A lot of dystopian fiction, from Nineteen Eighty-Four to Brazil to The Hunger Games, takes place in the future; typically, dystopian stories are cautionary moral tales intended to make us think about how what we say and do today will change our world tomorrow. We never expect dystopian societies to be tomorrow, but rather usually project far into the future, and so a hallmark of a lot of dystopian literature is imagined futuristic technologies that dehumanize people.
But even without the drones, Amazon is making good on George Orwell’s predictions through its treatment of its employees, and through its defense of that treatment, which it terms “our customer obsession.” Ostensibly, the Amazon corporation is so focused on being a resource to customers and fulfilling promises to them that that is justification for mistreating them–yes, to an extent that can be fairly called ‘dehumanization.’
The horrific stories recounted by the already-infamous August 16 New York Times expose sometimes come across as difficult to believe, and sometimes as believable but gut-wrenching. In the aftermath, company founder Jeff Bezos issued a statement that can be summed up in his quote: “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”
Some Amazon employees have claimed that they have seen or heard of isolated incidents of stories like the ones in the NY Times feature, but that they’re rare and due to the highly competitive nature of the work and the “customer obsession culture” at Amazon, which seems to be roundly celebrated as a noble pursuit.
I am an Amazon customer. I’ve had an Amazon Prime account since it was first introduced, and looking back into my records is a sentimental experience, as I can see that my first-ever order was a book called The Life of John Milton (Oxford Lives). I ordered it in 2000, when I was a college student about to depart on a great adventure to summer at the University of Cambridge and couldn’t find the required reading anywhere but this new place called Amazon.
Since that time, I have spent thousands upon thousands of dollars ordering from Amazon. I am not a wealthy person; Amazon just always has been there for me, delivering products to me when I needed them immediately and also making obscure products available when they’re difficult to impossible to find elsewhere.
Amazon became increasingly important to me over the past five years, after my health began a sudden and for a long time unexplained decline (described as “probable multiple sclerosis” for a while, before that was ruled out). For a while–years, actually–I either was in too much pain, could not walk, or was simply too fatigued to get up and get what I needed. Thank God for Amazon. I’ve ordered everything from toiletries to birthday gifts to art supplies from the company. In February of 2015, I found out that the cause of my deterioration is Lyme disease, and I have since begun treatment–supported greatly by supplements, almost all of which I have ordered from Amazon. I order vitamin C and glucosamine from Amazon because it’s convenient to do so; I order tinctures of teasel root, burbur, hawthorn, sida acuta, banderol, Japanese knotweed, houttuynia, and many, many others from Amazon because where the hell else can a person find these things? They’re not available at GNC or the corner drugstore.
Thanks to Amazon’s focus on giving customers what they want, I’ve been able to find things that I need. But now that I know what I know about Amazon’s workplace culture, I can’t support the company with my business any longer. Why? Because I realize that if I worked at a place like Amazon, I would be homeless right now, and possibly dead.
It’s not an exaggeration. As I described above, my health was in a steady decline since about age 30. It affected my life; I’ve lived, largely, like an infirmed elderly person for the majority of my thirties. It has, at times, affected my work output, too. I’ve taken a lot of sick days over the years, and while I have invested the little energy I’ve often had to work with primarily into my job so that I could stay afloat, both physical and cognitive effects of Lyme have been obvious at my job. I’ve been completely straightforward with my employer throughout the process, up to and including the eventual diagnoses and treatment. I work in an “at will” district, meaning that my boss could have fired me at any time for any reason. I believe I’ve produced high-quality work throughout the process, even if the quality has at time not been up to my usual standard, but nevertheless, many employers would see an unwell employee as a drain on the system and kick him or her out the back door. Amazon is one of those companies–and it’s completely untenable.
This is where the “customer obsession” line reveals itself to be Orwellian doublespeak–something that sounds like the opposite of its true meaning. “We obsessively take care of our customers” sounds so, so honorable, as if the staff are slaving away to take care of millions upon millions of people, to make their lives better. It’s a sacrifice, we are meant to think, equivalent to volunteering at a consumerist version of a soup kitchen. No. Amazon’s “customer obsession” is “bottom-line obsession”; it has nothing to do with human beings.
Dystopian societies devalue human beings and human lives. They do things like force a mother who just had a miscarriage to board an airplane for a business trip the next day, grievance and wellbeing be damned, and then tell the mourning mother that she is endangering her job with family matters. That’s sick; there’s no other way to put it. I am a man, and so some might be surprised that I am so sensitive to this, but someone who is very close to me has had over ten miscarriages, and each one of those has been the death of a child. The death of a child. What is your explanation for that having happened even once at your company, Mr. Bezos? In plain English, not doublespeak.
Amazon employees have come out of the woodwork in fairly significant numbers to support the culture, stating that it is their honor to work “among the best of the best,” and that by nature, only the best rise to the top, and the rest are discarded. There’s nothing more dystopian than that.
Let’s consider a highly performing machine. Even machines break down from overuse, and when they do, there are only two practical options at hand: either maintain and repair the machine–which is done when that machine is regarded as valuable, and which essentially means “take care of it” and “restore it to health”–or else throw it into the trash. The Amazon culture, which it seems most Amazonians support, is to throw human beings who are not both operating at peak performance and willing to be cutthroat, into the trash.
If Amazon were focused on customer satisfaction, Amazon would have, after a week, sent me more than a form lettering telling me that my customer service question had been forwarded to the appropriate department. Granted, my question was not one that can be easily answered or explained away in the face of the NY Times article, but I see no customer obsession in the silence. My question, by the way, was “How can you expect a customer with health problems, who has invested thousands of dollars in your company for over 15 years, to support a company culture that throws people away when they become ill or suffer medical problems?” Silence. Absolute silence.
However, Amazon certainly has put into motion its crisis communications plan, issuing off employees to comment anonymously and by name about the recklessness of the NY Times story. Its tech sector friends have likewise been mobilized to speak in support of the work-till-you-die culture. It seems that when Amazon’s image–and therefore reputation and therefore potential sales–are compromise, the obsession turns toward public communications, not customer communications. Frankly, Amazon, I feel neglected by you. I thought you loved me.
Wal-Mart has thrived and continually grown despite backlash for its alleged abuses of both employees and vendors; however, this former Wal-Mart customer stopped shopping there, cold turkey, when he found out about its Machiavellian approach to business. This customer also abandoned GAP and Old Navy when their ties to child sweatshop labor were exposed. Some customers really do care about more than just getting the biggest bang for our buck, or getting our products the same day we order them, no matter what. I’m willing to wait a little longer, to pay a little more, if it means that somewhere in Seattle a woman who is mourning the death of her child isn’t being berated for having the nerve to have an emotional reaction. Make no mistake, Amazon’s “customer obsession” is an obsession over dollars, not over making people happy. Because if you have no interest in making the people who you actually know and interact with every single day feel like they have even the basest level of human worth, then you certainly don’t care about me or my well being.