Spheres of Panopticon

Bezos’ balls are not that big. I suppose I was expecting something bigger, grander, given all the recent hype about the Amazon spheres. They look absurd, bubbling up amidst tall steel skyscrapers and construction cranes. More absurd (or comforting?) is seeing the flickering LED sign for the stripclub Darlings across the street advertising “Open During Construction” (thank god!), “Hot Girls Waiting to Entertain” and “Fantasy Booths.”

 Looking across 7th Ave, I watch a man sweeping miniscule shreds of mulch from the north entrance of the spheres.

He’s working to maintain the spheres’ pristine exterior. As a late-capitalist panopticon, the spheres invite us to gaze upon Amazon employees and they can gaze right back, unless they’re too busy engaging in the kind of creatively and collaborative labor that the spheres are designed to encourage. But if Foucault’s panopticon explains how an architecture of surveillance disciplines both those who watch and those who are seen, how are the spheres disciplining us as Seattleites? And while we’re gazing at them, what don’t we see?

We don’t see the labor that pushed these spheres to bubble up from Seattle’s center; the labor that most directly connects us to Amazon as a global economic force.

The concrete, rectangular Amazon fulfillment centers are the architectural opposite of the spheres. We don’t see the workers scrambling amongst rows of steel shelves and plastic boxes to locate orders for everything from dildoes and shower curtains to coffee mugs and batteries.

Unlike the boring uniformity of the fulfillment centers, the spheres make us long for something different, something innovative. The spheres aren’t a regular workplace, they’re a cool workplace! A cool workplace that makes a show of certain kinds of labor being just more valuable (and therefore more gaze-worthy) than others. No one visiting today, or next week when the spheres open, is here to see the sweeper in his futile battle with fly-away mulch and leaves. We want to see the creatives at work in a tropical paradise, amongst 40,000 different trees and plants from all over the world that are thoughtfully arranged and cared for by a full-time horticulturist.

The glass panes discipline me with a mythos of openness and transparency. No matter how hard I look, I still don’t know what kind of labor will be done behind those glass panes, so I’m reminded of the kind of labor happening in the fulfillment centers that are also part of Amazon’s footprint in the global economy. Meritocracy flourishes inside the spheres’ verdant, lush interiors as they remind us of the kind of labor that we should aim for: creative; collaborative; high-paying; high-powered; visible, yet inscrutable.

When steel mills and car factories took up the skylines of Midwestern cities, it was clear what kind of work was happening there. It was clear what other kinds of businesses cropped up beside those industrial lots: restaurants, gas stations, laundromats. Just as the steel mills towered above Cleveland, and the car factories above Detroit, the spheres draw our attention to the promise of economic success and new forms of labor that drive it, and that in turn depend upon it.

They also remind us that all bubbles eventually burst.

*I wrote this during a course titled “Writing the City” at Hugo House in February 2018

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