of local, from Google. Some oversight, even if it costs a little innovation from the innovation machine that is Amazon, seems to be on the way in the form of federal antitrust investigations. I reckon that’s a net positive.

But beyond government oversight, Land of the Giants, which I recommend, raises a simpler and even more vital question for the present. That’s for us consumers, and the question is how much privacy we will sacrifice for the sake of convenience. As far as I’m concerned, Alexa can make someone else’s life so “convenient” that it decides how much popcorn they’ll indulge in or records data on their movements and speech in households transformed into surveillance apparatuses. Consumers like convenience. But we should be vigilant enough to recognize when convenience verges on control.

Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Joe is an ad/martech veteran who has covered the space since 2015. You can contact him at [email protected]