Leacroft GreenHere is what I learned from the article* about Amazon in the New York Times: Amazon is the place where your performance is constantly monitored with the latest metrics and you better not have a baby or get cancer. And where you embrace the “purposeful Darwinism” that encourages you to rat out your fellow employees for their whining or poor planning.

Still, there’s something honestly Darwinian about the lack of amenities and security and personal life, not to mention the hyper-obsession with customer satisfaction. I certainly agree that qualities like harmony and collegiality are overrated in the literature about the workplace.

Now, this article doesn’t even talk about the regular guys doing perfectly scripted, sweat-shop work in the warehouses, who are eventually replaced by robots. There’s something comforting in knowing that Amazon means to be a sweat-or-die place all the way up.

I’m not judging at all; the future probably belongs to guys like Jeff Bezos. Amazon may be the most highly competent space around.

As “intellectual labor” is centralized among the highly competent and relentlessly competitive few, there’s no denying that the labor of the many will continue to become more scripted. And its results will be more intrusively and relentlessly measured. So there’s something true about what Marx says about the value of the labor of the many coming to be worth barely more than subsistence, even as it becomes more repulsive. The labor of the cognitive elite, meanwhile, becomes more satisfying in its imposition of the rational control at the foundation of unprecedented efficiency and productivity.

What about entrepreneurship, being your own boss, and all that? Sure, they’ll still be around. But maybe most of the real action will be at Google, Amazon, and so forth. Places like Whole Foods will remain a bit more quirky and humane, but not at the expense of attending to market realities or by detaching merit from measurable productivity. Google will only seem more humane; its abundant amenities are about keeping you from ever even wanting to leave “campus.”

14580449-mmmainIt goes without saying that I—the consumer of books and other Amazon products—wouldn’t want government messing with its success. But the progress of technology and the refinement of the division of labor will remain a mixed blessing, even for those making big bucks at Amazon. Our libertarians (among others) celebrate that we’re more a meritocracy based on productivity than ever. If you want to know the personal costs and benefits in extremis, visit the workplace Amazon.

A famous libertarian economist tweeted what he thought was a joke: “Amazon is a terrible place to work. And robots are replacing all the good jobs there.” The joke doesn’t work because there’s no real contradiction. Some people really are stuck with having to work at Amazon warehouses. The jobs are good in the sense of being much better than nothing (or other even worse jobs). The pay is pretty bad (lower than the Democrats’ new minimum wage of $15 in lots of cases), and the work is not intrinsically fulfilling. But the jobs are good enough that those who hold them fear the coming of the robots. That’s not to say that I believe that raising the minimum wage or other such schemes would make the situation better.

363695635_82a83c458b_oWho doesn’t have selective nostalgia for brick-and-mortar bookstores?

Who doesn’t visit one of the few remaining real bookstores to browse luxuriously while sipping a caffeinated beverage, only to go home to order any finds on Amazon?

And I’ve already explained to you how the disruptive innovators in higher ed want to reform the delivery of instruction along the lines developed by Amazon.

Most of all, remember we’d all be sitting pretty if we had the foresight to buy Amazon stock fifteen years ago. It’s unreasonable to envy those who did.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. © August 2015 by National Review, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

*See article here.

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