How did we get here? It all feels like an inevitable outgrowth of Amazon’s ever-expanding product suite. Install its motion-activated Ring doorbell and your stoop becomes a stage; enroll in its Amazon Prime service, and you’ll summon an endless stream of players. Amazon encourages customers to publicize their Ring videos on its safety-minded social network, Neighbors, and makes it easy to share them more widely, too. One of Ring’s marketing lines is “A lot happens at your front door,” and this is meant as both a warning and an invitation — though it suggests it is too dangerous to venture outside, it also implies that a whole world of entertainment is to be found through eyeing your surveillance feed.
Like the hyperlocal crime app Citizen, Neighbors drops the user in the bull’s-eye of a bustling emergency map, surrounding the home address with local crime reports and nearby surveillance videos to reinforce the perception that Ring’s technological fortress is necessary. At the same time, it wants to masquerade as a neighborly device. The official Ring YouTube channel is filled with user-generated videos that help inject its growing spy network with warmth and surprise, as the cameras catch spontaneous footage of good Samaritans, grazing cows and, of course, the company’s drivers caught in kooky scenarios, like in this entry from December: “Even a Giant Bear Will Not Stop This Amazon Driver From Making His Delivery.” Amazon obsessively surveils its workers through dashcams, smartphone monitors and machine-generated report cards, and these videos implicate the customer in that exercise, making the violation of driver privacy into a kind of internet-wide contest. The caption for Amazon’s bear video focuses on the heroic actions of a Ring user named Josh, who supposedly aided the delivery driver’s safety by “watching his exit the whole time” on the security camera.
As Amazon creates a new genre, it is revising the pop-cultural figure of the delivery person, who has long been cast as a beloved player in American life. The fictional postal worker, epitomized by Cliff in “Cheers” and Newman in “Seinfeld,” is a slightly pitiful character who demands an esteem he never quite receives. But the UPS guy (he is, with some notable exceptions, depicted as masculine) cuts a more respectable figure. In “The King of Queens,” in which Kevin James’s character works for the lightly fictionalized “IPS,” he is a jocular Everyman with a charming and beautiful wife. Elsewhere — in “Legally Blonde” and a 2019 New York Post profile of the “hot UPS delivery guy driving women crazy in NYC” — he is elevated to hunk status. He lifts heavy things and wears a uniform; in the summers, that uniform involves shorts. In any case, he is a familiar presence, a person who shows up at your office or apartment on a regular schedule to deliver something special and perhaps linger long enough to collect a signature. MadTV’s take on the character, Jaq the “UBS” guy, was in fact overly familiar — customers could never get him to leave.
Amazon has slain that particular fantasy. Its routes are often serviced by precarious gig workers, its quotas are too punishing to allow for socializing, and all potential human interactions have been replaced by one-way surveillance. In many of these TikTok videos, Amazon workers literally run in and out of the frame. If delivery drivers were once lightly teased or frequently ogled, now they are simply dehumanized, plugged into machine-run networks and expected to move product with robotic efficiency. The compulsory dance trend on TikTok suggests that customers, too, have come to see drivers as programmable. While the stunts may signal a faint desire to restore some human aspect to the delivery interaction, they are capable only of conjuring a thin and degrading spectacle.
As the delivery driver has been downgraded in the American psyche, a new beloved character has arisen: the package itself. Now the driver has less status than the box. When a package arrives damaged, it’s an outrage. But when a driver slips on the steps and rolls around in agony, it’s 2.8 million views on TikTok. Much like Wilson the volleyball in “Cast Away,” which acts as an inert companion to Tom Hanks’s resourceful FedEx employee, the Amazon package with its smiling logo has been fashioned into a pandemic companion, pitched online as a source of “light and spirit,” or at least “cheaper than therapy,” during an isolating period. (Some of these posts are in fact seeded through Amazon’s influencer program.) In Amazon ads, the boxes giggle and sing as they journey from warehouse to porch.