There's That Guy in the Van Again

A story about the modern workplace.

This page gathers together the story I've been serializing on my Substack newsletter.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. I’ve made up the story and the characters in it. While certain businesses, places, and events are used to orient the reader in the real world, the characters and actions described are wholly imaginary and any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental.

1: There's That Guy in the Van Again

I knew something was off as soon as I saw Keith’s reply.

I sent Keith (my kid brother) and Christopher (old friend) an article about limiting the power of Big Tech … but that’s neither here nor there.

Keith and Christopher didn’t know each other, but I figured they should, since they had both recently joined Amazon. (Well, Keith had been there about a year, Christopher just a couple months.)

Christopher, who was always a smartass, even with people he barely knew, joked, “Hey, how soon can we start talking about how much of a cult Amazon is?”

Three dots predicted Keith’s reply. They disappeared.

Three dots again. Then:

“Embody the leadership principles and you too will become Bezos.”

Hmm, I thought, that was odd, but I figured it was a joke.

Christopher joked back: “Brother, are you ready to ascend to Day 1 heaven?”

There was no reply. We all went back to our busy work day.


A couple weeks later, I was on a Google Meet call with Christopher—we don’t see each other much now that we don’t work together and of course, it’s the pandemic, so this is how we keep up. At some point he looked out his window and said, “Huh, there’s that guy in the van again.”

“What kind of van?” I asked, but I knew how he’d answer. In the last couple years, it had started to seem like Amazon vans were everywhere. My wife joked that if Orwell was writing today, he’d point out the Amazon vans.

“An Amazon van, of course.”


“I know, right? But in the last few days, there’s been one that just parks across the street, right in my sight line. He’s just parked there, but there’s someone sitting in it.”

“Why don’t you go out and say something?”

“Ah hell, he’s probably just avoiding work and talking on the phone or something.” I didn’t think that was the way Amazon drivers worked—usually they were on a pretty tight schedule, no time to waste—but I let it go.


I still see Keith in person—he’s my brother, after all—and when I was at his house last I asked him how his job was going. Like Christopher, he’d been hired during the pandemic, so he’d never actually met any of his co-workers in person. He was hired, on-boarded, and did all his work virtually. It sounded lonely.

“It’s good, basically, I mean, you know, I work a lot but the objectives are pretty clear … ,” he trailed off, laughed uncomfortably.


“Well, you know, it’s pretty obvious what we need to do: my job is to squeeze out the fat, reduce any excess spending, but you know, I don’t get that much push-back because, well, people are pretty on board with the direction.”

“So, if the budget is cut, they’re just like, ‘yeah, I get it’?”

“Dan, you don’t understand: most people are just pretty happy for the opportunity to contribute to the vision. If they’re not, well … but hey, what happened to Liverpool the other day? They’re really falling apart.”

“Ugh, the injuries are killing us!” And off we went on another subject.


“Hey man,” I texted Christopher. “Got a minute for a Meet call?”

“Can’t use Meet. Call me,” he replied. So I did.

“Can’t use Meet?” I asked when he picked up. “Since when are you not the Googliest?”

“Yeah, I know, but I’ve been having problems with Meet recently and my IT guy said it was causing network traffic issues. He was kind of a prick about how I’d be better off using Amazon’s tools.”

“So, why don’t we use that?” I asked. “They’re all the same to me.”

“Tom, I don’t know, I just don’t … well, no I shouldn’t say that … I just …,” he trailed off. “Listen, can I call you back in 5 minutes?”

Five minutes passed and he called me back. I told him he sounded winded.

“Yeah, I wanted to get away from my house to talk to you. I walked down the street.”

“I bet, you’ve been cooped up in there with Jessica and the kids for a year now! I don’t know how people with young kids can take this lockdown stuff …”

“No, it’s not that, Jess and the kids are great. It’s just … I get the impression that nothing I say is secret.”

“What, you think the NSA is listening to you?”

“The NSA! I wish. No, I think Amazon is listening to me!”

“C’mon man, you’ve seen enough of IT to know they don’t have time for that.”

“Oh, you don’t know what it’s like here: they’ve got time. You know how, every other place you’ve ever worked, you’re using Slack for this and Excel for that and Zoom for some other thing? Well here, it’s like they’ve made their own versions of every application you’d ever want to use. So anything you think you’d want to do, they’ve got an Amazon version of it.”

“That’s cool—I bet they all work together pretty well, right? None of that kloodginess of having to constantly learn how tools integrate?”

“It seems like it would be cool, but it starts to feel kind of creepy. Like you’re in a meeting and it’s starting to look like it’s running long, then your digital assistant pops up to tell you to terminate the meeting and start your next one. Or you know you’ve got a report due, and your digital assistant pops in to tell you that they’ve sent your wife a message that you’ll need more time before you can leave work for dinner. It’s like they’re inside your head.”

“Damn, that’s intense. But it still seems a little bit of a stretch to say that IT is listening to you…” I don’t know why I was trying to defend Amazon here, but I just wasn’t sure I was buying it.

“Oh shit,” Christopher said, “I just got a message: I’ve got a meeting in five minutes, just auto-accepted on my calendar and I’ve got to get back. Later man.”

Damn. It sounded like they were working him pretty hard, but then that was the rep, wasn’t it? You went to Amazon, earned the bucks for five years, and then you could pretty much write your ticket anywhere else. I guess this is what it looked like up close.


I was pretty pumped, because Keith and I were going out on a hike—at his invitation. He doesn’t want to go hiking all that often, so you’re darn right I accepted. I asked if Christopher could join us. I figured it might be fun for two Amazon guys to get to know each other better. But Keith nipped that right in the bud: “Absolutely not,” he had said when I asked him by text. “Just you.” Okay, that was fine.

“Where do you want to go?” I asked when I arrived. He was usually Mr. Sociable, so I figured he’d want to go to one of the more popular hiking spots: Tiger Mountain or Mt. Si. But he said, “Why don’t we do something a little more remote, you’re the guy who hates people.” It’s true: I was usually looking to find a place off the beaten path, especially during COVID, cause I hated playing the whole mask game every time you ran into other hikers.

I suggested we go up Mountain Loop Highway to a place called Mt. Forgotten: it’s at the Perry Creek trailhead, but most people take off to Mt. Dickerman from there because there’s a trail the whole way. On Forgotten, after the first couple miles it’s all a scramble. You were nearly guaranteed to have the place to yourself. Keith asked: “Will we be out of cell range?” “Oh yeah,” I said, “absolutely.” And we were.

Of course we talked about work, or I should say, we talked about his work ... eventually. Keith’s a funny guy: he doesn’t just come out with stuff; it takes him a while to warm up. In the first mile or two, all I got was “work is fine” and a lot of talk about Premier League soccer (his team, Man City, was on fire, so he was pretty stoked about that.) But I chose this hike because I knew it would give him time enough to really open up.

“I’m getting pretty good feedback about my work,” he said as we finally broke up out of the switchbacks through the forest and into the open meadows that mark the end of the official trail. “My boss said he really likes my diligence and attention to detail--he says I really seem to be living up to the leadership principles.”

“That’s awesome,” I replied, the proud older brother in me happy to hear he was being recognized.

“Yeah, I guess so, but I’m starting to see that they want me to do more than financial oversight. I mean, the amount of metrics we gather about people is just insane and I’m starting to get asked to insist on alignment with other shit too--I’m talking shit that you just can’t believe we can know about.”

“Like … ?”

“Dan, there’s the normal stuff like ‘time on task,’ which I get: you get assigned a job to do and they measure how much time it takes you to do it, based on data they’re gathering about your use of tools, your email, your communications, all that. And you know, that’s okay, I guess I see that: the focus here is just so intense on efficiency.”

“Damn, so you can tell if people are what, coding too slow, taking too long to resolve issues in email and in meetings, stuff like that?”

“Oh yeah, all that, but even more--like, they score you on how committed you are, because they’re scanning all your communications, and they start to generate scores on people who they say are ‘undermining the mission’ by not executing crisply enough or ‘failing to live up to leadership principles.’”

“How the hell do you measure that?”

“They measure everything! Everything! I start to wonder if there’s anything our employees are doing that they don’t know about.”

“It’s funny, I was talking to Christopher the other day and he said he thought he was being watched by IT—like they were tracking him when he was off work, watching his house. He was sounding a little freaked out.”

“Do you think he knows something?” Keith asked, with a little more intensity than he usually gave off.

“Knows something? I thought he sounded a little paranoid, honestly. I thought he was working too hard.”

“His work’s not the issue, Dan,” Keith spit out bitterly. “It’s his fucking attitude.” Keith was getting hot.

“Buddy, ease up. I’m not on your case.”

“Well somebody should be on Christopher’s case, Dan. That’s why I didn’t want him coming along, because I can’t be associated with him and honest to god, I wish you weren’t either. The guy criticized Bezos the other day!”

“What do you mean, in a meeting?”

“No, on a phone call.”

“A work call?”

“No, he was talking to a friend.”

“So what’s the matter with that?” I asked. “And what the hell is Amazon doing listening to his personal phone calls?”

“God, Dan, you just don’t get it.”

And then he started to spell it out.

2: Why Should I Worry?

Stamper laughed when I told her the story about my hike with my brother (though I didn’t name him, just in case.) “I don’t think it’s quite like that!” she said, and she should know: she’s been there for 10 years, a lifetime by Amazon standards.

I hadn’t spoken to Stamper in years, though we kept up on social media, and it was there I had seen her settle down, find what looked like happiness. I reached out to her because there were parts of what Christopher and Keith told me that just didn’t sit well with me. Clearly, Christopher had been watching too many sci-fi movies and had gotten a little paranoid. The paranoia I think I understood, but Keith’s anger, his intensity: that felt really odd. In a way, I just thought he was being too credulous, too easily accepting of what his upper management was telling him about the “Leadership Principles,” too ready to believe that Amazon possessed that level of surveillance capacity. I’d seen Minority Report and Enemy of the State, and I’d been watching the rise of “machine intelligence” in companies for a while, but I just didn’t think it was anywhere near as advanced as either of these guys believed.

Still, I couldn’t shake how Christopher and Keith echoed some of what I read in Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Were these guys describing a rising tide of “surveillance”? Oh hell, when I put it like that, using words like “surveillance,” I start to feel like I’m being alarmist, or I’m being played by someone with an agenda, or just that I’m reading too much into it.

I mean, what do I have to complain about? Wages are generally high, at least among my type of worker, and my packages all come on time and I can watch what I want, even if I have to pay for too many streaming services. I’m living amidst a kind of abundance that most people throughout history couldn’t even imagine (though, also, Trump, pandemic, Putin, you name it!) Why should I worry if a big company was intent on getting the most out of its employees, just as it got the most of out of consumers?


Why should I worry? That was the question I kept coming back to, the thing I was having a hard time explaining to myself. It dug at me.

But I couldn’t deny I saw the traces of it in my world. Not big glaring signs–there were no vans parked outside my house, though they drove through the neighborhood all the time. No, it was just little things, like Spotify getting eerily good at recommending songs for me (so good I was having a hard time breaking out of the Americana ghetto I’d built for myself), Google not just pointing out the things I knew I was interested in, but even nailing those weird little subjects and guilty pleasures I didn’t speak out loud. So I did one search on that striking blue-eyed woman from The White Lotus—that didn’t mean I needed to see an article about her every time I opened a new tab!

And then, of course, there was Amazon: Amazon, who saves me from the pain of shopping at malls on the holidays; Amazon, who delivers good but well-priced coffee to my door on my schedule, never mind my local coffee roaster; Amazon, who brings Dobie pads to my door today at half the price of the local grocery. Amazon probably gets the second biggest share of my consumer spending, right behind the local grocery, and if they ever figure out how to master the grocery business, I’ll probably ditch the local Haggen in their favor, because I’m addicted—ADDICTED—to the price and the convenience. Sure, I’ll miss the kindly folks who work at the grocery store—Torchy and Barney and Jeff and … well, hell, I remember their names when I see them, or maybe the name tags help, but now they slip away from me. The relationships I form with the checkers are a side-benefit, not the reason I go. If I could get it all without the hassle of driving to the store, wandering the aisles, making chit-chat with the baggers, etc., I’d gladly do so. And Amazon knows that.

But I know Amazon (and Google and Spotify and Facebook and Apple and so many others) have gotten weirdly good at knowing what makes me tick because they profit off it. There’s an Amazon van driving by every 30 minutes because Amazon knows how to make money off me, and they’re also smart and big enough to know that even if they aren’t making a ton of money right now with their ubiquitous delivery, even if they’ve made their margins incredibly small, they’ll make it up eventually by hooking me on their price and their speed in such a way that I’ll abandon my local shops and my trips to the store in favor of their sweet, cheap ubiquity. When it comes to winning me as a consumer, Amazon is playing the long game … and they’re winning.

But it didn’t follow that optimizing what they knew about consumers would mean they would spy on their employees–did it? How was I to know for sure? And again, why should I worry? That’s the question I wanted to answer. And I knew just the person to ask.


That person was Kate Stamper, and not just because she’d been at Amazon so long, but because she was one of the brightest, most driven, most level-headed and reasonable people I knew. Kate Stamper was singular, sui generis—her opinions would be hers alone.

And the cool thing was, Kate knew Christopher—we had all overlapped briefly at this small training company where we worked. I once thought Kate and Christopher had something going on, though I later came to understand that I had just misunderstood something about Kate. She was a bit of a puzzle.