My day in the Jeff Bezos and Amazon forest

Like millions of others I have always treated Amazon as a guilty pleasure. On the one hand there’s the wonderful convenience, the superb service, the vast range, and the useful user reviews of Amazon the retailer. On the other, there are the concerns over working practices, ethics, high-street casualties and tax. Discretion (and selfishness) being the better part of valour (and standing up for your convictions) I have quietly pursued my relationship with this Leviathan of the web until I have become as plankton to its huge maw – marine biologists, forgive me the wonky comparison.

Anyhow, I recently experienced an Amazon day (Amazon Day?) that revealed the true extent to which this remarkable company has become ubiquitous, at least to western types who like tech and take a fairly relaxed view of what happens to their data. It was also a day that revealed a few weaknesses of this all- (or nearly all-) encompassing company.

It started because I recently bought an Echo, the voice-activated speaker that lets you play music, radio or ask for other information. I tend to ask her, for it is she, to attend to my commands, assuming the voice of the callous slave driver that seems to go with men using voice user interfaces.

So picture the scene. It’s early morning and your reporter is lying in his bed, alone – very definitely alone. His family members have fled the family nest temporarily on a family visit that he has managed to get out of not been able to attend for reasons of work volume and an innate sense of duty.


ME: Alexa, what’s the weather today?

ALEXA: The weather in Twickenham today is up to 11 degrees with showers.

ME: Alexa, play TalkSport.

ALEXA: TalkSport from TuneIn.


And there we have it: a full digest of UK sporting news and ‘debate’ in the form of shouty phone callers disagreeing with populist straw man arguments. With an ‘Alexa, volume up’ I can even hear her in my shower, to the dismay, no doubt, of Radio 4-listening neighbours.

Refreshed and smelling powerfully of Burberry Brit after having accidentally ordered six bottles on Amazon recently, I don my carefully chosen outfit just as the clouds part and shafts of light cast shadows on the lawn below.


ME: Alexa, play Here Comes The Sun.

ALEXA: Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles.


Bingo! The best of the Fab Four, George, in decent quality audio: certainly enough for an attic bedroom with wooden flooring. The problem with the Echo is price though. Only an audiophobe would want its cheap sibling the Dot with its AM quality sound from a tinny speaker. But then who wants to fork over £150 for another Echo? Not this tight git so Alexa is only my boon companion if I bring her with me – which I do. Another issue is this…


ME: Alexa, play Things Have Changed by Bob Dylan.

ALEXA: The Lion Sleeps tonight is not in your music collection. Would you like to…

ME: Alexa, STOP! Play Things Have Changed by Bob Dylan.

ALEXA: I can’t find The Lincoln Portrait by Copland in your music library. Would you like to start a free Amazon Music Unlimited trial?


Now, I doff the cap to nobody (or very few) when it comes to Bob Dylan. After a lifetime of listening to the great man he still represents perhaps half of my musical selections. But despite me feeding her plenty of clues that I like Bob Dylan, Alexa seemingly has no way to distinguish between his name and the thousands of other artists on her database, no way to assume that in marginal cases I probably mean Bob Dylan, even when I have purchased the music from… Amazon.

Also, it has no idea as to whether it’s me or my kids who want a certain song or genre because it doesn’t detect that we are individuals. Alexa is a simple soul who merely leaps to life at her watchword name and conducts a database search or delivers a pat, human-programmed response. So much for machine learning or software intelligence.

In fact, that’s another oddity of Alexa. Sometimes I mumble my command and she picks it up as if in possession of a sixth sense or at least a deep familiarity with her master; at other times she appears to be stone deaf or determined to wind me up.

Another issue I have with Alexa:


ALEXA: Play The Night We Called It A Day by Chet Baker.

ALEXA: Here’s a sample of The Night We Called It A Day by Chet Baker.


Well, a 30-second sample isn’t really what you want when you’ve got a hankering for rare Hank Williams or a sudden urge to blast out Blondie, is it? In order to get the best from Alexa you really need to have Spotify Premium or, as she persistently suggests like a kitten tapping at the window or chewing a trouser flare, Amazon Music Unlimited. Amazon Music (sans Unlimited) is very good but a 30-second excerpt really doesn’t cut it.

As for her other ‘skills’, these in truth have limited utility. Iffy suggestions for local attractions, restaurants and potted news alerts or games. A version of Rock, Paper, Scissors is particularly painful and clunky. The reminder alarm is quite handy though.


ME: Alexa, play George Harrison.

ALEXA: Shuffling songs by Jools Holland and George Harrison.

ME: Oh for f…


Moving on (and down)

I descend the stairs to meet the glorious day and, this being a weekend, some slumping in front of the telly is on the early agenda. I have been planning a visit to Oviedo in Spain and a search on the Amazon Fire Stick (£15 and a tremendous value purchase from two years ago or so) finds the movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona with the excellent, coruscating pairing of Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem and lovely Oviedo popping up as a sort of minor Asturian character. Well worth the two hours, even if Woody Allen doesn’t make his customary appearance as New Yor-otic American.

Shopping. I need groceries and I could use Amazon Fresh because it delivers in my area or I could replenish essentials using the Dash buttons dotted around my home. But Amazon Fresh is really Morrisons supermarket, which I have always associated with dismal outings, whereas I prefer Ocado/Waitrose, and the Dash buttons really don’t save lot of labour excepting heavy items. So for the first time in the day I say no in thunder to the Jeff Bezos empire. For the first time in the day? My sure-fire journalistic nous kicks in. Could there be a thousand words in this? ‘A day in the life of the Amazon ecosystem’ or some such?*


The Gift

It’s my nephew’s birthday tomorrow. On, thanks to Prime membership, I can right my tardy wrongs by sending over an emailed voucher with decorative screen. But better to send a thoughtful gift, surely, says my conscience, and I probably still have time to Amazon something up the M1 to Newcastle. No, says my nephew, a cash equivalent in Amazon currency is preferable, so that’s the way it goes: £25 in your locker.

Speaking of locker, having been born before the flood, I still buy CDs but one advantage of buying CDs for myself and others is that Amazon gives the buyer the digital music for free so via my TV I listen to the self-titled Clifford Brown & Max Roach album, a birthday gift for my late father.

Avoiding the temptation to be maudlin I consider other Amazon/Bezos connections. I read the Washington Post, now owned by the man himself. Not bad for an American paper and you can almost smell the fact checking, though I prefer the British, less stiff journalism and I ponder for a moment on how our media are often unusual and surprisingly distorted reflections of national character – or perceptions of the same, perhaps. Brits are often defined by their stuff upper lips tendency to self-deprecate but the UK is also the country of the Sunday Sport and The Sun. Europeans often trash Americans as cultural newbies and Barbarians at the gate but they have the New York Times, the New Yorker and National Geographic. Ho-hum.

It’s getting on toward evening. In Twickenham, the town I call home, I could call on Amazon same/next-day delivery for pretty much anything and can even access two-hour deliveries but then I have most stuff in the house. Oh hang on, no gin, and what about that cheese I like, some Padron peppers maybe, and a set of sherry glasses and that biography of Bezos that his wife reviewed on Amazon (pretty meta stuff that)...

So I lose my Amazon Prime Now virginity and a couple of hours later while I’m watching an exceptionally low-quality Amazon TV series via the Fire Stick (Fire Stick delivers a vast range, much of it sub-home video crud in amongst the excellent stuff) it all arrives, discounted as this was my first delve into this new-ish corner of the Amazon forest of products and services.

A search through my history suggests I have bought hundreds of items in this foolish way, often late at night and with little in the unforgiving glare of light of the next day suggesting that this was smart behaviour.

A particular challenge: I like books about Spain and often end up with books in Spanish when they are not flagged as such. I also think it’s disappointing that Amazon is not better at offering products that take into account personal purchases rather than all purchases. Just because I have bought Nigella Lawson’s latest cookbook doesn’t mean I am a fan. But Amazon is still a pretty fabulous site when all is said and done.


Unexplored territory

I haven’t spun up a business on AWS or signed up for Bezos’s space travel mission Blue Origin but as the sun sets on another day spent only in the company of the giant mass that is Amazon/Bezos I have hardly left his virtual world - and it has been good. Giddy from soporific activity, booze, undemanding entertainment, searching and shopping, I feel as if my life could be wrapped up in those card envelopes in which its small goods arrive. A stray thought wisps through my head like smoke from a cigarette as I switch on the kettle (bought recently from Amazon): is there nothing that this company and its owner doesn’t do?

Amazon has had flops, certainty. The Fire Phone was a POC. And then there was no… not that much, really. As Google, Amazon and Apple duke it out to be the mammoth vampire squids of our lives we will all be forced to choose our tribes – I know my place and switch on a relaxing Audible audio book. You’ll never guess who owns Audible.



*Full disclosure: With a little bit of making things up where necessary for flow.


« Why WannaCry might make Microsoft cry in China


The thorny issue of internet freedom across Africa »
Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

  • twt
  • twt
  • Mail