From Hammer to Infrastructure: Breaking down the Amazon Marketplace

Published in Amazon Anthology, 2022

Recommended citation: Pascal, Ulysses (2021). "From Hammer to Infrastructure: Breaking down the Amazon Marketplace." Amazon Anthology. Paul Smith, Alex Monea, Maillim Santiago eds. (Forthcoming)

In 1999, Amazon obtained a patent for the “one click” button (Hartman et al. 1999). The same year, Susan Leigh Star published her now widely cited article “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” The essay helped establish the field of infrastructure studies around the notion that “The normally invisible quality of a working infrastructure becomes visible when it breaks”{STAR:1999). Though Star did not intend to describe Amazon, the idea that infrastructure is invisible until it breaks is operationalized in Amazon’s obsession with seamless user experience design. Few of Amazon’s 300 million customers concern themselves with the processes put into action when they press the “Buy Now” button. But what hides behind the modern aphorism that infrastructure is invisible until it breaks, is that Amazon’s infrastructure is broken, even when it works. When we fixate on the invisibility of infrastructure, we forget differences in place, identity, and occupation engender different relations to infrastructure’s working. Among Star’s less cited passages is the idea that “One person’s infrastructure is another’s topic, or difficulty”. Stairs may seem suitable infrastructures for climbing, but “For the person in a wheelchair, the stairs and doorjamb in front of a building are not seamless subtenders of use, but barriers” (Star 1999). In the case of Amazon, the uneven distribution of breakdown is systematic. This paper traces the invisibilized infrastructures that the one-click button obfuscates in order to better understand how Amazon’s platform profits from broken systems.