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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  Amazon is evil. Really?

Amazon is evil. Really?

All narratives appeal to emotion and are twisted to suit the storyteller's motives. We cave in, without pausing to examine the evidence

Amazon was founded in 1994. It has outlived the odds and the time to start penning an obituary to it is long overdue. Much like Bill Gates, it may only be a matter of time before Jeff Bezos may look a benign man in hindsight. Photo: AFPPremium
Amazon was founded in 1994. It has outlived the odds and the time to start penning an obituary to it is long overdue. Much like Bill Gates, it may only be a matter of time before Jeff Bezos may look a benign man in hindsight. Photo: AFP

Multiple accounts have it that entities like Inc., Google, Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc. are evil entities. There is much evidence as well to support that narrative. For the sake of this argument, let us consider Amazon—not for anything else, but because what started out as an entity to deliver books is an altogether different beast. A beast that now wants to dominate the world. India is high on its investment radar and Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder, is now the world’s richest man with a net worth of about $130 billion. 

May I submit upfront I am unwilling to buy the Amazon-is-evil narrative? But I'll get to that later.

Sometime ago, a post on Medium by Julia Cheiffetz, an executive editor at HarperCollins, got attention across much of the world. It stunned readers. It was headlined "I had a baby and cancer when I worked at Amazon. This is my story". The piece was an account of the time she was editorial director of Amazon Publishing between 2011 and 2014. 

She concluded: “Jeff: You asked for direct feedback. Women power your retail engine. They buy diapers. They buy books. They buy socks for their husbands on Prime. On behalf of all the people who want to speak up but can’t: Please, make Amazon a more hospitable place for women and parents. Re-evaluate your parental leave policies. You can’t claim to be a data-driven company and not release more specific numbers on how many women and people of color apply, get hired and promoted, and stay on as employees. In the absence of meaningful public data — especially retention data — all we have are stories. This is mine." 

Julia’s essay led to a long investigation by The New York Times on what really happens to people Inside Amazon, particularly white collar workers. The New York Times reported, “Company veterans often say the genius of Amazon is the way it drives them to drive themselves. If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,’ said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system."

“In Amazon warehouses, employees are monitored by sophisticated electronic systems to ensure they are packing enough boxes every hour."

“…in its offices, Amazon uses a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more. The company is running a continual performance improvement algorithm on its staff,’ said Amy Michaels, a former Kindle marketer."

This little bit from the New York Times sounded particularly poignant: Noelle Barnes, who worked in marketing for Amazon for nine years, repeated a saying around campus: “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves." 

Narratives like these demand introspection. It gets much attention and it is difficult not to feel empathy for the humans that have to put up with realities like these.

The problem with narratives like these though is that it repeats itself, consistently. History is full of it. The impact of the Industrial Revolution on society, for instance, was thought of as a devastating event even as it was unravelling itself. 

One account from England, the epicentre of it all has it that, “The new enclosure laws—which required that all grazing grounds be fenced in at the owner’s expense—had left many poor farmers bankrupt and unemployed, and machines capable of huge outputs made small hand weavers redundant. As a result, there were many people who were forced to work at the new factories. This required them to move to towns and cities so that they could be close to their new jobs ….Add to this the higher living expenses due to urbanization, and one can easily see that many families’ resources would be extremely stretched. As a result, women and children were sent out to work, making up 75% of early workers." 

This shift in social structure marked the beginning of many ideologies, fundamental shifts in society and how we live, and the implications of it are being felt in Europe and other parts of the world until today. 

No black and white answers exist to whether the Industrial Revolution was good or bad. There are multiple lenses to look at it from.

It created steam engines, textiles, and replaced coal for wood. Then on the other hand, jobs were lost, pollution emerged as an issue, and labour problems came to the fore. While it enabled better schools to be created, there is no denying the child labour. 

When looked at in hindsight, each event that transpired during the Industrial Revolution can be taken as a snapshot and used to create an image that suits whatever the storyteller may want to convey. To understand all of what transpired during the period, one snapshot won’t do. Many snapshots across a continuum of time must be stitched together to tell a full picture. What we then get to see is the good, the bad, the ugly, what was inevitable, what could have been avoided, the mistakes, the learnings, and pointers for the future.

If the same metaphor be extrapolated to all of what is happening right now, then to take a snapshot of a few painful stories to argue Amazon and entities powered by technology like these are evil is a naïve one. The stories that are being reported are pictures taken at a point in time. Multiple studies suggest this is just the beginning and that there is more pain that lies ahead. 

A study by a real estate firm CBRE suggests 50% of occupations today will be gone by 2020. Then there is one by Oxford in 2013 that forecasts 47% of jobs will be automated by 2034. Yet another study has figured that only 13% of manufacturing job losses were due to trade. The rest has happened due to automation. And to make things worse, a McKinsey reckons 45% of knowledge work activity can be automated.

If this be the case, it is only a matter of time before most of us will either be without a job or trying to re-imagine how ought we reinvent ourselves. It must have been the same dilemma and pain people felt as the industrial revolution played itself out. 

It is in the nature of disruption and economics. If this sounds cruel, we might as well accept it and get around trying to figure how to deal with it. This has nothing to do with Amazon or Jeff Bezos being evil.

If anything, the ironies embedded in the debate is what makes it sounds silly. It wasn’t too long ago that Bill Gates who founded and Microsoft was viewed as an evil man. Gates has since then morphed into a philanthropist and is viewed as a benevolent being who has wedded his wealth to change the course of healthcare across the world. Microsoft is not the most powerful company in the world any longer and has conceded ground to Bezos and Amazon. But Gates’ voice though is among the vociferous ones that argue robots that automate tasks and take jobs away from humans must be taxed. 

How much more ironical can it get that this argument comes from someone who built his fortune by creating a formidable monopoly that did its best to keep all other entities from sniping at his heels. 

If anything, what we have on hand is evidence that the half-life of companies is shrinking. Studies conducted on the average age of a viable company in the 1950s suggested that it would live, on average, for at least 60 years. That was more than the working life of any professional. It puts into perspective why those from an older generation speak in nostalgic terms of how they spent all their working lives with one entity.

As opposed to that, the most recent research by Credit Suisse has it that a successful company will do well to be around for 20 years. What that translates into is that job-hopping is not done for the heck of it, but because there are no ways out. This churn, the report suggests, has much to do with how technology, artificial intelligence and automation is taking over. 

If this be the evidence then, Amazon and Jeff Bezos are doing all it takes to survive and protect jobs of the people on its rolls. What can there be anything possibly evil about that? If anything, the entity that it is must be applauded for going about life and embracing it the way it has. Life without the retailer is now unthinkable for large numbers of people in many parts of the world. 

The evidence also has it the odds are stacked against it. The company was founded in 1994. It has outlived the odds and the time to start penning an obituary to it is long overdue. Much like Gates, it may only be a matter of time before Jeff Bezos may look a benign man in hindsight.

Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel Publishing. His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

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Published: 17 Mar 2018, 11:27 PM IST
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