Finding Ourselves on Amazon

by K. A. Hamilton


A rock salt lamp. Fibonacci earrings. A triceratops-shaped taco holder. It wasn’t the first time I’d found myself with a cart full of merchandise that would never make it past the threshold of: “proceed to checkout.” But as I cleared the items out of my cart, it was the first time I asked myself: “how did I get here?”

It seems like every modern artist has their own cautionary tale about screen time. I don’t mind indulging in a little daily distraction, but the near-manifestation of it, the possibility that my procrastination could show up in a corrugated cardboard box was frightening to me. So I hit the “back” button to retrace my footsteps.

I found myself on Amazon’s “Interesting Finds” page, a shopping-meets-Pinterest-style collection of curated goods. I must have lost myself in the spinning of the mouse wheel, because the scroll bar was the size of a pea. As I ascended the page, a stream of material goods flowed by without description, even defying description. It struck me that this wasn't stuff that a person could ever truly need, like a pack of underwear or a replacement cutting board. This was the stuff you bought for your quirky co-worker, or the family member who already has it all.

When I reached the top of the page, a friendly dialog box invited me to “heart the things you love.” A scatter of gray, heart-shaped icons served as evidence that I had indeed made my own affectionate marks. But in my defense, in a stock white world with zero sense of scale, anything seems possible. Including the idea that you might love a plastic taco holder shaped like an extinct ornithischian.

That was where I ended my investigation, closing the tab and getting up to do anything that I could deem more wholesome than “being on the internet.” And yet, I felt a lingering connection to my hearted stuff. The great retailers are collectors of behavioral data. Sales motivations aside, they know something about each of us, and about all of us. When you think about it, what more is this collection of “stuff” than a photomontage of our Ids?

Here is what Amazon seems to make of me: I like cats, and to a slightly lesser degree, dogs. I like plants, but I really like tiny plants that come with minimal dirt. I seek the kind of Zen that I can put on display, preferably with an infusion of technology. I like to think I have time to knit. I enjoy irony with my coffee. I’m nostalgic for my horse/dinosaur/fantasy days. And I still dream of space.

I'm proud to say that I haven't caved to any of these purchases… yet (except for the cat mug I bought for my quirky co-worker). But there is a sense of inevitability about it all. The things that I’ve “loved” continue to dog my online travels, targeting me from places where ad blockers have no sway. I know the internet is shaping me even as I’m shaping it back, nourishing its needs with indicators of my own. It’s harmless and it’s not. Like pennies dropped into a well, you never really shake the wish.