This is one of two essays that I wrote in Charles Mudede’s Writing the City class at the Hugo House in 2018. I didn’t quite know what to do with it then. I’d submitted it to a few places and they didn’t want it. So, fuck it, I’m publishing it here, without edits, in late 2021, back-dated to when I’d first written it. This assignment was to write about the Spheres—what they will tell us, when they are the only remnants of Seattle in some apocalyptic future, about this city that we live in.
Here’s a term I first learned in landscape architecture school: “effortless fascination”. The rustling of leaves, the babbling of brooks, the fluttering of snowflakes—these things captivate us, lift our minds out of the stresses that otherwise hold our attention. Nature restores us through hypnosis.
I’m thinking about effortless fascination as I take in the still-life composition inside one of the Amazon Spheres. A dazzling canopy of stage lights bathes an inert forest, thick with rustle-free leaves, glued inside a flutter-free snow globe.
I’m reminded of Adam*, my coolest college friend. As a freshman, I’d once sat in the crook of a tree as Adam handed me my first joint. I’d taken it from him while putting on my best pretend-chill face.
Now he’s an engineer at Google, working on an artificial intelligence initiative. Once, when I’d visited him at work, he’d taken me to the richly stocked company cafeteria for lunch. “Isn’t this great?” he’d proclaimed hospitably as he grabbed a tray, not noticing the pause in my step.
I’d felt like a painfully self-aware farm animal, eyeing the free food suspiciously. On the one hand, the organic smorgasbord acknowledges that engineers are members of the human species. On the other hand, it milks their productivity even more efficiently by keeping them on campus. The two thoughts had collided in my head, and I couldn’t tell if I was in an oasis or a refueling station. Somehow, the cafeteria was both.
“I dunno, this is kinda weird,” I’d managed to say at the time.
When workers must focus on specific tasks for a long time, the resulting accumulated stress is called directed attention fatigue. In Stephen and Rachel Kaplan’s research on effortless fascination, they found that even brief exposure to nature can cure this kind of fatigue.
For the cost of millions of emissions-free shuttle rides to bring employees to a real forest, though, Amazon has brought the forest here. Countless hours of travel time saved. Countless wet laptops avoided. The seeds of countless creative endeavors sown.
Amazon’s employees now have access to the rejuvenating properties of nature in conveniently consumable form. The Spheres acknowledge their humanity and maximize their productivity in the same mechanically ventilated breath. Part oasis, part refueling station.
What will Amazonians do with all this refreshed ingenuity? Help us automate even more things?
What will we consumers do with all the time freed up by that ingenuity? Send even more emails?
It’s 6pm, and I’m a bit embarrassed to be snapping photos of this eager structure. Workers are trickling out of the surrounding buildings, their disinterested gazes fixed elsewhere. This crystal ball of paradise is just another innovation achieved, its high-wattage optimism beaming awkwardly against the landscape of yet another unremarkable workday.
At least the farming is becoming more humane. Organic and cage-free productivity is better than what we used to have.
“I know, they’re feeding us Kool-Aid,” Adam had agreed over lunch that day, smiling cheerfully. “But I’ve totally drunk the Kool-Aid.”
* Name changed