I’ve taken it as something of a mission in life to speak out in opposition to technology’s absorption of contemporary culture, and I’m aware that my relentlessly negative commentary on the subject strikes some people (my wife, for example) as somewhat over the top.
For that reason I go out of my way on occasion to celebrate technologies that are making positive contributions to the world (the development of super advanced prosthetic devices, or the accessibility of obscure journal articles via the Internet). I also make a point of confessing that I’m as dependent on technology as anyone else. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel a shiver of satisfaction when I read the New York Times piece last weekend on working conditions at Amazon.com.
For those who missed it, reporters Jodie Kantor and David Streitfeld interviewed more than 100 current and former Amazon employees to document what it's like to work at the world’s largest retail company. The article focuses on executives, marketers, retail specialists and engineers, which ignores the experiences of thousands of warehouse workers, whose treatment would presumably be at least as demanding as those of the company’s white collar employees. In any event, what’s revealed is a chilling picture of labor relations policies that are brutal indeed. “Purposeful Darwinism,” one former executive called them. Survival of the fittest, in other words.
This is a place where 80 hour weeks are routine, where mountains of data are collected to measure employees’ every move, where ruthless evaluations by fellow workers are encouraged and used to justify terminations, where texts from superiors regularly arrive and are expected to be answered in the middle of the night; where having a miscarriage is no excuse for canceling a business trip the next day.
Jeff Bezos, in a letter to employees after the article appeared, complained that it portrayed “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.” He denied that’s the case, and urged any staff member who sees the sort of “shockingly callous” treatment reported by the Times to immediately “escalate” the matter, to the Human Resources department or to him personally.
The reason I found the Times article so satisfying is that it perfectly illustrates and affirms arguments I’ve been making for years about the fundamental nature of technology. The fundamental nature of technology can’t be seen by looking at one company, although Amazon comes close. Amazon is noteworthy because it represents an unusually advanced and unapologetic instantiation of qualities that pervade the technological project as a whole. Seeing technology from that perspective reveals that Amazon is a massively complex technological system that is itself encompassed in an infinitely larger web of massively complex technological systems. It’s not just the company’s labor policies that matter, or its obsessive collection of data. It’s Amazon’s combined application of an entire constellation of technologies and techniques. In that sense the company is a microcosm of the thoroughly technicized environment we inhabit.
In my book I describe four fundamental elements that define the nature of technology. They are:
1. Technology is by nature expansive.
2. Technology is by nature rational, direct and aggressive.
3. Technology by its nature combines or converges with other technologies.
4. Technology by its nature strives for control.
Anyone who pauses for a moment to ponder the scope and style of Amazon’s operations will have no trouble recognizing how thoroughly the company demonstrates those characteristics. Such a consideration would take into account not only Amazon’s labor policies and data collection, but also the incredibly sophisticated computer systems that display and sell the company’s vast array of products and services; its vast network of fulfillment centers and the incredibly sophisticated procurement, retrieval, packaging and shipping systems they employ; the massively complex public and private transportation and delivery systems it uses to get millions of purchases to millions of customers around the world; the credit card orders processed and billed through massively complex international banking systems; the stock exchanges around the world where Amazon shares are traded, etcetera, etcetera.
The leviathan has many other arms; I could continue the list indefinitely. And of course, all those machines and systems are aimed at selling unprecedented quantities of consumer goods that are themselves the products of massively complex technological systems. Leave us not forget that Amazon, as huge and intimidating as it is, is essentially a middleman. It would be nowhere if it had nothing to sell.
The perspective on technology articulated here is not my own invention. Rather it is a summary of ideas garnered from scholars who have spent their careers studying the history and philosophy of technology. Chief among those scholars is the late Jacques Ellul, who would have had no trouble recognizing Amazon as the predictable fruition of drives inherent to technology, drives that have been gaining momentum since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Two themes in Ellul’s masterpiece, The Technological Society, published in France in 1954 and in America a decade later, stand out as especially relevant to Amazon. One is the holistic view of technology I’ve described above. Ellul used the word “technique” to underscore his conviction that technology must be seen not merely as a collection of devices but as a way of thinking and a form of being. Technique for Ellul includes the methods and strategies that put technological systems into motion as well as the quantitative mentality that applies those methods and strategies. Machines, Ellul said, are “deeply symptomatic” of technique; they are “the ideal toward which technique strives.” The central goal and overriding value of technique is efficiency. Amazon is the embodiment of technique.
The second Ellul theme that Amazon embodies is how poorly prepared human beings are to keep pace with the machines they tend. “Technique demands for its development malleable human ensembles…” Ellul wrote. “The combination of man and technique is a happy one only if man has no responsibility. Otherwise, he is ceaselessly tempted to make unpredictable choices and is susceptible to emotional motivations which invalidate the mathematical precision of the machinery….Eliminate the individual, and excellent results ensue.”
Automation hasn’t yet achieved that goal, although the roboticists are working on it. In the meantime, Amazon uses every possible technique to ensure that the workers who remain are pushed to their limit. A former employee told the Times that the company “is running a continual performance improvement algorithm on its staff.” Employees are expected not only to comply, but also to believe. The notion that some degree of balance should be maintained between work life and private life is taken as a joke, said one former staffer interviewed by the Times. Others said they were told that their only option when they hit the wall is to climb it. Those who do become what’s known within the company as “Amabots,” proud soldiers in Bezos’ march to world domination. Those who can’t or won’t climb the wall leave, if they’re not fired first. The Times article documents that Amazon’s rate of turnover is remarkable, though Amazon — despite the mountains of data it collects — declines to say what it is. The constant monitoring and measurement of employee activity and the ruthless evaluations that serve to weed out the less dedicated are manifestations of technique.
I must stress again that Amazon’s methodology and ideology are unusual only in the brazenness of their application; its basic approach will be all-too-familiar to workers in hundreds of corporate environments. It’s hardly unrelated that three trends have dominated national labor reports in recent years: flat or declining wages, eliminated benefits and increased productivity. All serve to further the efficiency of the enterprise.
Several commentators who wrote follow-up pieces to the Times article noted that Amazon’s policies are hardly unique, as did the Times’ authors themselves. Amazon, Kantor and Streitfeld wrote, “is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.”
Being in the vanguard means being in the lead; it does not mean being alone. Amazon may be ahead in some respects, partly because it’s less tied than older companies to traditional work-place convention (new recruits are told to forget the “bad habits” they learned on previous jobs), partly because of Bezos’ fanatical focus. Still, plenty of other companies in plenty of other businesses are using the same playbook and the same tools in pursuit of the same objectives.
“The question Amazon’s culture raises,” said Times columnist Joe Nocera, “is whether it is an outlier — or whether it represents the future of the workplace.” The answer is neither. The culture in general and capitalism in particular have been heading in the same direction as Amazon for a long time. At this point “the future of the workplace” that Amazon represents is well established and deeply entrenched.