Clodagh Finn: Jeff Bezos built his big space dream on the work of the 'little' people

It’s up to us to think about who benefits when we click and buy. We might not be able to stop the billionaire space odyssey, but we don’t have to help finance it.
Clodagh Finn: Jeff Bezos built his big space dream on the work of the 'little' people

A year-long study of one of Jeff Bezos' Amazon warehouses by the New York Times, found that their system “burned through workers, resulted in inadvertent firings and stalled benefits, and impeded communication”. Photo: AP/Tony Gutierrez

What was most unsettling about Jeff Bezos’s 11-minute journey to the edge of space was not that the world’s richest man was joyriding while planet earth burned below, or even that he did so in a phallic rocket, but that he thanked ‘us’ — Amazon customers — for paying for it.

And which one of us hasn’t been an Amazon customer at one point or another?

Ask Alexa, Amazon’s voice-based digital assistant, and she will tell you that we are, wittingly or not, living in a world that Jeff built. The billionaire’s imprint is on more goods, services, and products than you can shake a stick at.

His kingdom on earth extends from e-commerce of all kinds — books, food, fashion, tech, home décor, food, you name it — to cloud computing, digital streaming, and the good old-fashioned newspaper business in the shape of the Washington Post, which Bezos bought in 2013.

At least we can choose to become an Amazon customer. Amazon goods and services might be hard to avoid, but you are not obliged to buy them. It is much more troubling to consider the lot of the other group of people on Jeff Bezos’s thank-you list — his workers.

He thanked them, too, on becoming the second billionaire, after Richard Branson, to go into orbit.

“I want to thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this,” he said. In other words, some 1.3m Amazon employees worldwide helped to pay for his space vision and his ongoing bids for NASA contracts. 

Those ‘guys’ did so by working long hours in poor conditions with too few breaks and unrealistic productivity demands.

Labour groups and workers have described how, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Amazon continued to track every minute of their shifts, calculating how fast they packed merchandise and when they stopped. A year-long study of a New York warehouse by the New York Times, published last month, found that Amazon’s system “burned through workers, resulted in inadvertent firings and stalled benefits, and impeded communication”.

It described Amazon as a vast mechanism that hired, monitored, disciplined, and fired people. Yet the tech giant continued to deliver packages on time and turn its owner into the richest human being in the world. 

The billionaire space race

Now that he has done his worst on planet Earth, he is looking to colonise space. And colonise is the right word for it, as he has spoken of his multi-generational vision of how the solar system could support a trillion humans.

Sci-fi? Perhaps, but he has said his vision is influenced by the proposals of American physicist Gerard K O’Neill, who, in the 1970s, spoke of the possibility of building giant cylinder-shaped space colonies that could support far more people and businesses than are possible on Earth.

In a sense then, are we to think of Jeff Bezos as a visionary? “If we had a trillion humans,” he has said, “we would have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources and solar power.”

And he would have a trillion new potential Amazon customers.

We are truly witnessing “the dawn of a new space age”, as Branson said when he touched down earlier this month, but which one of us will look at this billionaire space race and think that it represents a giant leap for humankind?

They are not even astronauts in the eyes of the US Federal Aviation Administration. The regulatory agency says would-be astronauts must demonstrate “activities during flight that are essential to public safety, or contribute to human space flight safety”.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, the space-travelling super-rich will contribute to this world, or indeed the universe beyond. Branson just wants to demonstrate that space tourism is possible, but it’s unnerving to think that Bezos and SpaceX founder Elon Musk are interested in shaping a spacefaring civilization.

Musk has said it’s about believing in the future and thinking that it will be better than the past.

An admirable sentiment but you can’t help thinking that space travel for billionaires has more to do with finding new planets after this one is spent.

But then, billionaires have every right to do whatever they want with their money, be it a jaunt into the heavens or the construction of a heavenly palace here on Earth, as a Chinese property tycoon is doing in central London.

Cheung Chung-kiu has just got planning permission to build a 45-bedroom private palace overlooking Hyde Park. The €575m mansion will be equipped with a ballroom, Olympic-sized swimming pool, and a two-level basement for his luxury cars.

The only difference, however, is that he is unlikely to thank ‘you guys’ for paying for it.

Funded by the 'little' people

What rankles most about Bezos’s big dream is that it was realised at the expense of the ‘little’ people — his workers and customers. While workers may have few choices in a job-scarce, post-pandemic world, at least customers do.

It’s up to us to think about who benefits when we click and buy. We might not be able to stop the billionaire space odyssey, but we don’t have to help finance it.

Consider this promotional tweet from Kennys, an independent bookshop in Galway and one of the first to go online: “Thousands of books cheaper than Amazon. Thousands of books NOT on Amazon. Order from Ireland for free shipping. Order from abroad for cheap international shipping.”

“And,” adds Tomás Kenny, “we pay taxes, talk to our customers, spend money in the local community, treat staff fairly, and don’t want to own the galaxy.”

You will find similar local businesses all around Ireland and it is up to us to support them.

Back on planet Bezos, it is worth noting that he blasted into suborbital space exactly 52 years, to the day, after his five-year-old self watched his heroes Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon.

Looking back now, those seem like the heady days of exploration and discovery, but let’s not forget that not everyone was over the moon.

In 1971, Marvin Gaye sang in Inner City Blues: “Rockets, moon shots/Spend it on the have nots/ Money, we make it/ Fore we see it you take it.”

In the same year, poet Gil Scott-Heron released the proto-rap song ‘Whitey on the Moon’, a stinging criticism of the Moon landings.

It went: “Was all that money I made las’ year/ (for Whitey on the Moon?)/How come there ain’t no money here?/ (Hm! Whitey’s on the Moon)/Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill/ (of Whitey on the Moon)/I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills, / Airmail special/ (to Whitey on the Moon).

Replace ‘Whitey on the Moon’ with ‘Oligarch in Orbit’ and you have an anthem for our times.

It may well be the dawn of a new space era — for the very rich and very vain — but how depressing to see that so little has changed here on Earth.

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