Drew Austin:

Recent technologies have enabled the role of customer to be fused with the newer role of user, who inhabits an entire system rather than a specific transaction. Exploring that transition, writer Kevin Slavin describes how the experience of app-based food delivery narrows one’s perspective: “For users, this is what it means to be at the center: to be unaware of anything outside it.” Those apps’ minimal interfaces, requiring little more than the push of a button to order food, conceal the labor and logistical sophistication that make it possible. Users don’t need to understand the messy complexity that supports their simplified solipsism. In Slavin’s example, that insight wouldn’t help them order more food, so the user experience excludes it.

Amazon similarly merges the customer and the user within its own optimized environments, letting these subjects exist at the center of an ever-expanding system. Imagine an avid Amazon customer’s typical day living with a near future iteration of the platform: He wakes up and speaks his first words of the morning to his Amazon Echo in the kitchen, asking Alexa to order toothpaste after noticing he was running low. Upon checking his email, he gives Alexa a few more instructions, adding social engagements and reminders to his calendar, checking the weather, and finally opening the garage door once he’s ready to leave for work. At the office throughout the day, idle shopping fills his distracted moments. He browses books, clothing, and even furniture, placing orders within seconds, many of which automatically appear in his shopping cart based on patterns from his activity history (he even knows that some of what he buys will be waiting at home tonight). During the evening commute another Alexa-enabled device in his car prompts him to send his sister a birthday card, an action he asks Alexa to do for him. He stops by Whole Foods to pick up groceries — as an Amazon Prime member, it’s always the most cost-effective option in his neighborhood. He arrives home to find a variety of Amazon packages stacked neatly on the living room coffee table, delivered throughout the day by part-time contractors who let themselves into the house via the smart lock on the front door. The soundtrack to his entire day is provided by Amazon Music, in which his Prime membership has automatically enrolled him for a small monthly fee. Few parts of this hypothetical day, which is already within the realm of possibility, remain untouched by Amazon’s user experience.

Amazon, as much as any single company, is transforming the environments in which we live and embedding itself within the fabric of daily existence. Beyond individual experience, those changes also manifest themselves in the physical environment. Many physical retail stores have been rendered obsolete as Amazon and other online retailers started undercutting them on price and offering a wider selection. (Bookstores experienced this first but it eventually spread to almost every form of retail.) Sidewalks and building lobbies have become staging areas for packages, with delivery vehicles exacerbating traffic and obstructing bike lanes as piles of brown Amazon boxes increasingly take up space. As Amazon and food delivery apps eliminate some of the most common reasons to leave one’s house one wonders what sort of neighborhood life will be sustainable in affluent urban areas.