Facial Recognition, Peccy, Precarious Labour: The Human Cost of Amazon

An earlier version of this article was published in November 2018 for Topical Cream Magazine.

People die “mysteriously” working at Amazon. There are too many news stories documenting workers “suddenly” getting sick. I use quotes because it doesn’t take a detective to figure out what’s going on. When you click “deliver in the next 5 to 7 business days,” you enable and sanction a class of indentured employees tasked with strenuous labor, without health insurance or paid time off. As consumers, we are all implicated, but the heaviest burden lies on the company for facilitating such an exploitative and expropriate structure and on the American nation-state which has created this economic reality with lax corporate laws, a vision that spoon feeds us the delusion of trickle-down economics.

I worked at an Amazon fulfillment center in Austin, Texas, and Heike Geissler, the author of Seasonal Associate, (Semiotext(e)/Native Agents, 2018), worked at another facility in Leipzig, East Germany. In her book, Geissler, a freelance writer from Leipzig, first starts working for Amazon when she’s in between jobs in the literary industry and looking for a temp job to tide her over. The memoir examines her time there while implicating you, the reader. The book joins earlier efforts to expose the e-commerce giant like Vanessa Veselka’s “In the Wake of Protest: One Woman’s Attempt to Unionize Amazon” (2011) and James Bloodworth’s Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-wage Britain (2018). There have been other explorations that take a more poetic approach like Of the Subcontract (2013) by Nick Thurston, which compiles poems written by underpaid subcontracted workers commissioned through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service.

Before I started working at Amazon — a job I took this summer in a similar position as Geissler because I needed the money to tide me over financially between graduate programs — I explored the corporation’s demands on its workers in a performance called To Be A Box (2018), where I played an embodied Amazon box being interviewed. In December, as a part of Alienated Labor exhibition at Ori Gallery in Portland, I debuted Abra (2018), a video installation of an interview I conduct with Peccy, Amazon’s customer service obsessed mascot. The name Abra was chosen upon learning of Bezos’ initial inspiration for the Amazon name, “Abracadabra.”1

In Abra (2018,) I engage in a conversation with Peccy, the friendly mascot of Amazon. Peccy focuses on “customer satisfaction” and “happiness” produced by capitalist consumption. This mascot is known to the public through his smile imprinted an Amazon’s boxes and logos.2 A duplicitous image is presented to the mass public, while Peccy smiles, Amazon factory workers endure arduous work conditions and their unexplained deaths occur. Peccy is also a “hypericon,” WJT Mitchell defines a “hypericon” as “a piece of moveable cultural apparatus, one which may serve a marginal role as illustrative device or a central role as a kind of summary image … that encapsulates an entire episteme, a theory of knowledge.”3 In Abra, I postulate that a mascot is a “central role as a kind of summary image.” Since Peccy’s smile is printed on each and every Amazon box. By appropriating the mascot, I use the “hypericon” of Amazon, Peccy, to critique itself – a strategy that the corporate giant would never condone.

Those who quip, “Well, buying from and working at Amazon is voluntary, if you don’t like Amazon, simply buy from and work somewhere else” are ignoring the fact that a lot of times Amazon is the only provider of both jobs and necessities, especially in peripheral regions. Necessities, however, is still a relative term. “You usually pretend to need the things you want,” writes Geissler near the book’s beginning, underscoring how algorithmic marketing structures our desires. Big data enables hallowed consumption mobilized through Bezos “ingenuity,” more accurately, predatory extraction harnessed through data sets. Algorithms scan carts and place customers in slots for targeted ads, informed by the binary of race and class, a type of redlining analogous to the system that organized people and neighborhoods to refuse Black and Latinx people mortgages.4

Moreover, Amazon has extended the arms of the U.S. police surveillance state by selling its facial recognition software, Rekognition, to the police, as it is now being used by Washington County’s Sheriff Office. Since its debut in 2016 the “deep-learning artificial intelligence” software has been deployed on incarcerated people in the U.S.5 As of October 2018, Amazon has been in talks with ICE officials to use this technology on refugees at the U.S-Mexico border.6 This software, wildly inaccurate at identifying individuals, unleashed in such an unregulated manner in the hands of the government and policing bodies replicates anti-Black, xenophobia structural racism found in mainstream American society.7

This past summer, protests broke out in Spain, Germany, and Italy around subpar working conditions at Amazon facilities. However in America, Amazon has a steadfast trajectory of suppressing union organization, even though from 2015 to 2018, through the acquisition of Whole Foods and exploiting the decline of America’s retail industry, Amazon has more than doubled in size. My former facility is Austin was an open-air facility where employees worked in sweltering temperatures. Recently, this past summer, an air-conditioner installed. Who had to die, suffer, riot, or protest in order to finally make this happen?

The workers continue to “face” the consequences of their stolen labor and pilfered income, not the company. According to the Guardian, “In a 2017 corporate filing, Amazon reported that the median salary of its employees is $28,446, or roughly $13.68 an hour for full-time employees. Jeff Bezos makes more than that every nine seconds.”

In the current condition where top down authoritarian corporate hierarchy is standard, how can a lateral transparent structure exist? Geissler mentions the case of Betty Dukes, a Black woman who was subjected to multiple disciplinary actions by Walmart in 1994 when she called the company’s “Open Door” hotline, “a 1-800 number for internal complaints eventually known among Wal-Mart employees as ‘1-800-YOU’RE FIRED.’” As a worker, someone who is gendered and racialized, you, simply, cannot file for wrongdoing when the act of filing it is the wrong itself. Kevin Vennemann in Seasonal Associate’s afterward states: “Compelled to hawk our labor power to only the cheapest buyers on this new capitalist market, we are forced to distill ourselves and everything we are [our time, energy, labor, power, public and private life, our totalized being] into the commodified reification of labor.” Where no proper recourse exists whether through the company or government facilitation, workers internalize their exploitation and normalize it in order to survive and see the next light of day.

According to the faulty logic of corporate capitalism, only a chosen few deserve to get rich, however doesn’t everyone deserve fair compensation, a living wage or salary, and to be part of a culture or environment where they are not just tolerated but respected and appreciated? Death should not be the only guarantee promised to a worker, a decent life should. Also, we should question Amazon’s business deals when they side with the expansion of the police surveillance state. The unregulated deploying of facial recognition software strengthens present racist systems of incarceration and racial profiling policies that target poor, working-class, Black communities and communities of color.8

The only way to push the top from below is to connect horizontally. Connect with organizations such as Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC,) organize with civil liberty groups to desist the use of facial recognition software at local police and governing organizations. This is the case for San Francisco, the city recently banned facial recognition technology.9 Support your local hardware stores, reuse stores, and grocery stores — the ones not owned by Amazon. We need to demand equity for workers, whether by ballot, protest, or boycott. We need to demand the right to anonymity, the right to know who watches us.

Published in RTV Magazine

1 Lebowitz, Shana. “How Amazon Got Its Name.” Business Insider. May 07, 2018. Accessed May 14, 2019. https://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-jeff-bezos-chose-company-name-2018-5.

2 McCracken, Harry, and Harry McCracken. “Meet Peccy, the Bizarre, Beloved Mascot You Didn’t Know Amazon Had.” Fast & Company. April 14, 2019. Accessed May 14, 2019. https://www.fastcompany.com/90329525/amazon-peccy?partner=rss&utm_source=rss&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=rss fastcompany&utm_content=rss?cid.

3 Mitchell, W. J.T. “Chapter Two: Metapictures.” In Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, 35-60. Vol. 1. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

4 Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press, 2018.

5 Harwell, Drew, and Washington Post. “Amazon’s Facial-recognition Technology Is Supercharging Local Police.” SFGate. May 01, 2019. Accessed May 14, 2019. https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Amazon-s-facial-recognition-technology-is-13808193.php.

6 Harwell, Drew. “Amazon Met with ICE Officials over Facial-recognition System That Could Identify Immigrants.” The Washington Post. October 23, 2018. Accessed May 14, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2018/10/23/amazon-met-with-ice-officials-over-facial-recognition-system-that-could-identify-immigrants/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.e1c4a9cd2770.

7 Vincent, James. “AI Researchers Tell Amazon to Stop Selling “flawed” Facial Recognition to the Police.” The Verge. April 03, 2019. Accessed May 14, 2019. https://www.theverge.com/2019/4/3/18291995/amazon-facial-recognition-technology-rekognition-police-ai-researchers-ban-flawed.

8 Chiel, Ethan. “New York City Has Been Shining Surveillance Lights on Its Black Population for the Last 300 Years.” Splinter. July 24, 2017. Accessed May 04, 2019. https://splinternews.com/new-york-city-has-been-shining-surveillance-lights-on-i-1793856900.

9 Conger, Kate, Richard Fausset, and Serge F. Kovaleski. “San Francisco Bans Facial Recognition Technology.” The New York Times. May 14, 2019. Accessed May 14, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/14/us/facial-recognition-ban-san-francisco.html.