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TV review: Amazon: What they know about us, and Baghdad Central

28 February 2020


A GMB union protest at Amazon’s Rugeley fulfilment centre last year, from Amazon: What they know about us

A GMB union protest at Amazon’s Rugeley fulfilment centre last year, from Amazon: What they know about us

“THOU God seest me.” In the 1960s, clever people scoured junk shops to snap up Victorian tiles emblazoned with this admirable text and display them amusingly in their lavatories — because, of course, since God did not exist: there was no one watching you.

Now, in the 2020s, we realise that there is, indeed, universal surveil­lance, but most of us, wedded to its benefits, don’t really care. The god who notes our every desire was investigated in Amazon: What they know about us (BBC1, Monday of last week). Jeff Bezos, now the world’s richest man, was an algorith­mic trader when he devised the formula governing the process of online selling more cheaply, and deliver­­­ing more instantly, than anyone had considered possible.

He focuses on customers, build­­­ing up the most detailed picture possible of everything that interests us, refining our individual profiles so that he can tempt us into buying stuff that we never realised we wanted. His avowed aim is to bring us “customer ecstasy”; the enor­mous robot-controlled warehouses where the 250 million goods are kept are called “fulfilment centres”. There are religious parallels: its creed is instant gratification, untrou­bled by the con­­sequences, such as the end of book­shops, the evisceration of the high street, and no more personal con­tact.

The number of former executives now publicly recording their dis­quiet about the underlying moral­ity of this process was striking. The per­sonal data might be used to more sin­­ister ends than retail: to push us in this or that political direc­tion, and reinforce this or that racial prejudice.

And now, with Alexa, we proudly install Amazon centre-stage in our living rooms (not in mine), eager to gratify our urgent desire, but also listening, and relaying back — if only potentially — to head office more and more private informa­tion. Our personal auton­omy is merely a fond illusion: pre­des­­­ti­­­­na­­­­­­­tion, driven by commercial profit, has now de­­cisively trumped free will.

Baghdad Central (Channel 4, Mondays) is a superior detective thril­­ler, set in US-occupied Iraq. As a hero, it has neither someone British nor American, but native Inspec­­­tor Muhsin. Will helping to restore law and order to his devast­ated society make him merely a tool of the incompetent and venal occu­piers? Everyone is morally com­promised; no one’s mo­­­tives are dir­ect and clear. The deeper he digs, the more he realises that he might be hunting those he loves most — perhaps his missing beloved daugh­­­­­­­­­ter. Is she a terrorist, an enemy, or a sacrificial liberator?

I assume that those Welsh crime dramas, rain-sodden, bleak, and mis­­er­­­­­­able, of which Hidden (BBC4, Saturdays) is a splendid example, are — to put off any Englishmen con­sidering buying a holiday cottage — commissioned by Plaid Cymru.

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