“Libidinal” is just about the last word that comes to mind when gazing upon Amazon’s rather anonymous warehouse in Bromley-by-Bow. If you want to understand why a significant fraction of all the things bought or sold in greater London in the course of any given day flows through this one building, though, libido is a particularly useful concept to have at hand.
The idea, as developed by a line of psychoanalytical thinkers going all the way back to Freud, refers to the rhythms of desire, its frustration and release. Nothing else quite captures what’s going on in the circuit that runs straight through this building, fusing Amazon’s familiar, consumer-facing website to factories on the other side of the world. This is because, like some giant analogue of our response to desire, the entire sprawling apparatus is dedicated to nothing other than the elimination of friction.
In the past, whenever you perceived the need for some good or service, and you wanted to satisfy it via the market, you necessarily had to shoulder a certain amount of inconvenience. For some this meant a bike ride in the rain, or a trip across town on a crowded bus; for others, remembering to keep the petrol tank topped up, and keeping one’s cool amid the struggle for parking. Whatever its specific nature, every last one of these hassles presented an impediment to the consummation of an act of commerce.
This all began to change in the late 1990s, when online shopping first became a credible way of buying and selling, and under the circumstances of lockdown we’ve all endured this past year, the pace of change has accelerated until we find ourselves at something very like an apotheosis. Now the number of “touchpoints” we engage in the conduct of daily commerce has dwindled from many down to one, or at most a very few. The relationships fostered have shrivelled from chatty daily interactions at the corner shop where the proprietor might hold a spare copy of your keys, water your plants while you are out of town or extend you credit if your pay cheque failed to clear on time (and yes, such things did happen) to, at best, a nodding acquaintance with a ferociously casualised delivery-person.
Now, the longest trip involved, at least for you, is the one from where you happen to be standing at the moment you feel the first tingling of desire for a thing to wherever it was you last left your laptop. More and more of the time, when you do open that lid to fire up your browser, it’s Amazon you’ll turn to, all by itself accounting for some 20% of the £99bn Britons spent online last year.
Of course, your convenience is other people’s risk. As is the case with Deliveroo orders, and food delivery more broadly, each click of the buy button and every “effortless” online transaction launches one of the hugely precarious army of mostly immigrant workers through the streets of the city, masked or not, to contend with whatever pitfalls await them. (Though Amazon appears to have prevailed in its fight against warehouse-worker unionisation in the US, at least for the moment, it too dreams of the day degrading, underpaid human drudgery is eliminated. The difference is that where activists dream of eliminating it via decent wages, collective bargaining and representation in management decision-making, Amazon would prefer to do so via total automation.)
In its quest to devise still more frictionless ways of circumventing thought and separating us from our savings, the company has experimented with everything from subscriptions to something called “zero-click ordering”, in which an algorithm anticipated what your household needed and sent it to you unbidden, and you were only asked to pay for whatever you kept. For a while, it was even selling something called Dash buttons: branded, adhesive devices that you could stick up in prominent locations around the house, and press whenever you needed to order a new case of toilet paper, cat food or laundry detergent, in effect turning your home into an Amazon shop front. Amazon discontinued the physical Dash button product in 2019, after concluding that spoken commands via its Alexa virtual assistant accomplished much the same thing.
Like virtually all companies with a major online presence, Amazon employs an army of experience and service designers to map the ostensible “pain points” of bourgeois existence, and devise ways to circumvent them. You don’t need to look any further than the recycling bins outside houses, stuffed full of smile-branded cardboard, to realise those designers have succeeded. The fulfilment of desire is now as uncomplicated and as literally thoughtless as a wish spoken aloud.
However, among the things we forget to attend to when we indulge such wishes is what we give away when we do so. To begin with, we surrender an intimately detailed, hugely valuable representation of our being – a picture of our stage in the life cycle, household structure, political affiliations and current psychic state, whose rough contours are sketched in with the first few things we order, and which becomes a little more complete with every successive purchase.
Sure, shopping in person involved a certain amount of hassle, but it also gave rise to so much else that we value, including many of the things we recognise as the signatures of city life. Our custom didn’t merely support the physical layout of high streets and other retail districts, but the second- and even third-order services that sprouted up to capitalise on the opportunities they presented, from coffee stands to shoeshine stands. Above all, perhaps, we forfeit sociality, and what the urbanist Jane Jacobs called the “sidewalk ballet” of the happenstance interactions that bring life, vibrancy and safety to the public way. A little more of all these things disappears every time we click on “add to basket”.
It’s not that this isn’t broadly understood, as if people were somehow failing to connect the fairly obvious causal links between the statistics on Amazon usage and all the failing shopping centres and depopulated high streets. We understand perfectly well what we’re doing to ourselves and our communities each time we click on “buy now”. The problem, as so often seems to be the case when the better angels of our nature come into direct conflict with some libidinal charge, is that we just can’t seem to stop.