Amazon, the online retail giant, is in the midst of running its own hunger games. The contestants are 238 cities and regions across North America. The prize is being chosen as the site for Amazon’s second headquarters (HQ2), which promises to employ upwards of 50,000 people. These cities are locked in a fierce battle to outbid each other and they’ll do anything, give anything, to be chosen.
In an era of brutal austerity, cities are hollowed out and hoping for a savior. Since the tech sector is flush with cash, by showing up and saying the magic words – growth, jobs, investment, innovation – city leaders bend to their will. Amazon’s HQ2 competition is the latest egregious example of a techno-capitalist regime that’s bewitching cities around the world.
While only about 30 of the proposals are publicly available so far, they paint a troubling picture of cities clamoring to sell their soul to Amazon. As the Seattle Times reports, the amount of money, perks and power that cities are ready to give away to Amazon is absolutely galling. It goes way beyond just standard subsidies and tax breaks.
New Jersey has offered $7bn in incentives to Amazon if they build HQ2 in Newark. Whereas, in a proposal that sounds like it should be illegal, Chicago’s bid would force employees of HQ2 to pay part of their salary back to Amazon as “income tax”. That is, HQ2 employees would still have income tax deducted, but instead of going to the government – to fund things like public services and infrastructure – it would be given to Amazon. This is a case where taxation is actually (wage) theft.
In a similar vein of outrageous offerings, Fresno, California, has proposed the creation of an Amazon Community Fund – innocuous name, insidious plan. For 100 years, 85% of all taxes collected from Amazon would be put into an account jointly controlled by city leaders and Amazon executives. The taxes would be spent to support HQ2 and Fresno promises to promote Amazon’s role as benefactor for any project paid for by the “community fund” (AKA public dollars).
It’s alarming that so many proposals are essentially treating Amazon as a sovereign, whether that’s collecting taxes for the company or allowing it to control tax spending. Amazon – and by extension the 100-billion-dollar man founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos – will be crowned king of whatever city it decides to grace with the HQ2.
Writing in N+1 Magazine, Nikil Saval shows how the HQ2 competition is not just an exciting project for cities, rather it is a melancholic plea for revitalization: “All cities were forced to realize their basic inadequacy: that ultimately, all their tireless work to cultivate their urbanity amounted to nothing if they did not have Amazon.”
If only the hunger games brought to you by Amazon was a one-off spectacle, rather than just another in a series of warning signs that we’re all on a bleak trajectory. Frankly, the future of our cities looks grim: Amazon lords over desperate cities, while Google owns entire urban districts, Bill Gates builds his own smart city, and Uber privatizes city services.
These are not discrete events. They are manifestations of an overarching agenda: the techno-capitalist takeover of cities. While corporate promises of high-paying jobs and investments in city infrastructure tantalize politicians, the immediate effects of this agenda will be paid by ordinary citizens through rising taxes, increased housing costs, and selling off public goods.
Cities represent the frontier of value extraction for tech corporations, as they are full of public services to “disrupt”, government coffers to raid, and people to exploit. While American cities are no stranger to privatization, the entrance of tech giants into urban development portends a long-term reorganization of local power based on proprietary platforms, data harvesting, managerial control. All of which reshapes cities into profit-generating machines for techno-capitalists.
At the heart of this techno-capitalist agenda is a reimagination of what it will mean to live in the city: how we will access goods and services (Amazon!), how we will move about (Uber!), how we will afford housing (Airbnb!), how we will be governed (Google!), and how we will be recognized as citizens with rights, if at all? The rise of “smart cities” represents a grand experiment in what it will mean to live in and through powerful, data-driven, networked systems.
This might not sound so bad, if you are privileged enough to enjoy the modest conveniences and capabilities that smart tech provides. For many who lack that position in society, however, this vision of the city looks like unaccessible services, unaffordable rents, unmitigated power, and undemocratic politics.
Amazon has said it will make its final decision about where to locate HQ2 in 2018. Wherever it moves, it will mold the urban landscape to feed its hunger for profit and power. That same hunger drives the techno-capitalist takeover. We cannot be so tempted by promises of prosperity and progress that we miss the pernicious agenda at work. The future of our cities is at stake.
- Jathan Sadowski is a postdoctoral research fellow in smart cities at the University of Sydney, Australia, and Karen Gregory is a lecturer in digital sociology at the University of Edinburgh