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Amazon: Threat or Menace?

"The Everything Store" leaves a big unanswered question. What happens when an entire economy is "amazoned"?

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Amazon’s history is the perfect launching pad for tracing how technological innovation is encroaching on territory once owned by humans. Stone reminds us that at one point Amazon actually had an editorial team that would personally craft book recommendations to be featured on the home page. But as Amazon became more proficient at exploiting the data it was gathering about user preferences and behavior, the added value provided by real living breathing humans came under existential threat from the automated “personalization” “P13N” team.

The fight was brutal, but the end was preordained. The algorithmic power of automatically personalized recommendations boosted sales more quickly than the plodding touch of corporeal bodies.

[O]ver time it became clear that humans couldn’t compete. PEOPLE FORGET THAT JOHN HENRY DIED IN THE END, read a sign on wall of the P13N office.”

Well no, actually. We all remember that John Henry died. Or at least we should. This epic coming-to-terms moment with the fact that machines boosted productivity beyond anything blood and bones could mobilize is a defining parable for the human wreckage left in the wake of technological innovation, for the price we pay for progress. Amazon represents the latest chapter in that narrative; it is the 21st century equivalent of the steam engine, running roughshod over all who stand in the way.

So who plays the part of John Henry? The independent bookstore? Circuit City? Random House? Dare we even suggest… the mighty Walmart? Middle-class jobs?

Brad Stone observes that “to be Amazoned” means “to watch helplessly as the online upstart from Seattle vacuums up the customers and profits of your traditional brick-and-mortar business.” But it goes further than that. To be Amazoned also means to be replaced by the algorithm, to have friction eradicated from the consumer transaction experience, to be automated right out of a job. The jury is still out on what the answer is to the question: What does an entire economy look like that has been “Amazoned”?

Let’s hope it doesn’t look like the internal employment culture of Amazon itself. Because if there’s one other thing that comes through, loud and clear, from “The Everything Store,” it’s that Jeff Bezos did not create a warm and nurturing place to work. Bezos is a tough and overbearing boss prone to “nutter” outbursts who demands long hours and doesn’t spare any compassion for those who value, say, time with their familes. In job interviews the slightest mention of desiring home-work balance was an immediate disqualifier. Those who thrived at Amazon embraced confrontation and conflict; those who didn’t left the company quickly.

Nasty bosses and insanely competitive workplaces are by no means exceptional in the technology industry. As Bezos explains, what Amazon was trying to do was hard. Staying ahead of the Internet curve required constant, unflagging effort. One could easily argue that building a successful company in such an environment required harsh working conditions. But in that respect too, Amazon is a useful metaphor for the society-wide workplace transformations that have accompanied recent technological innovation and its close cousin, globalization. Everybody seems to be working harder — the profit margins have been squeezed in industry after industry. We’re all competing against global labor forces and smart algorithms and the kind of robots that Amazon ultimately plans to install in all of its “fulfillment centers” so as to avoid the messy imperfections wrought by its current 12-dollar-an-hour warehouse workers. If computer technology is, as has been suggested, a factor in job polarization and the disappearance of middle-class jobs, then Amazon is one of the most obvious and lethal vectors for that virus.

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