Jeff Bezos: Please Build Something Beautiful
My older sis recently floated the idea of starting a joint Instagram account called @5GForever that will host nothing but our amateur photos of 5G “towers.” The “tower” bit is a woeful misnomer, of course, these blobs have nothing in common with Eiffel or Pisa. They look like a giant snuffed his green-banded cigarette out on a cul-de-sac near you.
That would be the @5GForever point. You’ll not get a lovely shot of a 5G Tower because they have no “good side,” as Mariah Carey is always fussing about. It’s U-G-L-Y for days, no alibis, no respite.
I suppose the rationale is: who cares? America’s tech titans are providing us with internet loading speeds .3 seconds faster than they were last year. Mark Zuckerberg is going to gift you an alternative you — new body, new species!, new house, new vacation home, new athletic prowess, new relationship to physics, a new history, but all and only online. Elon Musk will have your car driving for you. Jeff Bezos will take you—and by you, I mean an otherwise non-astronaut-trained multi-billionaire—to space.
Let’s hone in on Zuckerberg for a moment. The man is trying very hard to make his Metaverse a delight of sensory envelopment. It will look beautiful, it will feel smooth and true. Ready Player One, much? Sure. A coming enhanced dystopia seems likely; the parallels are audacious, obvious. When a critical mass chooses to escape (their disenchantment, their poverty, their loneliness, their self-consciousness, their pain, their boredom) into the digital realm, physical human habitats will decay. Of course they will. Time is short, and tending a Metaverse garden or mastering an algorithm-ized kick-flip takes a share. So it’s adios to the back yard bell peppers, so long real-world skate park. Why risk the bug bites and skinned knees?
Oh, you may call me a Luddite. I don’t mind. What people often forget is the Luddites were right. Their panic: mechanized factory life would rob them not only of their individual artisan livelihoods, but would also destroy the community bonds that wove a town, a neighborhood together. Modernity would invade the whole of their existence, its metal machine sounds announcing the end of provincial values.
Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened. Consider that if the Luddites had got it wrong, most of Charles Dickens’ canon wouldn’t exist. Up-close experience in debtor’s prison and with the filthy city living conditions industrialists would accommodate in the name of progress took root in young Charles’ heart and grew to bear the fruit of righteous indignation. He impaled London’s 19th-century societal rot on the knife tip of his pen.
It isn’t just 5G towers mucking up the view. The soft bigotry of low expectations is everywhere evident in our physical lives. You do not gasp in wonder at the aesthetic pleasure of a strip mall, but by golly if they don’t keep building them. City developers from coast to coast might as well belong to a secret society that demands initiates swear allegiance to flat glass and metal in a remote range of grey tones as the sole materials for new construction. Been to a hotel room lately? Then you too have experienced the “tasteful—but purgatorial” monotony Darren Anderson described in a 2020 piece for The Atlantic, “Why Every City Feels The Same Now.”
Efficiency and frictionless-ness are the name of the game, and the result is an increasingly tiny sliver of winners, a burgeoning pot of losers. A handful of tech companies/music producers/real estate developers/social media influencers/celebrities/financial firms have formed themselves a global fist to smash out cultural diversity of all kinds — scientific, artistic, architectural, societal, entrepreneurial.
To take one unambiguous example, I’d welcome almost any form of deviancy in interior design at this point, if only to give the eye something to think about besides anodyne HGTV “trends” that’ve been going strong for at least a decade.
Still, let us look for hope where we might find it. Our federally elected officials cannot rouse themselves to tinker with even the most banal fundamentals of their job, so wishing on the Big Brother star is out for the foreseeable future.
Ergo, what about the Bezos lot? It’s worth considering. The tech billionaire crew has thus far been mostly a disappointing bunch in terms of their societal contributions. No doubt they give a whole lot of money to various causes, and that’s fine. (Or… is there doubt?)
But in grading their visible, lasting national legacy, an F- would be generous. Here’s a short list of the public works amenities funded by the one-percent of generations past: the Carnegie Mellon Museum of Nature and Science, Music Hall, and Museum of Art; Rockefeller Center; Vanderbilt University; The New York Public Library; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Berklee School of Music; the Colorado Museum of Natural History; the Art Institute of Chicago; Phipps Conservatory; Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden; the Kimbell Art Museum, this could go on for pages. Look up the history of a museum or theater or botanical garden or city park, and you will likely find standing at its inception some singular or small group of dastardly one-percenters concerning themselves with the communal impact they might have on those “everyday Americans” who lived in the cities they also called home.
How ‘bout our 2021 big biz titans? Zuckerberg is currently hoping to pile more hay on his platforms’ 1.5 billion+ needles, pushing Meta “users” (god-awful term) forever further on their atomized, unfindable digital drift. Elon Musk would like to transfer the human species to Mars, and be himself the first space pilgrim. Godspeed to you Elon; we’ll miss the tweets. (And I’ll give credit where it’s due — Teslas are the most aesthetically interesting and satisfying automobiles on the road. Respect.)
I wouldn’t think Jeff Bezos a natural public works philanthropist. He attended high school in suburban south Florida, his company began as a kind of half-priced books— but online!— and he patented one-click ordering. His personal backstory is… somewhat mundane, I suppose. He doesn’t have the pugnacious punch of Musk, nor the cringe-y spectacle of Zuckerberg. He’s a guy who made an unfathomable pile of money perfecting the art of bulk purchasing, book monopolies, and product distribution. Inspirational? Well…
And yet, I think Bezos the most suitable billionaire for the job at hand due to his company‘s entanglement in the physicality of human lives. Those cardboard boxes and white plastic packages show up in real, three-dimensional, gravity-abiding form on your doorstep. As of February of 2021, Amazon employed 1.3 million people worldwide, a great majority of whom don’t belong to the Pajama Class. They arrive in bodily reality at a warehouse or Whole Foods, and their corporeal exertions are crucial to keeping Amazon in business.
And the job I have in mind is the restoration and revival of our physical human spaces, here on Earth.
It’s that time of year, so: you know that scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey tells the miserly Mr. Potter that the people of Bedford Falls deserve a decent house to live in before they’re dead? It’s George declaring the dignity of regular old human beings, the firefighters and taxi drivers and librarians and construction workers. It’s a pronouncement that their quality of life matters, that the places they call home should be charming and well-built, if only because they have to live there.
Bezos could start by tidying up his own proverbial house, transforming Amazon’s metal box warehouses into environments more amenable to human flourishing. Standard windows don’t make much sense in a cavern of opaque boxed aisles, but bountiful skylights do. Consider that artists are dependably in need of work, and Bezos is quite overrun with cash. Why not give the Zoom generation a chance to paint Amazon warehouse exteriors? The interior too, maybe throw some aging millennial artists a bone there. The recent tornado tragedy in Kentucky highlights a weakness of physical safety, of course, but the improvement of the work environment of an Amazon warehouse, more broadly speaking, is a worthy one.
Could the floors be something besides concrete? Could Bezos consider retiring fluorescent lighting for, oh, say eternity? Start a trend, my man. No one needs to spend time with lighting that looks designed for illegal interrogation tactics.
The big question: why should anyone laboring in America in 2021 for the wealthiest man on the planet have to spend 8–12 hours a day in a construction originally conceived to chuck inanimate overflow goods? These are not human places.
But they could be.
As that rare millennial person of faith (we exist!), I find the most reliable offenders of aesthetic sensibility often shuffling around church building and finance boards. Most modern congregations apparently don’t mind meeting in converted middle school gyms or strip mall stalls. Frankly, they’d cop to a warehouse if they got a good deal on the space (don’t get any ideas, Bezos).
Amazon’s founder is, to all public knowledge, not a religious guy. But if he is uncomfortable throwing in his lot with philanthropists past, many of whom understood religious devotion to be a societal good whether or not they partook personally, perhaps Bezos could examine the scientific literature on the benefits of faith. The physical and mental health upsides to religiosity are many and wide-ranging. Now considering that a) the plebs are currently adrift, drowning in political rage, economic instability, shockingly poor health, and that old reliable menace, substance abuse, and b) an increasing amount of their discontent is being aimed at the untouchable elite, and c) we’ve learned how the French Revolution went down, it seems a wise investment to beautify the religious spaces of these untold masses, a very good use of billionaire bucks.
I’m also, personally speaking, desperately curious to see what inspired church architecture of anno domini 2021 would look like. Surely nothing will rival the flying buttresses of the Chartres Cathedral, the Gothic glory of Notre Dame, the monolithic mic drop of St. Peter’s. I concede, white flag raised.
But contemplate the offering modernity might make towards transcendence. Immaculate lines, unfettered windows, the miraculous physical possibilities proffered by steel alone — tantalizing to ponder. An eternal message of the divine calling to the mortal, a visionary architect, and Jeff Bezos’ budget. Imagine.
Perhaps not, though. It may be sheer lunacy to hope Bezos will involve himself in anything approaching divisive. Can we get a new public park, then? Or how about a library… From the guy who got his start off book sales, a library makes sense. Something, Bezos. Something beautiful.
Because like it or not (and frankly, I hate it), Americans have always depended on filthy rich philanthropists for the better part of what counts as lovely in our public squares.
And this is my groveling appeal to a man who just took himself to space in a cowboy hat. Yes, I understand the odds are against it.
Still, the prospect of what a 2021 flying buttress might be compels me. So.
Jeff Bezos, please build something beautiful.