Amazon Is So Much Bricks and Mortar

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Many of us think of Amazon as that button we click to make our stuff magically arrive without the fuss of physical stores. Let me change your minds a little.

Amazon’s e-commerce warehouses, package distribution centers and hubs for back-end computing gear occupied more than 190 million square feet of space in North America at the end of 2019. That’s bigger than the footprint of Kroger’s nearly 2,800 supermarkets.

In short: To operate in cyberspace, Amazon needs the brick-and-mortar equivalent of one of America’s largest grocery store chains.

This is a fun fact for nerds. You’re welcome. I’m also mentioning it because I want us to think about e-commerce not as a purely online activity, but one that affects our real world, too, in both constructive and potentially harmful ways.

We often don’t think about Amazon’s physical footprint because the big warehouses for moving merchandise tend to be in remote areas. That’s changing.

Amazon and other internet shopping companies have been opening smaller merchandise warehouses and package distribution centers close to large population centers so they can deliver orders faster to more people.

This makes sense for the companies and shoppers. And it is a no-brainer for most of the towns and counties where e-commerce companies move in. Filling a dead mall or empty department store — some of Amazon’s high-profile targets — with an e-commerce distribution center can bring more jobs and tax revenue to the town. (Although Amazon, like many companies, typically gets hefty tax breaks when it opens e-commerce centers.)

There is an insatiable demand right now for more e-commerce locations. That’s partly because in just a few months of the pandemic, Americans have fast forwarded their use of e-commerce by several years.

Amazon said recently that it planned to increase the space occupied by its e-commerce operation by about 50 percent this year. (Walmart stores, for another comparison, occupy 700 million square feet in the United States, a figure that’s multiple times Amazon’s e-commerce occupancy.)

But there are trade-offs as the footprint of e-commerce grows and expands into more parts of America. Many of us have had the luxury of not thinking about the traffic, noise and pollution from online shopping warehouses because they’re far away from where we live.

But what happens if those warehouses come to your neighborhood next? Our cities and suburbs have not been methodically planned for this likely uptick in package-delivery vehicles, e-commerce transportation hubs and warehouses.

For those of us who can, it helps to shop at the stores we want to keep alive in our communities. But we also need to acknowledge that online shopping is life-changing or useful for many people.

Rather than feeling guilty for shopping online, we can put our energy into pushing for public policy to prepare our roads, airspaces and neighborhoods for an e-commerce future that is arriving faster than anyone expected.

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One of the inevitabilities of life for prominent people has become online misinformation — especially for women of color like Kamala Harris, who was named on Tuesday as Joe Biden’s vice-presidential running mate.

Ben Decker, who researches online disinformation and works with The New York Times, wrote last year about digging into persistent and false online narratives about Harris that he found originated on toxic online forums like 4Chan. These false rumors will probably have another life cycle now that Harris is a vice-presidential candidate.

It’s hard to stamp out political misinformation where it starts, but Ben had suggestions for how to slow its spread. Essentially, he said that the biggest internet properties must work together.

Ben called for academic researchers, journalists and employees of social media companies to collaborate on tracking political misinformation as it is percolating in toxic corners of the internet.

These groups would then seek agreement on what constitutes problematic information — not an easy task, to be sure — and take coordinated action by posting fact-checking notices, deleting posts or preventing bogus information from being widely shared. Ben wrote that the internet companies already collaborate like this on some policy issues, including efforts to stop terrorist propaganda.

We’re all still figuring out how to combat the downsides of a central feature of social media: the ability for anyone to say (almost) anything, and potentially reach billions of people in a flash. Ben’s suggestion wouldn’t be a cure-all, but it seems like a common-sense approach to help tackle a scourge of our online lives.

  • Another warning about false online information: In a distressing column, my colleague Kevin Roose wrote about how believers in QAnon, a sprawling and false belief that a cabal of child-molesting criminals controls the government, are piggybacking on legitimate groups advocating against child sex abuse and exploitation.

    By allying themselves with groups working to end child exploitation, QAnon supporters can steer the conversation toward their own agenda.

    Related: A QAnon supporter is likely to win a congressional seat in Georgia.

  • Yeah, this is not good: The Wall Street Journal found that the TikTok app appeared to bypass a privacy safeguard on Android phones in ways that allowed the app to track what people did on their phones even if they had deleted the app. TikTok ended the practice, The Journal wrote, and other apps have done similar things to get around such privacy protections.

    Still, what TikTok did — presumably to give advertisers more ways to target users — is a violation. And this reporting is likely to fuel concerns about the data collected by TikTok and whether the app might hand that over to the Chinese government.

  • They had nothing good to say about Instagram Reels: My colleagues Brian X. Chen and Taylor Lorenz — one a TikTok novice and the other a veteran of the short-video app — each tried out Instagram’s TikTok clone called Reels. They both hated it. Their conversation digs into what makes Instagram’s new feature so maddening.

This sea gull habitually shoplifts a bag of chips.

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