Digital commerce lord Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com and now the owner of the Washington Post, wants to conquer outer space. He grew up as a Star Trek geek and has long harbored the dream of following the crew of the USS Enterprise into the final frontier. Indeed, his high-school valedictorian speech in 1982 included the line “space: the final frontier.”
The heavens will have to wait, but market conquest, at least, is second nature to the Amazon king. Brad Stone’s new study of the stunning rise of the Amazon empire, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, follows Bezos’ once-plucky bookselling portal from its 1994 founding through its current incarnation as the online omni-retail colossus, vertically integrating itself into the digital markets for everything from jewelry to diapers.
Stone’s account of Bezos’ Amazon brings to mind another influential, and deeply American, document of utopian thinking: Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, published in 1887. In that fantasia, the protagonist-narrator Julian West is administered an anesthetic during a minor surgery and awakens in a placid, utopian America of 2000. In this brave new world, there is full equality among citizens, all significant forms of want have been eliminated and — in the development that most eerily echoes the success gospel of Jeff Bezos — all human needs, from daily meals to the daily wardrobe, are delivered to grateful users through a universal system of pneumatic tubes. (Those tubes find a ready corollary in Amazon’s transcontinental distribution centers, or “fulfillment centers,” as the retail conglomerate prefers to style them.)
As Dr. Leete, West’s kindly docent lord through the Boston of the future, explains, the genius of this space-age Valhalla is the tidy way it’s resolved what 19th century America regarded as “the labor problem.” Instead of fomenting popular resistance to the upward consolidation of wealth and power, the workers of the future let historical progress take its destined course — to lie back, as it were, and dream of all those blessed pneumatic tubes. Leete explains:
The industry and commerce of the country, ceasing to be conducted by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit, were intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit.
As The Everything Store makes clear, Bezos could not have said it better himself — save, of course, for the notion that a business syndicate should dally with the laughable conceit of “representing the people.” Bezos endorses a vision of commercial Darwinism that is red in tooth and claw. One of Amazon’s initiatives to commandeer and digitize the back catalogs of independent publishers was dubbed the Gazelle Project, thanks to Bezos’ directive to pursue these small players the way a cheetah would attack and devour a gazelle.
As it muscles competitors aside, Amazon, like its brick-and-mortar equivalent, Wal-Mart, has treated its labor force as a fungible, expendable piece of overhead.
“Many Amazon employees live in perpetual fear,” Stone writes. “Managers are so parsimonious with compliments that underlings tend to spend their days anticipating their termination.” Things are worse in the company’s mammoth supply warehouses, where inventory pickers are guided by the remote algorithms devised by Seattle-based efficiency experts, in a Taylorite parody of the digital economy’s hymned powers of personal liberation. (And should these harried souls take it upon themselves to unionize, well, just let them try; Bezos has acquired Boston-based Kiva Systems, which is preparing to bring a corps of mobile robots “meant to one day replace the human pickers in fulfillment centers,” writes Stone.)
In other words, just as is the case with the Wal-Mart brand that Bezos has long revered, the relentless quest to depress prices and expand market share comes at the cost of a living wage and decent working conditions for the largest segment of the nation’s retail workforce. Which means that the future of online commerce looks more and more like a nightmare version of Edward Bellamy’s consumer utopia. But Jeff Bezos, for one, need not worry: It will all look just fine from outer space.