‘As a journalist, I interviewed five U.S. presidents. Now I deliver packages for Amazon’

January 06, 2019

The cover of the current Christmas/New Year edition of the British satirical magazine Private Eye, is not so far from the truth (apart from the Santa bit).

 

“I USED TO WRITE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. NOW I DELIVER PACKAGES FOR AMAZON”

[Note by Tom Gross]

Occasionally, these dispatches cover the state of the media and society in general, rather than the Mideast or human rights matters.

I attach two pieces below. The first recounts the sorry state of professional life today for many journalists.

Austin Murphy writes:

“Let’s face it, when you’re a college-educated 57-year-old slinging parcels for a living, something in your life has not gone according to plan…”

“During my 33 years at Sports Illustrated, I wrote six books, interviewed five U.S. presidents [on the golf course, Bush riding a mountain bike, etc], and composed thousands of articles for SI and SI.com. Roughly 140 of those stories were for the cover of the magazine, with which I parted ways in May of 2017.”

“YOU ARE ALREADY LIVING INSIDE A COMPUTER”

The second piece also concerns Amazon (“Amazon is invading your home with micro-convenience”).

Ian Bogost (a chair in media studies in Georgia) explains that he now realizes that asking Alexa, via the Amazon Echo on his kitchen counter, to set a timer for four minutes for his tea to brew each morning, was the first step in how Amazon has infiltrated his home with its voice-activated devices and service and helped “facilitate a new depth of corporate surveillance.”

“The actual benefits of all the Alexa-enabled toasters and coffee machines and printers and razors are dubious… But Amazon’s approach to the Internet of Things goes deeper than basic functionality. It finds the tiny shifts where the actions common to ordinary life can be made to feel slightly more compatible with the contemporary, computer-addled consumer…

“Amazon owns the popular Ring doorbell-camera company now, which means it also knows what happens on your stoop. Knowing when the garage door opens, thanks to Echo Auto, allows the company to track when you leave and return home.

“It’s even possible to determine what the occupants of a home are doing just by doing signal processing on its electrical main. Given the massive volumes of data that have already been collected about everyone, a world where Alexa’s everywhere has the potential to create an unprecedentedly powerful profile of human behavior. People are worried about Alexa listening to their conversations, but what about what Amazon can do with the inferred meaning of all the small actions and instructions we freely and knowingly give Alexa?”

 

ARTICLES

“SOMETHING IN YOUR LIFE HAS NOT GONE ACCORDING TO PLAN”

I Used to Write for Sports Illustrated. Now I Deliver Packages for Amazon.
There’s a certain novelty, after decades at a legacy media company, in playing for the team that’s winning big.
By Austin Murphy
The Atlantic
Dec 25, 2018

Holiday parties were right around the corner, and I needed a cover story. I didn’t feel like admitting to casual acquaintances, or even to some good friends, that I drive a van for Amazon. I decided to tell them, if asked, that I consult for Amazon, which is loosely true: I spend my days consulting a Rabbit, the handheld Android device loaded with the app that tells me where my next stop is, how many packages are coming off the van, and how hopelessly behind I’ve fallen.

Let’s face it, when you’re a college-educated 57-year-old slinging parcels for a living, something in your life has not gone according to plan. That said, my moments of chagrin are far outnumbered by the upsides of the job, which include windfall connections with grateful strangers. There’s a certain novelty, after decades at a legacy media company – Time Inc. – in playing for the team that’s winning big, that’s not considered a dinosaur, even if that team is paying me $17 an hour (plus OT!).

It’s been healthy for me, a fair-haired Anglo-Saxon with a Roman numeral in my name (John Austin Murphy III), to be a minority in my workplace, and in some of the neighborhoods where I deliver. As Amazon reaches maximum ubiquity in our lives (“Alexa, play Led Zeppelin”), as online shopping turns malls into mausoleums, it’s been illuminating to see exactly how a package makes the final leg of its journey.

There’s also a bracing feeling of independence that attends piloting my own van, a tingle of anticipation before finding out my route for the day. Will I be in the hills above El Cerrito with astounding views of the bay, but narrow roads, difficult parking, and lots of steps? Or will my itinerary take me to gritty Richmond, which, despite its profusion of pit bulls, I’m starting to prefer to the oppressive traffic of Berkeley, where I deliver to the brightest young people in the state, some of whom may wonder, if they give me even a passing thought: What hard luck has befallen this man, who appears to be my father’s age but is performing this menial task?

Thanks for asking!

The hero’s journey, according to Joseph Campbell, features a descent into the belly of the beast: Think of Jonah in the whale, or me locked in the cargo bay of my Ram ProMaster on my second day on the job, until I figured out how to work the latch from the inside. During this phase of the journey, the hero becomes “annihilate to the self” – brought low, his ego shrunk, his horizons expanded. This has definitely been my experience working for Jeff Bezos.

During my 33 years at Sports Illustrated, I wrote six books, interviewed five U.S. presidents, and composed thousands of articles for SI and SI.com. Roughly 140 of those stories were for the cover of the magazine, with which I parted ways in May of 2017. Since then, as Jeff Lebowski explains to Maude between hits on a postcoital roach, “my career has slowed down a little bit.”

This proved problematic when my wife and I decided to refinance our home. Although Gina, an attorney, earns plenty, we needed a bit more income to persuade lenders to work with us. It quickly became clear that for us to qualify, I would need more than occasional gigs as a freelance writer; I would need a steady job with a W-2. Thus did I find myself, after replying to an indeed.com posting for Amazon delivery drivers, emerging from an office-park lavatory a few miles from my house, feigning nonchalance as I handed a cup of urine to the attendant and bid him good day.

Little did I know, while delivering that drug-test sample, that this most basic of human needs – relieving oneself – would emerge as one of the more pressing challenges faced by all “delivery associates,” especially those of us crowding 60. An honest recounting of this job must include my sometimes frantic searches for a place to answer nature’s call.

To cut its ballooning delivery costs – money it was shelling out to UPS and FedEx – Amazon recently began contracting out its deliveries to scores of smaller companies, including the one I work for. Amazon trains us, and provides us with uniform shirts and hats, but not with a ride. Before 7 a.m., we report to a parking lot near the warehouse where we select a vehicle from our company’s motley fleet of white and U-Haul vans.

I’m an Aries, so it stands to reason that I’m partial to Dodge Ram ProMasters. I like their profile and tight turning radius: That’s key, since we make about 100 U-turns and K-turns a day. Problem is, most of the drivers in our company – there are about 40 of us – share my preference. The best vans go to drivers with seniority, even if they show up after I do. Before it was taken out of service for repairs, I was often stuck with a ProMaster that had issues: Side-view mirrors spiderwebbed; the left mirror held fast to the body of the van by several layers of shrink-wrap. The headlights didn’t work unless flicked into “bright” mode, which means that when delivering after dark, I was blinding and infuriating oncoming motorists.

I drove that beast on my worst day so far. After a solid morning and early afternoon, I glanced at the Rabbit and sighed. It was taking me to that fresh hell that is 3400 Richmond Parkway, several hundred apartments set up in a mystifying series of concentric circles. The Rabbit’s GPS doesn’t work there, the apartment numbers are difficult to find, and the lady in the office informed me that I couldn’t leave packages with her. She did, however, hand me a map resembling the labyrinth of ancient Greece. I spent an hour wandering, ascending flights of stairs that took me, usually, to the incorrect apartment. By now deep in the hole, with no shot at completing my appointed rounds for the day, I set a forlorn course for my next stop at the nearby Auto Mall. That’s when I heard a thud-thud-thud from the area of my right front tire, which was so old and bald that it had begun to shed four- and five-inch strips of rubber, which were thumping against the wheel well.

Although it was only 4 p.m., I called it quits. Some days in the delivery biz, the bear eats you. But I got some perspective back at the lot, where a fellow driver named Shawn told me about the low point of his day. A woman had challenged him as he emerged from her side yard – where he’d been dropping a package, as instructed. “What are you stealing?”

“That sucks,” I said. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

“It’s cool,” he told me. “I called her a bitch.”

For both days of my safety training, I sat next to and befriended Will, who now shows up for work wearing every Amazon-themed article of clothing he can get his hands on: shirt, ball cap, Amazon beanie pulled over Amazon ball cap. I found that odd at first, but it makes good sense. If you’re a black man and your job is to walk up to a stranger’s front door – or, if the customer has provided such instructions, to the side or the back of the property – then yes, rocking Amazon gear is a way to protect yourself, to proclaim, “I’m just a delivery guy!”

KEEPING SAFE

That safety training, incidentally, is comprehensive and excellent. After two days in the classroom, all of us had to pass a “final exam.” It wasn’t a slam dunk. In my experience, however, some of the guidelines Amazon hammers home to us (seat belts must be worn at all times; the reverse gear is to be used as seldom as possible; driveways are not to be blocked while making deliveries) must be thrown overboard if we’re going to come close to finishing our routes.

The google search Amazon driver urinates summons a cavalcade of caught-in-the-act videos depicting poor saps, since fired, who simply couldn’t hold it any longer. While their decision to pee in the side yard – or on the front porch! – of a customer is not excusable, it is, to those of us in the Order of the Arrow (my made-up name for Amazon delivery associates), understandable.

Before sending me out alone, the company assigned me two “ride-alongs” with its top driver, the legendary Marco, who went out with 280 packages the second day I rode shotgun with him, took his full lunch break, did not roll through a single stop sign, and was finished by sundown. Marco taught me to keep a lookout not just for porch pirates – lowlifes who swoop in behind us to pilfer packages – but also for portable toilets. In neighborhoods miles from a service station or any public lavatory, a Port-a-John, or a Honey Pot, can be no less welcome than an oasis in the desert. (The afternoon I leapt from the van and beelined to a Honey Pot, only to find it padlocked, was the closest I’ve come to crying on the job.)

THE NEED TO PEE

Delivering in El Sobrante one day, I popped into a convenience store on San Pablo Avenue. I bought an energy bar, but that was a mere pretext. “I wonder if I might use your lavatory,” I asked the proprietor, a gentleman of Indian descent, judging by his accent, in a dapper beret.

A cloud passed over his face. “You make number one or two?”

“Just one!” I promised. He inclined his head toward the back of the store, in the direction of the “Employees only” bathroom.

After thanking him on my way out, I mentioned that I was new at Amazon, still figuring out restroom strategies.

“Amazon drivers, FedEx drivers, UPS, Uber, Lyft – everybody has to go.”

But where? When no john can be found, when the delivery associate is denied permission to use the gas-station bathroom, he is sometimes left with no other choice than to repair to the dark interior of the cargo bay – the belly of the beast – with an empty Gatorade bottle.

It was late afternoon on a Monday when I may or may not have been forced to such an extreme. I was dispensing packages on Primrose Lane in Pinole, and I remember thinking, afterward: Aside from the fact that my checking account is overdrawn and I’m 30 deliveries behind and the sun will be down in an hour and I’m about to take a furtive whiz in the back of a van, life really is a holiday on Primrose Lane!

Pinole, incidentally, is the hometown of the ex-Miami Hurricanes quarterback Gino Torretta, a great guy who won the Heisman Trophy in 1992. I covered him then, and a few years later when he was playing for the Rhein Fire in the NFL’s World League. Gino and I hoisted a stein or two at a beer hall in Düsseldorf. Some of the American players were having trouble enunciating the German farewell, auf Wiedersehen. To solve that problem, they would say these words as rapidly as possible: Our feet are the same!

INTERVIEWING GEORGE W

Performing my new job, I’m frequently reminded of my old one, whether it’s driving past Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, where I covered countless Pac-12 games, or listening to NFL contests during Sunday deliveries. I’ve talked and laughed with many of the players and coaches and general managers and owners whose names I hear.

Sitting in traffic one damp December morning, I turned on the radio to hear George W. Bush eulogizing his father. His speech was funny, rollicking, loving, and poignant. It was pitch-perfect. In the summer of 2005, after returning from the Tour de France – cycling was my beat during the reign of Lance Armstrong – I was invited, along with five other journalists, to ride mountain bikes with W. on his ranch in Crawford, Texas. The Iraq War was going sideways; 43 needed some positive press. I jumped at the chance, even though I loathed many of his policies. In person, Bush was disarming, charming, funny. (These days, compared with the current potus, he seems downright Churchillian.) I wrote two accounts, one for the magazine, another for the website. Got a nice note from him a couple weeks later.

Lurching west in stop-and-go traffic on I-80 that morning, bound for Berkeley and a day of delivering in the rain, I had a low moment, dwelling on how far I’d come down in the world. Then I snapped out of it. I haven’t come down in the world. What’s come down in the world is the business model that sustained Time Inc. for decades. I’m pretty much the same writer, the same guy. I haven’t gone anywhere. My feet are the same.

When I’m in a rhythm, and my system’s working, and I slide open the side door and the parcel I’m looking for practically jumps into my hand, and the delivery takes 35 seconds and I’m on to the next one, I enjoy this gig. I like that it’s challenging, mentally and physically. As with the athletic contests I covered for my old employer, there’s a resolution, every day. I get to the end of my route, or I don’t. I deliver all the packages, or I don’t.

That’s what I ended up sharing with people at the first Christmas party of the season. It felt better, when they asked how I was doing, to just tell the truth.

This is also true: Gina and I got approved for that loan last week, meaning that our monthly outlay, while not so minuscule that it can be drowned in Grover Norquist’s figurative bathtub, is now far more manageable, thanks in part to these daily journeys which I consider, in their minor way, heroic.

 

AMAZON INVASION

Amazon Is Invading Your Home With Micro-Convenience

The company’s new line of voice-automated products, including a wall clock and a microwave, could help it amass an enormous database of consumer behavior.

By Ian Bogost (Chair in Media Studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology)
The Atlantic
Sep 21, 2018

Almost every day I make a pot of tea. Strong, black tea, the kind you have to steep properly in a ritual that involves a kettle, a tea tin, tea lights, a tea cozy. It’s a four-minute brew, so I set a timer. I used to do it on the microwave, but some time ago I just started asking Alexa, via the Amazon Echo on my kitchen counter. “Alexa, set a timer for four minutes.” I can do this while pouring from the kettle to the pot. It is an efficiency that feels indulgent in the early morning or late evening (decaf; don’t judge me).

This is how Amazon has infiltrated the home with its voice-activated devices and service. Not through genuine utility, but by scratching the smallest itches of ordinary life – even when Amazon itself is the cause of the initial irritation. The results might be convenient, but they also facilitate a new depth of corporate surveillance.

I never intended to use Alexa at all. I have all the usual worries about privacy, and adding more microphones to my home felt unwise. I bought an Echo as a way to communicate with my visually impaired father, a topic I wrote about for The Atlantic earlier this year.

But once the thing was in my house, it turned out to be kind of useful. I connected it to my whole-house audio, making it possible to ask Alexa to play music in different rooms. That also meant my 4-year-old could do so, and when Sonos, the wireless-speaker company, introduced an Alexa-enabled speaker, I got one for her room – now she can ask for music while she’s playing or going to sleep. Calling for Alexa to weigh in on a dispute or to relay a bit of trivia from the dinner table feels less socially disruptive than retreating privately into a smartphone. And the tea timer, of course.

Useful might be the wrong word. None of these shifts in daily life is necessary, and the benefit they provide is so incremental, it often feels like a step backward. Eliminating the 10 steps and five button presses of setting an analog kitchen timer, or creating the ability to turn off the lights without getting up: This is tiny succor in an otherwise difficult life. Despite all the baggage of bringing a gendered, privacy-eroding digital assistant into the home, Alexa offers enough small comforts that users are willing to overlook them.

Amazon’s plans for the service are ambitious. In addition to the wall clock, the company announced a barrage of Alexa-enabled products yesterday. Among them are home-audio devices that compete directly with Sonos’s offerings (at much lower prices), along with updates to its Echo speakers and Fire television units.

The company also introduced Echo Auto, a device that brings Alexa into the car, using smartphone connectivity for operation. In addition to allaying concerns about distracted driving (and helping people negotiate increasingly common hands-free laws), Echo Auto also opens the door to, well, opening the garage door by voice from the car.

That seems ridiculous. Can’t people just reach up and press the button, like they have done for decades? But once again, scratching tiny itches can produce surprising relief. The car I drive has thick sun visors and I’ve never been able to attach my garage-door remote to them effectively.

So I store the remote in a compartment in the dash, and haul it out every time. Which means risking accidentally pushing the button as I do so, a failing that has sometimes sent the door descending upon my car inadvertently. A voice-activated door opener would avert that risk. This is precisely the kind of small comfort that makes these devices appealing.

Amazon’s ambitions go well beyond timers and garage doors. The company also announced an Alexa-enabled microwave, which can translate voice requests into cooking actions. In Amazon’s demo, the user pressed a button on the microwave to activate Alexa (a nearby Echo could also be used), and then told it what to do – defrost a chicken, cook a potato, pop a bag of popcorn, and so on. The device can also interface with Amazon’s Dash Replenishment Service, counting the number of times you pop popcorn and automatically reordering when you’re running low.

The microwave is a real product that consumers can buy, but it’s also a proof of concept for the “Alexa Connect Kit,” an Alexa micro-controller Amazon wants manufacturers to put in appliances of all kinds. Apple offers software tools for its similar home-automation services, but it doesn’t manufacture things like refrigerators.

Amazon, by contrast, has been using its Amazon Basics line of products – which includes everything from diapers to microwaves – to compete with the retailers whose products it also sells. At a price of $59.99, the Alexa microwave could be read as a warning to appliance makers everywhere: Incorporate Alexa into your devices, or Amazon will undercut your prices and steal your market. (Ongoing antitrust concerns about Amazon are the subject of a preliminary probe by the European Union.)

You are already living inside a computer.

The actual benefits of all the Alexa-enabled toasters and coffee machines and printers and razors are dubious. On the surface, it’s hard to imagine why pressing a button on a microwave and saying “Stop” would ever be more appealing than just pressing a stop button. But Internet of Things (IoT) devices didn’t ever promise greater efficiency or utility. Instead, they pledge to turn dead, offline objects into living, online ones. They make using anything, even a timer or a microwave, into an experience as familiar and pleasurable as using a smartphone.

In many cases, those IoT gadgets work badly or not at all: Hackers commandeer baby monitors, door locks cease to function during software updates, gas ovens risk spewing toxins into the room when actuated in error.

But Amazon’s approach to the Internet of Things goes deeper than basic functionality. It finds the tiny shifts where the actions common to ordinary life can be made to feel slightly more compatible with the contemporary, computer-addled consumer. Companies like Amazon have created some of the problems they hope to solve with technology: Nobody would need a wall clock for an Alexa timer had Amazon not inspired that use case. But that doesn’t make the solutions feel less comforting when they arrive.

Just before Amazon was announcing its new Alexa lineup, the insurer John Hancock announced that it would cease to underwrite traditional life-insurance policies in favor of “interactive” ones based on tracking users’ fitness data through wearable devices. These trends have been on the horizon in insurance for some time – some health-care providers offer discounts for people who voluntarily use wearables to track health or exercise, and auto insurers offer breaks for people willing to install devices that monitor their driving habits.

Critics rightly note that these devices don’t necessarily provide meaningful indicators of risk, and that they amount to a tax on insurance for those unwilling to take a premium hit in exchange for increased privacy. But John Hancock’s move might be a sign of what’s to come.

Whether or not Amazon gets into the insurance or health-care business, once the Alexa service starts gathering data on what people cook in their microwave or toaster, or when and how often they turn off their lights, or use their garage door, or do anything else made possible by the Alexa Connect Kit, the company will own an enormous database of collective and individual behavior.

Today you ate a potato, but yesterday you zapped a frozen meal. Or maybe you bought lean chicken from Whole Foods, an Amazon subsidiary, and then cooked it in your Alexa-enabled oven, validating a potentially healthy lifestyle choice. The lights in the workout room can be turned on remotely, but if they never illuminate, then what does that say about your fitness routine? Amazon owns the popular Ring doorbell-camera company now, which means it also knows what happens on your stoop. Knowing when the garage door opens, thanks to Echo Auto, allows the company to track when you leave and return home.

It’s even possible to determine what the occupants of a home are doing just by doing signal processing on its electrical main. Given the massive volumes of data that have already been collected about everyone, a world where Alexa’s everywhere has the potential to create an unprecedentedly powerful profile of human behavior. People are worried about Alexa listening to their conversations, but what about what Amazon can do with the inferred meaning of all the small actions and instructions we freely and knowingly give Alexa?

That future is still a ways off, but it’s on the horizon. It’s still so difficult to connect the possibility of a dystopian, corporate surveillance state with a new gizmo that makes an insignificant moment in ordinary life incrementally more pleasurable. Even for those who already know better. I’m still eyeing a spot on my kitchen wall where the Echo clock might go. It will blink off the minutes of my tea steeping while appliances all around me amass and transmit information about my life back to Amazon for further processing.

 

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