Amazon is spiking the football in the face of mom-and-pop shops it’s crushed over the last decade and a half. That was my first reaction to the news that the mega online retailer plans to open a brick-and-mortar bookstore in Chicago in 2017, just a few blocks from the soon-to-be shuttered Bookworks in Lakeview.
Why else would a company that helped build its fortune by destroying place-based retail now create a real-life outlet of its own? What’s next, Netflix selling DVDs in a brick-and-mortar video store a la Blockbuster? Apple installing a series of public phone booths?
Then again, dancing on the graves of indie bookstores would be an uncharacteristic move for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who has previously tried to keep the human misery his company inflicts—in this case on its own workers—behind closed doors. Maybe Amazon’s Wrigleyville invasion isn’t a middle-finger gesture but a canny PR move designed to put a human face on the tech giant’s silicon skull and soften our feelings toward the company. That way, next time we buy one of the trillion things Amazon offers online, we’ll picture the smiling young wage slave that rings up our copy of the latest Harry Potter book, not some monolithic corporation floating in cyberspace, constantly trying to extract money from our wallets.
Either way, Amazon’s bookstore is just the latest tech-giant scheme to make me wonder: Has reality become a dystopian science-fiction movie come true? Are we all just guinea pigs in a grand experiment to remake America according to the capricious whims of a few billionaires?
I’m not even talking about the Koch Brothers. Sure, the grubby, coal-stained old guard of industrialists are still pulling plenty of capitalism’s strings. But the supervillain I have in mind is more of a goofy millennial wearing a stupid hoodie. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that actor Jesse Eisenberg has played Mark Zuckerberg and Lex Luthor? Zuckerberg is the crown prince of the “Frightful 5″—Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft—as the New York Times recently nicknamed them, due to the companies’ ever-increasing power and influence.
People rightfully freaked out earlier this year when a handful of the site’s former “curators” told Gizmodo they were asked to secretly suppress stories about Republicans and blacklist news from conservative sources. Suddenly, the public began asking who these mysterious editors were, curating news for 1.5 billion people a day and making Facebook arguably the most powerful news distribution service in the history of the world.
But instead of making the news-curation process more transparent, Zuckerberg or some other schmuck at Facebook responded to the furor by making the process even more opaque—and less human. The company fired up to 18 editorial contractors and replaced them with a news-sorting algorithm. This wasn’t revealed until earlier this week, after the hilariously terrible results of Facebook’s tinkering surfaced. Topping the must-read “trending” news charts: a two-year-old video of a dog reacting to seeing its owner, and a video of a man—wait for it— having sex with a McChicken sandwich. What’s worse, Facebook also hyped a fake story from an obscure conservative joke site about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s secret love for Hillary Clinton. Facebook later issued an apology.
Still, it marked what has lately felt like a low point in the history of journalism. While real news organizations like the Tribune struggle so badly that the company has decided to sell off its Gothic tower home to the highest bidder, Zuckerberg—whose former partner Peter Thiel effectively bankrupted Gawker—can fuck around with his broken news-harvesting cyborgs and suffer few meaningful consequences.
And Facebook’s meddling is only the tip of the iceberg. The god-men of Silicon Valley are remaking mass communications, entertainment, transportation, health care, finance—even space. Elon Musk hopes his company Space X will one day colonize Mars. Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket company may be ready to send passengers into space as early as 2017, the next step in his grandiose plan to move heavy industry off of Earth, and presumably blue-collar workers with it. That way the rest of us can enjoy the unsullied pleasures of theme-park earth, zoned strictly for residential and commercial use.
Meanwhile, we obsess over the iPhone 7 or breathlessly argue about which wealthy oligarch will ascend to the American throne. (It’s worth noting that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have plans to curb the power of the Frightful Five if elected president. Clinton’s economic plan reads like a love letter to big tech.) But maybe the presidency is becoming the equivalent of Britain’s monarchy: a largely symbolic institution beholden to the real decision makers running the country from their shiny, well-scrubbed office parks in Silicon Valley.
Maybe that sounds overly cynical or conspiratorial. Sorry. I’m just trying to get this piece trending on Facebook. Everyone’s got to make a living, and I’d rather do this than work as a space miner on Planet Bezos.