The drones are late. We’re on a festival grounds, waiting, eagerly, for what’s been billed as:
UPLIFT: A DRONE LIGHT SHOW CELEBRATING WOMEN IN TECH
IN COLLABORATION WITH KACEY MUSGRAVES.
But the drones seem uncooperative, and the mostly-male crowd grows restless. I can see several people talking into Bluetooth headsets.
Finally, hundreds of glowing lights lift up into the sky, each a tiny, moving pixel. Kacey Musgraves’ “Oh, What A World” begins to play from a small PA mounted on a floor stand.
Oh, what a world, don’t wanna leave
All kinds of magic all around us, it’s hard to believe
Thank God it’s not too good to be true
I’m at Amazon’s Intersect Festival, a new event in the center of Las Vegas. In this frontier town — built by the mob and domesticated by Howard Hughes, a billionaire mogul of his time — we’re watching drones dance through Jeff Bezos’ space manifest-destiny fantasy, soundtracked by an artist whose biggest hit is a song called “Space Cowboy.”
The pixels jump in perfect symmetry, dancing through a sequence of impressionistic images that vaguely reflect the lyrics, like a big iTunes visualizer in the sky. I feel a sudden strong affection for the messiness of fireworks, even though I’ve never really cared about fireworks. My feet are tired from walking on concrete.
LIFE IN THE CLOUD
Intersect is hosted by Amazon Web Services, or AWS, Amazon’s highly profitable cloud-computing arm, which provides distributed computing power to a startling number of industries.
Among its many clients, AWS holds a contract with Palantir, a data-mining company founded by Peter Thiel. The company aggregates and analyzes huge arrays of public and private data, finding patterns and relationships that humans might miss. Its clients include the CIA, the Pentagon, hundreds of local law enforcement offices, and ICE, for whom they built the technical framework for Trump’s immigration crackdown, making it considerably easier to identify and deport undocumented people. Amazon’s AWS hosts the company’s data and software; if Palantir were unable to harness Amazon’s computing power, they would have difficulty operating.
All this makes AWS an unlikely sponsor for a music festival, and the festival’s announcement was met with immediate controversy. Chicago DJ The Black Madonna quickly dropped out, posting a statement alleging that she wasn’t told about Amazon’s involvement in the festival. While Amazon denies this, Japanese Breakfast later alleged the same. (For what it’s worth, it’s not unusual for artists to be given limited information before agreeing to a performance: my own band, Ought, was once humiliatingly forced to play between two giant Twix banners at a certain major festival without any prior notice.)
In the weeks following the announcement, over a thousand musicians joined a new organization called No Music For ICE. They signed an open letter pledging not to work with Amazon in any capacity until and unless they:
- Terminate existing contracts with military, law enforcement, and government agencies (ICE, CBP, ORR) that commit human rights abuses
- Stop providing Cloud services and tools to organizations (such as Palantir) that power the US government’s deportation machine
- End projects that encourage racial profiling and discrimination, such as Amazon’s facial recognition product
- Reject future engagements with aforementioned bad actors
Sadie Dupuis, Speedy Ortiz frontperson and a No Music For ICE organizer, positions the boycott in solidarity with Whole Worker and #wewontbuildit — two groups of Amazon employees who have launched their own actions aimed at Amazon’s ICE contracts. Dupuis notes that musicians — for whom the phrase “gig economy” has a unique resonance — have, like so many others, become de facto tech workers, creating the content (and cachet) that big tech serves up on-demand. Musicians, she argued in our recent conversation, “should have a say in what their technology is going towards.” The life of a musician can be isolating, lonely, and competitive; it’s easy to forget that we have the power to collectively withhold our labor.
On Twitter, the bulk of the criticism was directed at Snail Mail and Japanese Breakfast, two artists who, by virtue of their perceived independence — neither is signed to a major label — were expected to take a moral stand.
These bands straddle a difficult line. While they come from a DIY scene and their music interpolates sonic elements of ‘90s alternative culture, they are also deeply enmeshed in the “indie rock-industrial complex,” with a network of bookers, managers, publicists, and executives, all of whom regularly remind the artists that their time in the spotlight is limited. Unlike a pop star, who unabashedly celebrates growth — in pop music the most popular thing is, by definition, the best thing — “indie rock” bands in this decade publicly hedge, taking what success is on offer while striving to avoid overtly celebrating a capitalist ethos. Still, the ultimate desires of a pop act and a nationally touring indie-rock band are more aligned than not, and festivals like Intersect put these contradictions on full display.
Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast defended their participation, saying that while “everyone has the right to be upset,” the “line to draw in the sand when it comes to branded content feels a bit unclear to me when… working within the systemic confines of tech companies being in control of a majority of our royalties.” This is a fair question that musicians are forced to grapple with regularly: in late capitalist scarcity, isn’t it a privilege to turn down a paycheck?
For me, this is where we start to see the real potential of a movement like No Music For ICE. Rather than shaming individual musicians for taking part in Amazon-branded events, the movement helps us see ourselves as workers capable of negotiating and withholding labor collectively. Dupuis sees the movement as in solidarity with We Won’t Build It, a group of Amazon workers calling for “accountability and transparency in the tech [they] build.” Collective action helps us set the terms of how our work is used, and allows us to draw lines around what we are (and aren’t) willing to do for money.
Many musicians who signed the letter have pulled their catalogues from Amazon’s streaming services. Dupuis told me that the intention is to stop Amazon from gaining the same monopoly on music that they already have over other industries: “It would be really hard for writers to do a protest like this because so much of the book industry is completely monopolized by Amazon… It doesn’t impact us as much as other artists to protest Amazon, and that’s a good thing. We’d like to keep them out of the space.”
Intersect fest is essentially an afterparty for Amazon’s AWS re:Invent, a yearly conference for Big Data professionals. Thousands of developers decked out in corporate swag attend breakout sessions with titles like “Dive Deep Into AWS SCT And AWS DMS: An Autodesk Case Study.” In previous years, they’ve held private closing-night festivals for conference attendees, featuring EDM DJs and late-night chicken-wing-eating competitions. This year, Amazon scaled up, opening their afterparty to the public for the first time. The Intersect website explains the decision in typically robotic prose: “It doesn’t take a network efficiency expert to realize that if you’re already essentially creating a whole full-blown music festival that lasts a single evening, you may as well scale it up, open it to the public, and expand it into an entire weekend.” Intersect is pure synergy, making the most of sunk costs.
What does it look like when Amazon throws a party? Writing in the New Yorker, Anna Weiner took an Amazon fulfillment center tour hoping to “see Amazon’s interpretation of its best self — what it puts on display when it knows it’s being watched.” Amazon’s corporate ethos emphasizes ruthless frugality. Its boardrooms feature desks made of cheap doors in tribute to Bezos’ first homemade garage desk; until recently, white-collar employees had to pay for their own office parking. Amazon factory workers talk about impossible quotas tracked to the seconds, ambulances stationed outside to ferry fainting workers to the hospital in lieu of air conditioning, injury rates well above the national average.
Festivals have always represented a re-figuring of reality, a glimpse at a different possible world. Even Coachella, whose owner donates handsomely to right-wing causes, is positioned as a celebration of young California dreaming, nubile teens sipping smoothies while their headdresses glimmer in the sunset. I went to Intersect to look for Amazon’s interpretation of utopia.
GOODBYE REALITY, HELLO INTERSECT
The festival grounds are all concrete. Palm tree tips jut out over the horizon, but there’s no real natural vegetation in sight. I use Carrot Top’s billboard as a north star to find my way backstage. High-rise hotels and apartment buildings loom in a circle around the grounds — we’re just three miles from the spot where two years ago a shooter set up in a hotel room and opened fire on a festival, killing 58 people.
Buildings in Vegas are big, bigger than you expect, and it warps perspective like a mirage. We drive up to the festival gate in a rented Econoline and walk through a metal detector erected awkwardly in a parking lot. A police officer with a semi-automatic weapon is leaning on a parked cop car, watching a sniffer dog run itself tired in tight, pointless circles. Across the road, there’s an armored vehicle shooting range next to a fiberglass factory.
While Snail Mail — who I’m there to hang out with — soundcheck, I walk around the empty festival site. I pass a bank of water-bottle refill stations and overhear one staff member talking to another. There’s no water in the bathroom areas, which will force people to shuffle over to the water stations to wash their hands. “People are going to want to wash their hands,” he says, grimly.
The festival’s signage is inescapable and perplexing. “GOODBYE REALITY, HELLO INTERSECT,” one sign screams. According to another, “Infinity Stage is where the infinite unravels into a sonic landscape conducted by awesome musical acts.” The most confusing — and vaguely threatening — sign says “WE ARE ENDLESS” superimposed over an orange sun. Intersect has really leaned in to its chaotic, apocalyptic energy — it seems positively in awe of a future that involves a lot of chain link fences and dark, gloomy tents.
What happens when unlimited demand meets finite resources? The answer is incredibly simple: Rationing. The good news is that if we move out into the solar system, for all practical purposes, we’d have unlimited resources.
— Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos loves space. As high school valedictorian (Miami Palmetto Senior High School’s class of 1982), he ended his graduation speech with “Space: The Final Frontier. Meet me there!” His high school girlfriend is quoted as saying that “the reason he’s earning so much money is to get to outer space.”
In May 2019, he laid out his plans in detail in a TED Talk-style presentation entitled “Going To Space To Benefit Earth.” He imagines a future in which society continues to increase its energy consumption at the same rate that it is now. Obviously, this is impossible — as he says, you’d quickly have to cover the surface of the planet in solar cells — so he proposes we pack up and move out into the solar system, where we’d live on floating space stations and mine asteroids for resources. This way we can continue to expand infinitely. In many ways, with its tepid drone light shows, its scorched-earth setting, its Amazon-approved entertainment, Intersect feels like a trial run for an off-world base.
Following the drone show, we shuffle back inside a large tent to watch Kacey Musgraves, the Grammy-award winning pop-country artist who “inspired” the drone performance.
Musgraves opens with “Slow Burn,” the first track on 2019’s Grammy Album Of The Year, Golden Hour, flanked by screens projecting the show on all sides. Almost immediately, the screen behind the band starts buffering and skipping, stuttering like when you’re attempting to stream Curb on xyzmovies.com while your roommate plays video games. “The Jumbotron is fucked!” someone yells next to me.
It’s distracting, funny, and humiliating for a company that seems to have no particular characteristics beyond a fascistic commitment to punctuality and correctness. Similar circumstances — a glitching projection at a wholly unnecessary festival in the desert — were a plot point in the week prior’s episode of Silicon Valley. The crowd loves it, relishing the schadenfreude of Amazon failing at real-time data processing and transfer, a topic area that has been the subject of numerous presentations in the days before. I can’t help but imagine the poor junior UI/UX designer, tasked with learning visualizations off Khan Academy a week before the event, awaiting his Bezos-ordered drone execution as he walks miserably back to his non-expensable single hotel room.
Intersect, like any corporate-branded event, sets out to humanize Amazon — to fulfill the mission of Bezos’ infamous “Amazon.love” internal memo, which tasked his subordinates with figuring out how to make Amazon loved (like Apple) and not hated (like ExxonMobil). Instead, it ends up normalizing the apocalypse, lowering our expectations of what a festival could be, getting us used to an Amazon-controlled future in the stars.
Throughout the weekend I keep wondering why the festival doesn’t have a unified aesthetic, why it isn’t just better, given the enormous amount of capital involved in making it happen. I realize that, for Amazon, an event like this is just another Minimum Viable Product, the lowest-effort assemblage of popular bands and white tents and fun-sounding copy and food and drink that could be understood legibly as a “festival.” Nobody we meet is paid enough to care.
Training a single AI model can emit as much carbon as five cars in their lifetimes.
— MIT Technology Review
In a fawning interview with Wired, Bezos makes clear that he thinks of technology as fundamentally nonideological. “The book was invented and people could write really evil books and lead bad revolutions with them and create fascist empires with books,” he says. Bezos is at least mildly concerned that new technologies will be “very useful for autocratic regimes,” but imagines that we will “figure it out.”
It’s at the “figuring it out” stage that Bezos may begin to diverge from his fellow billionaires. He says, in an attempt to be reassuring, that “society develops an immune response eventually to the bad uses of new technology.”
I scroll mindlessly through one of these new technologies’ output screens. It shows me scorched Australian skies, Amazon warehouses being unplugged during France’s general strike, graphs showing the decoupling of wages from productivity, GoFundMes for cancer treatment.
No Music For ICE has announced that they will be picketing Amazon-sponsored events at SXSW this year. Artists who choose to perform will have to cross a picket line of their peers. #NoMusicForICE is one small part of an “immune response”: the anti-capitalist movement gaining traction across the globe. It’s gruelling, thankless work, and I am unbelievably thankful for the activists who power our collective immunity.
On the drive back to Los Angeles, we stop at the largest Chevron station in the world for coffee, its 96 gas pumps lit up like slot machines. I’m intimidated by the desert — the idea of seeing this landscape and wanting to stick hotels and gas stations and festivals in it seems impossible, borderline reckless. After a weekend in Amazon’s version of outer space I’m suddenly, deeply, embarrassingly grateful to the Earth.