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Life Without Amazon (Well, Almost)

“Ten years ago we weren’t ordering toilet paper from Amazon,” Mr. Smalls said. “Maybe that’s how long it will take to get over it, too.”

Harold Pollack, a professor at the University of Chicago, was interviewed by The New York Times in 2012 in a story about customers who were leaving Amazon. Dr. Pollack, who teaches public health, said at the time, “I don’t feel they behave in a way that I want to support with my consumer dollars.” He has since written critically of Amazon, including, in 2018, an op-ed titled “Better Ways for Jeff Bezos to Spend $131 Billion,” recommending that Mr. Bezos divert his “winnings” to philanthropy rather than space travel. (In 2020, that figure would be somewhere north of $180 billion.)

Reached by phone, Dr. Pollack said his critiques of Amazon had both widened and deepened, but that he’s also now a frequent customer. “It’s chastening,” he said, when asked to revisit his stance. “I do use Amazon more in my life than I’m entirely comfortable about. It’s part of the infrastructure of my life in the same way it is the infrastructure of others’ lives, during Covid especially.”

Dr. Pollack then offered a fresh analysis, one that attempted to incorporate, or at least acknowledge, his ambivalence. “I think my own trajectory is emblematic of why there need to be public policy solutions to this,” he said, mentioning concerns about antitrust, Amazon’s broader place in the economy, and, as was his focus in 2012, the welfare of the company’s work force. Amazon, he said, presents an “enormous collective action problem.”

The company has seeped further, inexorably, into his life. Using Amazon makes getting work reimbursements simpler. Amazon gift cards have become de facto standard inducements for study participants (notwithstanding the concern of some fellow researchers). Plus, like most people, Dr. Pollack is busy.

“Amazon provides tremendous value to consumers that allows us to look past a lot of things,” he said. Going forward, he plans to “do the easy things that allow me to minimize my reliance on Amazon and feel good about it, but I will basically not do the things that are less easy. And if I’m honest, you can’t rely on me to discipline the company.”

Mr. Smalls, the former warehouse worker, offered a gentle, practiced take on customers like Dr. Pollack: using Amazon might be like an addiction, or at least something that takes weaning. In an interview earlier this year, though, he was perhaps more candid about the company’s habitual consumers. “You think you need Amazon?” he said in April, shortly after his firing. “OK, what were you doing a few years ago?”