The World Wants Less Tech. Amazon Gives It More.
The world’s largest online retailer is diving headfirst into the techlash.
Over the past few years, I’ve kept returning to the “Mister Gotcha” meme from the Pulitzer-nominated cartoonist Matt Bors. The titular character delights in empty social commentary, pointing out the many hypocrisies of daily life and ignoring the conditions that make them. In the first panel, a woman muses on social media that Chinese factory workers make a pittance despite building expensive Apple products. “You said on an iPhone!,” Mister Gotcha interjects, winking in the frame. The fourth panel has become a recognizable, stand-alone meme since Bors drew the comic in 2016. “We should improve society somewhat,” a gaunt figure muses, his back saddled with sticks. “Yet you participate in society. Curious! I’m very intelligent,” Mister Gotcha says, grinning.
Mister Gotcha might be an idiot, but he’s not wrong. We have enough awareness to recognize when something is unfair, but disengaging from it can be difficult, if not impossible. Overlapping privacy scandals have inundated Silicon Valley in the past three years, yet we still buy tech companies’ products.
Yesterday, at its annual hardware event, Amazon announced a new line of Alexa-enabled products that, when stripped of the day’s high gloss, are just wearable microphones. There were Echo Frames, glasses with embedded microphones; Echo Buds, a competitor to Apple’s AirPods; and the Echo Loop, a smart ring that lets you ping Alexa at the touch of a button. (At Amazon, “Loop” is a ring. “Ring” is a camera.)
These products received plenty of applause at the event, and they offer many conveniences. The Echo Buds, for example, will let users make calls, order an Uber, and ping Siri or Alexa to play music. The Loop will let you ask Alexa which items are in stock at your local Whole Foods.
Most likely, they’ll be hugely popular, even though Amazon has had a slew of recent privacy scandals. In January, The Intercept found that human reviewers watch video clips of users’ houses recorded by Amazon Ring products. In April, Bloomberg revealed that human reviewers listen in on audio clips sent from Alexa-enabled speakers. A series of exposés from CNET and Vice revealed that police departments keep registries of Amazon Ring owners. Yet customers keep buying what Amazon’s selling. This dissonance might seem like a job for Mister Gotcha. But even during the tech backlash, smart-home products are still selling well because of consumers’ frustrations with their hyper-optimized, hyper-digital lives—not despite them.
Amazon pitches talking rings and smart glasses as a way to declutter and disconnect from the overwhelming tech tedium of checking your phone, responding to texts and emails, setting reminders, and so on. “It’s a way to snack on information throughout your day,” Dave Limp, the senior vice president for Amazon devices, told the audience yesterday. Limp said the company chose not to put a display or camera in its Echo Frames because “we want you to focus on your everyday.”
Silicon Valley created a more hectic world when it turned the too-long in-person meeting into a concise email, then trimmed that down to a Slack message, which demands an immediate response—along with the daily torrent of Twitter DMs, appointment reminders, and news updates on the latest viral TikTok and CEO resignation. But Amazon has a solution: still more products, more ways to be notified. The company’s play to survive the tech backlash is to double down.
Anyone who uses tech has already given up some privacy as the cost of admission to our efficient, mobile world, with all its pings, dings, and buzzes. If you already have Siri on your phone or Alexa speakers in your apartment, the wearable version seems like a smaller personal cost to privacy, especially if it lets you compete more effectively with your peers in the contest of always-on-ness. What’s a little bit more?