The Real Reason People Find the Times’ Amazon Story So Upsetting

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Inside New Amazon.com Inc.'s Fulfilment Center
Employees at the Amazon.com fulfillment center in Poznan, Poland, on June 12, 2015. Photo: Bloomberg/© 2015 Bloomberg Finance LP

Nothing about life at Amazon seems fun after that big New York Times report on the corporation’s brutality toward its own white-collar workers. But unpack the account a little bit and it turns out to be documenting two very different kinds of misery. The first, the one that has been most broadly discussed, suggests that Amazon managers habitually treat their employees as if they have no existence outside of work. This leads, in the Times’ depiction, to mundane abuses and despair. One ex-employee worked such long hours that her fiancé got in the habit of driving to the Amazon campus and calling her until she agreed to come home with him. (“That’s when the ulcer started,” the woman said.) “Nearly everyone I worked with, I saw cry at their desks,” one former executive in the books department says. Some of the abuses were less mundane. The paper found a woman named Elizabeth Willet, who was given lousy performance grades because she left work at 5 p.m. to take care of a newborn child; another was given low performance ratings after she returned from thyroid cancer; yet another felt compelled to leave on a business trip a day after miscarrying. “From where you are in life, trying to start a family,” she told the Times that her manager told her, “I don’t know if this is the right place for you.”

Rough stuff. But throughout the Times’ account, another menace keeps creeping in — less vivid, but heavier with existential weight: data. In Amazon’s warehouses, we learn, workers “are monitored by sophisticated electronic systems to ensure that they are packing enough boxes.” In the white-collar jobs that are the story’s real subject, the company is exacting in similar ways. “The company is running a continual performance improvement algorithm on its staff,” a former marketer on the Kindle team explains. Before regular performance reviews, Amazon workers are given “printouts, sometimes up to 50 or 60 pages long,” that measure their performance on many different metrics. (It’s a little amazing that Amazon is still printing this stuff out on paper.) The totality of this measurement, the Times suggests, means not that Amazon is unique but merely that the company has been “quicker in responding to changes that the rest of the work world is now experiencing: data that allows individual performance to be measured continuously.”

Which is the line at which the average white-collar Times reader is meant to experience a sense of imminent collapse and dread. Obnoxious as most of the abuse is, as many lines as it crosses, a reader who works at another company can chalk it up to a particular sick corporate culture, located in Seattle and presided over by a megalomaniac. You can reassure yourself that you have a kinder boss and a more decent set of rules. But “continual improvement algorithms” are innovations, the Times explains, the kind that are now arriving in “the rest of the work world” and just happened to come to Amazon first. The real villain of the Times piece isn’t Bezos or his senior executives. Instead, it’s Taylorism for the professional class, in the guise of data. “Data,” a senior Amazon executive tells the Times, “is incredibly liberating.”

It’s sort of perfect that, of all American executives, Bezos has to confront this report. Mark Zuckerberg was in particular the great symbol of the last tech epoch — in which a kind of know-nothing idealism still held, in which the cultural shock was that social experiences were now mediated through smartphones. But for the transition to the next epoch — drones, intelligent robots, the “Internet of Things,” a phase in which technology mediates our experience of the physical world — Bezos fits best. The industry’s professed idealism is fading, and the distinction between Silicon Valley and the rest of American business has collapsed. So now the big public questions about Silicon Valley look pretty familiar because they are extensions of questions that have long existed around American corporations: of how much power one company should be allowed to have, of how much influence a company ought to have over individual choices, of how we weigh the magnificent efficiencies capitalism brings against its human brutalities. What is interesting about Bezos is how familiar a corporate type he is, down to the shiny Jack Welch dome.

Bezos made public the intra-company memo that he sent out after the Times story was published, and it was intelligently calibrated and said quite a bit about the need for corporate human decency: “Our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.” He didn’t say anything about data.

The Amazon story has now already been through a couple of media cycles, and the presiding mood is calmer, less outraged than it was in the hours after it went live over the weekend. You could probably find “similar anecdotes coming from ex-employees at Goldman, Skadden, Bain, or various fast-growing startups in Silicon Valley,” wrote Alison Griswold at Slate, “and they would probably be non-stories.” (It isn’t surprising that the Amazon story would arouse vastly differing opinions within the media — a field which maybe more dramatically than any other has transitioned from a system in which prestige was a matter of craft and jobs were protected by unions, to one under which everyone’s productivity was immediately knowable in the form of clicks.) Matt Yglesias pointed out that unlike Amazon’s blue-collar workers, the executives whose abuses were detailed in the story were likely well-paid and had the option of leaving for another good job. On Twitter, Josh Barro, of the Times’ own Upshot, compared Amazon employees to triathletes: “Triathlons are, objectively, awful. And yet some people derive perverse joy from them. Who are we to argue with their life choices?” Plenty of people pointed out that working at Apple doesn’t seem like a real picnic either.

But the destabilizing parts of the Times story didn’t really have much to do with how much more or less brutal Amazon is toward its competitors, but with naming the costs of a vision by which a firm not only operates within the market but also itself operates as a highly monitored internal market for talent and success. What’s notable about the Amazon version of this vision isn’t only that it is brutal but also that it works.

In his satirical Silicon Valley novel The Circle, Dave Eggers has his naïve hero frantically competing with her co-workers to up her internal Participation Rank score, staying up late into the night to prop up her ranking by authoring “zings” (the novel’s version of Facebook “likes”), “your comments on others’ zings, your comments on other Circlers’ profiles, your photos posted, attendance at Circle events comments and photos posted about those events,” each of these incremental efforts noted by an algorithm and scored. Most people know what they think about mean bosses, and misogynistic ones. They even might know what they think about the suggestion, made by the LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, that we ought to see our relationship with our employer not as a permanent state but as a “tour of duty,” lasting a few years. But I don’t think many professionals really know what they think about the experience of a company as an aggressively monitored internal market for productivity, or how to know whether such an experience is necessary to deliver the signal corporate triumph of the Times story, in which Amazon delivers an Elsa doll to the door of a customer who could not find one anywhere in New York City in exactly 23 minutes. Which is to say, they don’t know what to make of a rising vision of work in which, as Louis C.K. once put it, “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”