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'Amazon Empire' review: Chilling, exhaustive and fair study of the tech giant

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 13: CEO and founder

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 13: CEO and founder of Amazon Jeff Bezos participates in a discussion during a Milestone Celebration dinner September 13, 2018 in Washington, DC. Economic Club of Washington celebrated its 32nd anniversary at the event. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) Credit: Getty Images/Alex Wong

DOCUMENTARY "Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos" on "Frontline"

WHEN|WHERE Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Former "60 Minutes" producers James Jacoby — who appears on camera — and Anya Bourg, both now with "Frontline's" Enterprise Journalism Group, spoke to nine former employees and a roster of Amazon's top executives for this two-hour investigation of one of the tech world's great disrupters, now valued at over $1 trillion. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos — the world's richest person — is not interviewed.) Their sobering conclusion: Amazon now has a vast store of information about us and will use that to grow even more powerful. 

MY SAY We know now that in the early years of the 21st century, our world was being closely watched by intelligences greater than our own. We were being scrutinized, like transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Yet with infinite complacence, we carried on:

Alexa, how do you make sugar cookies? Alexa, how do you pronounce "Lizzo?" Alexa, what are the opening lines of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds?" 

Alexa, what do you have to say for yourself after watching this exhaustive takedown?

Good company soldier that Alexa is, she/he might say, "ignore it." But you should not, particularly the second hour when the discussion does get around to Alexa which — as "Amazon Empire" suggests — is a digital Trojan Horse. Alexa is studying you, while Amazon Ring — the security camera — watches your every move. Both are on the vanguard of an unimaginably vast and growing data-mining operation. But to what end?

Even George Orwell and H.G. Wells would be chilled by this program, but neither they nor you get much of an answer to that question. There is so much else to get to first — almost too much. .   

Such scale engenders controversy, and "Amazon Empire" covers much of that — charges that it shipped unsafe products, or that its workforce was exploited, or that it has used its might to terrorize entire industries, then subvert them, most notably, publishing. 

HQ2 comes up late in the broadcast, but vividly. Asked about the Long Island City reversal, Jay Carney, chief of global communications, says "when the governor and mayor turned out to be not enough to persuade [the] critics, we decided that's fine. We can go somewhere else." 

Mayor Bill deBlasio gets the comeback line: "Pure idiocy from a guy who should know a hell of a lot better … In what world is there no critic?"

There are plenty in these two hours. Shel Kaphan, Amazon's first employee, says that a breakup "could potentially make sense." Animashree Anandkumar, a Caltech professor and Amazon's top AI engineer from 2016 to 2018, says Amazon's facial recognition technology is not "ready for prime-time in challenging environments like law enforcement."   Nevertheless, scores of police departments are now using it (Amazon declines to say how many.)

For each charge, Amazon's top executives offer what appear to be perfectly reasonable, well-practiced answers. Jacoby presses them, and they press back. It's all scrupulously fair, but at times also obscures the broader point that "Amazon Empire" wants to make and frequently does: This company is already way ahead of us and its critics, and is now laying the groundwork for a future only it can envision. These controversies are yesterday's battles, and yesterday's news, or as someone says here, "it's all about the long term" for Amazon. 

"Amazon Empire" may at times be a little too focused on the past, but what's here is chilling enough. At a minimum, you'll never look at Alexa quite the same way afterward.

BOTTOM LINE Chilling, exhaustive and fair — but not enough about where this company is headed, and us along with it. 

 

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