Is Amazon very good or very bad at naming things? It's honestly hard to tell. Why would any company choose to promote a line of e-reading devices with fire-themed names, for instance? Most businesses would balk at the idea of even hinting at book-burning in their book-related products, but Amazon led with the Kindle and then doubled-down on the concept with its Fire family of tablets. Naming their personal-assistant line of speakers the Echo, too, seems a little cute — what is an echo but a hollow and fading repetition of ourselves?
But Amazon has sold hundreds of thousands of those devices, and so by the only arbiter that matters to Amazon — that of the market — the names must be considered a success. The problem with this thinking, of course, is that markets can only ignorantly choose winners or losers in the moment. There's no nuance to a market. If you make a mistake, but that mistake is rewarded with profits, you'll keep on making that same mistake until something catastrophic happens.
Earlier this week, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos unveiled the Spheres to the world. Located at the corner of 6th and Lenora downtown, Amazon's Spheres are a cross between a biodome and a corporate conference room. They're supposedly a place for Amazon employees to work in a pleasant natural environment. The Spheres have already become a symbol of Amazon's domination of downtown Seattle, and local media went positively berserk when Bezos took the press on a tour of the constructs.
Now, Amazon has opened up a public-facing section of the Spheres, and they've given it one of their trademark curious names: The Spheres Discovery at Understory. On Tuesday, Understory opened to members of the public who had the foresight to make reservations in advance online.
When walking into the Understory at the base of the Spheres, visitors are greeted by enthusiastic young people in bright Amazon polo shirts. They scan tickets and usher people inside with the barely restrained zeal of Scientologists. The first thing you'll see in the Understory is a wide array of video screens showing some of the plant life in the Spheres. One of the Amazon employees directs a tourist to stand in a colorful spotlight in front of a video screen. While standing in the spotlight, a narration to the video screens is audible — it sounds as though a tour guide is standing directly behind you, whispering information into your ear. Step an inch out of the spotlight and the voice is gone. Step back into the spotlight and she's there again.
In a room to the right of the video screens, visitors will find samples of plants that can be found in the Spheres above, including a particularly robust orchid. In a room to the left of the video screens, visitors huddle around some signage giving an ebullient explanation of the purpose that the Spheres serve in Amazon's corporate culture.
In this room, you'll see some testaments to Amazon's charitable giving. (Amazon gives much less than other corporate giants in the region, of course, but you won't learn that fact here.) Perhaps the most bizarre touch in this room is a spray of plastic bananas intended to promote Amazon's Community Banana Stand, which hands out free bananas in South Lake Union during the week. The bananas are obviously synthetic — they practically glow — and next to all the testaments of the Sphere's natural beauty they feel decidedly off-brand.
After exploring the three rooms, visitors are likely to start looking around for a way to climb up into the Spheres and explore the terrariums. That's when they'll realize the limits of the Understory. One tourist asks an Amazon employee whether the tour extends up into the Spheres. "No," the employee says. "They're actually working up there, so we can't interrupt them. You need a badge to get up there." The tourist nods, and then wanders over to the video screens to take a picture of a video tour of the inside of the Spheres. That's as close as he's going to get to the Edenic garden promised from the outside of the Spheres: a picture of a picture on a screen.
So. What is an Understory? It's basically the carpet of the forest, that spongy layer of green that absorbs and distributes water for everything else. But Amazon loves names with multiple, even contradictory meanings. It could be a fancy way of saying "basement," after all, and the Understory visitor center is the Sphere's cellar, basically. But "understory" also sounds like the parts of a story that a narrative doesn't explore: the innocent bystanders of fiction, the passersby who walk onto the page, say one line, and are gone. The soldiers who die messily in the background while the protagonists bask in glory. The screaming woman falling from a building who is saved at the last minute by Superman before she's desposited safely on the ground to wander into obscurity again. The understory is everywhere that the narrator doesn't direct our attention.
The reality of the Spheres is that if you have an Amazon badge, you're allowed into the story of the corporation. You get to hang out in treehouses and write code surrounded by exotic plants. If you don't have an Amazon badge, you're cast into the Understory. You wander around a rinky-dink museum with one exhibit that enthuses about what it's like to be allowed into the world above. You crane your neck and peer at the ceiling, and you wonder what it's like up there, in what you're told is the only story that really matters in Seattle right now. And then you'll realize you're never getting up there. And so you return, dissatisfied, to your story — to the understory.
Once you leave the Understory, you'll probably wander around the Spheres, trying to look inside. You'll walk by the tiny dog park, and by all the people bustling around with orange Amazon Go tote bags. You'll walk in that direction for a half-block, and you'll walk by the long line of people who are waiting in line to get into a cashierless convenience store that's plastered with signs promising you'll never have to wait in line again. None of it will make sense to you, but you'll just shrug and keep walking away from the Spheres. It's okay that it doesn't make sense to you. It's not your story.