Humanist Dilemma: Should I Boycott Amazon?

Shop or Drop?

A few years ago a friend reacted with horror when I told her I get everything I possibly can through Amazon. She told me the behemoth e-seller was destroying life as we know it, shuttering bookstores and malls, collecting way too much personal data, and amassing too much power. I lamely told her I found it really convenient and that I hate shopping in stores.

Now I see evidence that her fears may be coming to pass, including the way the company is setting up shop in New York City (and Arlington, Virginia), with tax incentives that seem totally out of whack, arranged through a secret deal with city and state officials.

Should people be boycotting Amazon? Although I don’t want to condone or promote invasive business practices or the annihilation of any competition, I’d hate to give up the myriad benefits Amazon provides, and I certainly don’t want to if I’m just one person putting myself out but making no difference.

—Prime Suspect

Dear Prime,

I suppose in the prior century a similar argument might have been made about using the telephone (think of all the stationery and pen suppliers that lost out, and how much it must have diminished traffic at the post office). Or how trains and automobiles harmed all the businesses related to horses and buggies. Or what airplanes did to trains, cars, and ocean liners. Or how television impacted the radio and the movie industries.

I don’t think it’s necessary to shun new ways of doing things, even if they foist unwanted change on the old ways. Consider, selfishly, how much valuable time you save by scrolling for something you want rather than running from shop to shop looking for it, or even phoning around to find who has it in stock. Look at how you can comparison shop for better prices or get an idea of the array of alternatives out there. And I, for one, love getting on a long plane ride with just my Amazon Kindle instead of a bag full of reading material (especially now that there’s no space to stow a shopping bag full of books, newspapers and magazines).

Yes, we all have to be vigilant about companies that overstep the boundaries of our personal data, or that shake out local businesses and shake down customers as they become monstrously large and powerful. But personally boycotting isn’t the answer. Watchdogs and legislation are much more effective approaches to identifying and curtailing overreach and unfair practices, just as the advent of automobiles was followed by building better roads and instituting strict rules. And it’s not just Amazon, but also many other players in the burgeoning online and social media marketplaces that need to be harnessed. These entities are growing by leaps and bounds because overall we love what they do for us and what we can do thanks to them. But it’s naïve to think they have our best interests at heart. Over the years, many industries (telecommunications, banks, airlines, pharmaceuticals, etc.) have been subject to regulation and legislation to rein in monopolistic and otherwise consumer-unfriendly practices. As new industries emerge and grow, new responses must keep up with them.

A few decades back, your friend might have advised you not to get a phone, a TV, or a car. Today you’d have a hard time getting along without those things—or the latest alternatives to them. For better or worse, that’s progress. It’s not something you should feel guilty about or deny yourself. But if it makes you feel better, you (and your friend) could become advocates for consumer protection organizations to keep these new-fangled ways of doing things from running roughshod over the individuals and societies they serve.

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