The Economy of Stuff

Not too long ago Wal-Mart drew many comparisons to the Borg. The Borg, for those who might not know, played the part of the new über villains on Star Trek The Next Generation. They were unstoppable, “you will be assimilated” was their catch phrase. The Borg operated as a collective, adding to their operating system anything unique that a species might offer and discarding the rest. Hence the comparisons to Wal-Mart.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s Wal-Mart was the commercial goods super power. When a Wal-Mart store opened two other events were likely to occur. First, any lesser store selling anything similar to Wal-Mart went out of business, namely the mom & pop stores. Secondly, the real estate around Wal-Marts were soon populated with McDonalds, Applebees, and similar consumer driven shops that thrived off of the corporate model.

And now there is Species 8472. The Borg encountered only one enemy that was capable of not only defending itself, but also able to destroy the Borg with only the slightest effort, Species 8472: also known as Amazon.

Amazon started off as a bookseller. I remember discovering Amazon in 2006, looking for a compendium on social stratification (oh the irony). It is not likely that people can remember the first time they bought something from any given store, but this case was memorable for the fact that the title I got completely fell apart (bad glue on the spine) upon taking it out of the box. When I called to complain the person helping me was extremely polite and sent me a new copy next-day air. Having put myself through undergrad working retail I have a special appreciation for great customer service. I was hooked.

Amazon’s model grew well beyond books. There is seemingly nothing that Amazon cannot provide, all with 2 day shipping if you have an Amazon Prime Account. Amazon even has a built in bar code scanner for smart phones that allows you to price shop. Wal-Mart has always offered price matching but you had to drive all the way to the store. With Amazon you can walk into almost any store, scan an item, and have it shipped to you in a matter of days. Completely dismissing the human interaction that helped you find the product in the first place.

The hatred that Wal-Mart received for driving down wages, selling cheap products, running locally owned shops out of business, and just about anything else seems to be missing from criticism of Amazon. Amazon is just as guilty of anything Wal-Mart did and more. A point of clarification, what Amazon and Wal-Mart did was to take advantage of a market system that champions creative destruction. Anyway.

Amazon is not immune to criticism, but it would appear that Amazon is being treated much differently from Wal-Mart.

One of the many differences is that Wal-Mart’s business model relies heavily on human interaction. People go to a Wal-Mart to find things, even things they did not know they needed. The store has to be arranged and cleaned. Wal-Mart is a tangible experience where you are likely to interact with at least one person during your shopping trip (even if you use the self checkout). Amazon uses human labor, but it is unlikely to actually see an Amazon employee. The Amazon shopping experience is completed entirely through Human Computer Interaction.

Virginia Eubanks visited IU last Spring to talk about her new book, Automating Inequality (which Amazon just told me I purchased on January 17, 2018). First off, it is a great book and offers many unique insights towards the use of technology in society, go pick up a copy. During her talk Professor Eubanks mentioned how technology provides us with a kind of empathy override; that if technology makes a decision that potentially ruins someone’s life that we are able to distance that tragedy by acknowledging that the computer did it.

The relatively subtle criticism of Amazon seems like empathy override, afforded by Amazon’s business model of hiding its human capital. We cannot easily see the working conditions in an Amazon fulfillment center, in fact getting any kind of a picture of these places is next to impossible. Furthermore the average Amazon shopper is likely to be solidly middle class. Amazon customers likely have a bank account, a fact many people take for granted. Avid Amazon shoppers are not likely to know anyone who actually works for Amazon.

Amazon provides a wonderful platform that allows customers to buy almost anything. The shopper remains entirely unaware of the human expenditure necessary to maintain this model. It is very difficult to criticize things that are not understood. Social criticism of Amazon is growing, but it pales in comparison to that experienced by Wal-Mart. The reason is likely due to the fact that much of Amazon’s negative impact is hidden from its shoppers.

About Nicholas Wyant

Information does not want to be free. Fake News does not exist. Friends on Facebook are not really friends. I can ruin any party/social setting in mere seconds.
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