Our Amazonian Future

George Packer’s lengthy investigation into the company sheds light on its rise to global dominance:

Amazon employs or subcontracts tens of thousands of warehouse workers, with seasonal variation, often building its fulfillment centers in areas with high unemployment and low wages. Accounts from inside the centers describe the work of picking, boxing, and shipping books and dog food and beard trimmers as a high-tech version of the dehumanized factory floor satirized in Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” Pickers holding computerized handsets are perpetually timed and measured as they fast-walk up to eleven miles per shift around a million-square-foot warehouse, expected to collect orders in as little as thirty-three seconds. After watching footage taken by an undercover BBC reporter, a stress expert said, “The evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness.” The company says that its warehouse jobs are “similar to jobs in many other industries.” …

None of Amazon’s U.S. workers belong to unions, because the customer would suffer. A company executive told the Times that Amazon considers unions to be obstacles that would impede its ability to improve customer service. In 2011, the Allentown Morning Call published an investigative series with accounts of multiple ambulances being parked outside a warehouse during a heat wave, in order to ferry overcome workers to emergency rooms. Afterward, Amazon installed air-conditioners, although their arrival coincided with the expansion of grocery services. In any case, Amazon’s warehouse jobs are gradually being taken over by robots. [Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff] Bezos recently predicted to a gobsmacked Charlie Rose that, in five years, packages will be delivered by small drones. Then Amazon will have eliminated the human factor from shopping, and we will finally be all alone with our purchases.

Reihan questions Amazon’s labor practices:

[S]hould Bezos be celebrated for investing in automation despite the fact that there are large numbers of people living in the United States who are willing, and in some cases even eager, to take on such jobs? One interpretation is that what Bezos really ought to do is raise wages and improve conditions in his fulfillment centers, regardless of cost or impact on delivery times for consumers, as this is the humane thing to do. Such a policy would presumably improve the relative position of firms that instead subjected their employers to harsher terms and conditions, or indeed firms that replaced such workers with machines. Bezos might be in a position to unilaterally redistribute resources from Amazon consumers to Amazon workers if he achieves a durable near-monopoly. It is not obvious that this is an outcome that Packer would celebrate, or that those of us in the broader public ought to celebrate either.

Andrew Leonard suggests broader cultural shifts have done more damage to the book industry than Amazon specifically:

Maybe Jeff Bezos executes his business plan better than all of his competitors, but what’s been happening to culture is a consequence of the digitization of content. If you can copy it digitally, you can distribute it more cheaply than it costs to produce it. An almost throwaway line in Packer’s piece –”None of Amazon’s U.S. workers belong to unions, because the consumer would suffer” — emphasizes the same point. The consumer is driving the bus. Low prices and convenience have been pushing forward the evolution of technocapitalism for many decades (and maybe all the way back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution). And while we know that consumers want low prices and easy access, we do not necessarily know that they want a lot of serious literary fiction, or biographies that require five years of research, or hard-hitting investigations of how Wall Street and Silicon Valley have broken the back of organized labor. The democratization of distribution has perversely inverted that classic Rolling Stones maxim: In the Amazonian future, the people get what they want, but not, maybe, what they need.

Lauren Collins maintains that Amazon is indispensible for readers who lack a neighborhood bookstore:

George Packer is right to question Amazon’s effect on the publishing and book-selling industries, and those with a Three Lives or a Bonnie Slotnick or a Tattered Cover around the corner—or even across town—should peruse them or lose them. But for those of us who live in places where the books we want are not available—Packer touches on the point, writing, “Readers, especially isolated ones, adored Amazon”—the importance of Amazon cannot be understated. I live in Switzerland, and Amazon is a lifeline. No one else is coming to give us “French Lessons,” Alice Kaplan’s 1994 memoir of language assimilation, or Rebecca Mead’s “My Life in Middlemarch,” the day it comes out. I know I’m late to the Kindle game, but one showed up under the tree at Christmas, and, since then, I’ve been on a tear. Already I’ve bought, read, and been moved by more books than I did at the bookstore all of last year.

Carolyn Kellogg talked to Packer about his own consumer preferences:

Although Packer shines a critical light on Amazon, he said he believes that the company has provided a seductive level of customer satisfaction; he himself is a customer. “I try not to use it for books more than I have to,” he said, “because I see a real value in walking into a bookstore and seeing things jump off the shelves.”