1,800 words, satire (with apologies to Ursula K. LeGuin)
With a flurry of promotional emails and banner web advertisements, the fantastic deals of Prime Day came to the website of Amazon. The homepage of the site was festooned with links pointing towards amazing deals in all departments, from a 6-quart Instapot Multi-Use Programmable Pressure Cooker for $59.99 to a Jawbone Wireless Bluetooth Speaker for $29.27 (in a variety of colors). For shoppers who used the app on their phones, the amazing deals of Prime Day were there as well, available for purchase in seconds wherever those good people happened to be, whether a coffee shop or crowded city bus: 8 GB Fire Tablets with 7” screens for $35; Kindle Paperwhite e-Readers with 6” high resolution displays for $99.00; 12 Bounty Quick Size Paper Towel Rolls for $25 ($24 with Subscribe and Save). Customers tapped their keyboards or swiped on the screen on their device or even just spoke aloud: “Alexa, reorder those Keurig coffee pods,” and within what felt like seconds the objects of their desire were on their way to fulfill their most fleeting want, placed into ubiquitous cardboard boxes, their progress tracked by a series of text messages and notifications from some far-off warehouse to their very door. All, of course, with free 2-day shipping, though in some cases they could be even delivered the next day or even (would miracles never cease?) that very day. And we have not even begun to touch on the digital, streaming music and videos, the classic films and new releases available to watch for free with a Prime Membership, the critically acclaimed original television dramas perfect for binge-watching, and all included for free with one’s Prime account. To say nothing of the nearly endless selection of newer blockbuster films or tv shows available to rent or own, purchased with a click and a 5 digit verification PIN, then added to one’s Amazon video library. There were also books and e-books, but we will not spend time discussing those here. There are some who whisper that once, long ago, Amazon only sold books, but we are not here for a lesson in antiquity but the now.
Joyous! How is one to tell about the joy? How describe the cornucopia of the website of Amazon or the happy satiation of its customers?
They were not simple people, but they were happy with their online experience. These days, after so many phishing-scams and much fake-news we ourselves are somewhat jaded about our online experiences, but when I say they were happy I am not saying they were naive. Far from it. They knew to look closely at third party sellers offering electronic devices at ridiculously low rates, that at $9.99 for an external battery charger, shipping would probably take 3-12 weeks from China and the item was likely to fail within a matter of days (if it in fact ever worked at all). They knew to be suspicious of too many five star reviews, to avoid sponsored search results and instead look for the coveted “Amazon’s Choice” logo, to stick to trusted brands and filter their searches by “Prime Only.” How to describe the joy and convenience that Amazon Prime brought to them? All they had to do was have a fleeting thought that the shower-curtain in the upstairs bathroom was looking a bit worse for wear and within seconds they could have ordered a replacement, knowing that in two days they would return from work to find a brown cardboard box on their steps, almost laughably large for the slight contents contained therein. No longer did they even need to wait until their shopping cart contained enough items to qualify for free shipping, which at many sites was not until the purchase was $25 or even $50. No! They could turn on One-Click Shopping and buy a new electric toothbrush in the morning, then in the afternoon realize that their son’s Black Panther Action Hero was missing and so order a replacement, without ever having to pause and think that they should have made these one order. True, on recycling pick-up day each week, the curbs outside their apartments were stacked high with dozens of flattened boxes, but what price was that compared to the ease of never having to make weekend trips to some large, box store, the joy of their never experiencing the hesitation between desire and fulfillment? No, they were not naive. They knew that algorithms tracked their every move online, that if they looked even fleetingly at an adorable throw-pillow shaped like a smiling, anthropomorphic avocado that ads for the pillow would follow them across the internet like a lost puppy. But then the site knew them better than they knew themselves, knew their wants and desires and merely wanted to fulfill them, to make them happy. And when the grinning, plush avocado arrived they were happy, truly happy they had bought it, and forgive the algorithm its small intrusions into their data-privacy. Amazon knew their preferred brands and when it was time to reorder the dog’s joint medications, knew that since they had ordered a new high-powered, variable-speed blender they would also like an e-book of easy vegan smoothies recipes or a 16 oz bag of organic chia seeds. They did want those things as well, and it was Prime Day, and so the deals were even better than the already low prices they found every day.
Do you believe? Do you accept the website, the seamless online shopping experience, the convenient print-from-home return labels, the millions upon millions of happy shoppers? No? Then let me describe one more thing.
From time to time, these customers would read news articles about Amazon, ones that were not about the deals or even the algorithms or data-privacy, but about people. About workers. About the actual human being involved in the wish-fulfillment process, the individuals packing the various items into their prime-shipping boxes in some voluminous warehouse somewhere. They would read about timed bathroom breaks and inhumane working conditions, about workers whose every movement were tracked and calibrated by computers, racing against impossibly standards and goals at the fear of losing their job: a new package completed every 30 seconds, of walking 10 miles every 8 hour shift under punishing fluorescent lights without the ability to take a break or even use the bathroom outside of pre-designated time periods. Workers passing out from exhaustion. Workers with stress-fractures on their feet. Concrete warehouses with temperatures falling below zero during the mad-rush before Christmas. Workers paid less than minimum wage after various fines and pay reductions for failing to meet goals or for required shuttle-services to the warehouse. Workers in Spain beaten by police after striking. Customers would read these stories in horror, and think how terrible it was that the amazing deals they found on Amazon (waterproof Otterbox cell phone case for $39.99!) were only possible because the company had found ways to cut costs and squeeze savings out of every stage of production and shipping. They would see these articles on reputable news sites or shared as links on Facebook and Twitter, and they would share them so that others could see them as well. They would click the “Like” button beneath the story so that an angry emoticon appeared, or retweet with a series of hashtags: #amazon #amazonprime #workerrights #socialjustice #livingwagenow. They would recite the most egregious factoids to co-workers over their skinny-chai lattes and talk about how horrible it was that people were treated like that, today, in 2018. What was this, Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle?” And this was to say nothing about articles they read about how workers in the factories that actually made the products were treated, the child-labor in far-off countries, or the smaller stores forced out of business by Amazon’s deadly grip on the entire marketplace.
But the terms were absolute. In order for there to be these incredible savings, in order for so many items, in a wide variety of styles and colors, to be available for such low prices and for two-day shipping to be included for free, certain sacrifices have to be made. Workers had to be underpaid and mistreated. Local businesses had to be shuttered. That was the terrible truth at the foundation of Amazon Prime.
And so after they had shed their tears and posted to various social media platforms and commented and liked and retweeted, their tears dried and they saw that the towels in the bathroom were looking threadbare, and if they ordered before 4 PM they could have new ones before Friday, plush bath-towels in bright canary yellow with a series of vaguely Japanese cartoon faces on them. No, they were not naive, these customers of Amazon. They knew that, like the workers, they were not free, and that is what makes them believable. They were not inhuman monsters or simple savages. They were good people, people who avoided Walmart because of how they treated their employees, people who boycotted Driscoll’s because of the working conditions of its fruit pickers. They patronized local coffee shops instead of Starbucks when they could, and they voted for democratic (even social democratic) candidates. But there were things they needed and wanted, and their lives were very busy. They did not order from Amazon unknowingly or ignorantly but fully informed and with a slightly troubled conscious that came with compassion and empathy.
Now do you believe in them? Now are they not more credible? But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.
At times, some of the young men and women who read an article about the horrific working conditions in one of Amazon’s shipping facilities do not merely re-post the article on Facebook, or create a series of impassioned tweets accompanied by a series of socially-conscious hashtags. Sometimes also a man or a woman hovers over the “Buy it Now” button but does not click, or leaves a full shopping-cart unpurchased. These people stare at their screens, log into their accounts, and cancel their Prime subscription. Then they click on a different website, one that is not Amazon, and they keep clicking, away from the infinite sea of want and fulfillment and two-day free shipping. The next day dawns, and they do not share Wish Lists with friends and loved ones, do not order packages to be sent to their office or home address, do not download e-books to their kindle or other devices. They go to other sites, ones that do not offer as many deals from third-party sellers, where shipping is not included. They go on. They leave Amazon and head into the darkness and no not go back. The sites they use are even less imaginable to us than this site of constant happiness and wish-fulfillment. I cannot describe them at all. Perhaps they do not exist. But it seems they know where they are browsing, the ones who walk away from Amazon Prime.