If you live anywhere near a city of any notable size, you and your neighbors and all your local amenities probably have been offered up by your area’s development boosters as “assets” or “talent,” or “resources” to Amazon.com. Since the retailer announced in early September that it plans to build a “second headquarters” operation, worth up to $5 billion, it claimed, cities and states across the country have been gushing about the advantages they can offer, and rushing to throw together sealed bids that they hope will make Amazon hand them the rose. It’s a bit amusing to see how gullible and desperate people can seem to be when huge amounts of money and vague promises are being offered.
Amazon, you must be aware, is much more than a retailer. Taking orders for millions of different products is simply how it makes most of its revenue. It’s more accurate to think of Amazon as a market research firm, because well after it has received your order and scheduled the delivery it is analyzing what that order (the product, the cost, the location of the drop) reveals about you. The information is collated with all the other information Amazon has collected about you and the other inhabitants of your home, your street, your zip code, etc., and extrapolated into insights about the meaning of all this information, and what it may tell them about your next purchase, or what any of this information may be worth to someone willing to pay Amazon for it.
Operating this way, Amazon has made itself an arbiter of new products, especially technologies. It stepped up from retailer to developer and technology-brand name with the Amazon Kindle e-book device about 12 years ago – a telling transition from a company that made its initial appearance selling books online. Books are only a minor part of its inventory now, but with all the clothing and merchandise and groceries being shipped and delivered, who has time to read anyway?
From the Kindles, Amazon has proceeded to offer phones, gaming systems, entertainment systems, and more, up to the “intelligent personal assistants” that sit on your end-table or desk, ready to answer questions and place your order for anything at all, with Amazon.
Amazon also would like you to think of it as your helper and advisor: this is a crazy, confusing world and you’re so busy, and all these decisions can be bewildering. Now that Amazon understands you, why not let Amazon help you decide what to buy?
Considering how well Amazon has grown by reading the general population’s impulse to buy things that will instantly resolve some perceived need, or fulfill some emptiness, it’s plausible that the company needs more space: such impulsiveness is eternal. This new HQ2 will be a center of innovation, they promise, drawing the best talent and the most creative individuals. It’s a vision of the future. So why is the tournament to “win” the new headquarters playing out like the tired contests of the past — to host the Olympics, for example, or a political convention?
The answer is that Amazon does not know what the future holds any more than you or me, but it knows that someplace will pay a lot for the chance to appear as if it does. Real-estate people and economic developers (and online retailers) make their income convincing people to buy something that is not there, yet, but will be soon. They’re ready to deal.
Every city, county, and state is desperate to launch or continue its economic growth. For a historically struggling locale, any chance is worth taking. If it’s a boom town, it has to keep the boom booming. They’ll promise tax abatements and future development rights. They’ll boast about their available workforce. They’ll pledge to update infrastructure and rehabilitate their neighborhoods as Smart cities.
But, anything these places promise to become for Amazon also reveals what they presently are not. Amazon can interpret the results. When it lands someplace new it will be to achieve what it wants now. It may be selling a vision of the future but it’s operating in the present – and hoping it can keep its vision of the future hidden just well enough to make people pay for it, again.