IT Workers at Amazon are exposing the dirty secret of the work culture at Amazon.com. Even with strict confidentiality clauses, eventually human beings who’ve been exploited, abused and had their humanity trampled on want to tell their stories. We are after all Homo Narratus … the story telling ape.
“Losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff — “purposeful Darwinism,” one former Amazon human resources director said. Some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover.” – Inside Amazon
While some might be tempted to write this story off as just another inhuman corporation exploiting its workers, I believe it points to something deeper, and something more dangerous at work in our societies. Let’s look at Darwinism and then I’ll explain what I think is at the hidden ugly core of the muddy waters of Amazon.com.
The dirty secret of the early 1900’s was Eugenics. One need not dig too deep to discover numerous mainstream people who supported the idea that we could improve the human race by selectively removing the supposedly deficient (mentally disabled, person’s of African origin, and the those who were poor). While more prevalent among political and social progressives, like Margarent Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood), important Conservatives like Winston Churchill helped draft the Mental Deficiency Act 1913.
At the core of the movement was the belief that one could “use science [the newly discovered Mendelian laws of heredity] to solve social problems (crime, alcoholism, prostitution, rebelliousness), using trained experts.” Laws supporting forced sterilizations, outlawing interracial marriage, and limiting immigration from supposed “unfit” sources were supported by many in Canada and the USA.
Even Geek Saints, like Nicola Tesla believed that Eugenics would help improve society. Yet, following the horrors of the German Left, in the form of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazis), most disavowed the inhumanity at the root of Eugenics. People rightly understood that in trying to become the technological masters of genetics they became monsters. While few after the post-WWII period were openly Eugenicist, North American society was often chastised by critics for its Social Darwinism and the belief that
Laissez-faire capitalism, with its survival of the fittest creed, would advance society not only economically but socially. While various opinions existed about the precise mechanism that should be used to reward strength and punish weakness, little was often given to the importance of human dignity and relationships in society. Notice that at the core of this thinking is seeking a precise mechanism and the abandonment of relationship. Human beings, as with Eugenics, became tools for the greater goal of a more efficient wealth producing society. Just as human beings became tools in the schemes of the left, the understanding of human beings as tools was the same.
Progressives of today will often curse right wingers as Social Darwinists, then they will over the same beer propose all sorts of mechanisms government experts can enact in order to enhance the social justice of society. In Canada, New Democratic Party is proposing a national daycare program. Helping working women with child care expenses is commendable. The mechanisms of its implementation will be handed over to those who can bring about the better future. Bring in the technocrats who can with their expert knowledge enhance society.
For a while I have seen both the Social Darwinism of the Right, and the Progressive Big Programs for Social Justice as sides of the same coin. Those who believe that through the application of scientific (each side has their science) mechanisms can bring about the greater good. Yet again, the “cause” and the “experts” are elevated above the humanity of those whom these schemes and systems are meant to serve. Human beings in their individual beauty, worth, and dignity become pawns in the goals of the technocrats.
While many have asked. “What does the One Ring symbolize in Tolken’s Lord of the Rings”? My position is that it represent the temptation of the Technocrat. Thinking one can make the world good through expertise is the ring of power. This is why Galdalf the wizard refuses to accept or even hold the ring, lest he give in to the temptation to think that he can bring about the good. As it is the temptation for the scientists of our world to give in to the temptation that they can devise schemes which will enhance society without becoming corrupted and corrupting others by their own delusions of mastery.
Notice the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings. They are the most anti-technocratic of species. They exist for each other, for enjoyment of the shire, and their aspirations are to enjoy a simple life. Consider Sam’s monologue when Frodo’s strength gives out. He recites the source of his self-worth as being the community of the shire. It raises his strength to aid Frodo in casting the ring into Mount Doom.
It is the temptation of the modern age to turn many things into gods. Chesterton, a vocal opponent of Eugenics in the late 1800’s said it succinctly.
“For when we cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything.” ― G.K. Chesterton
“I was so addicted to wanting to be successful there. For those of us who went to work there, it was like a drug that we could get self-worth from.”
Where do we get our self worth from? The work culture of Amazon appears to demand that their workers get it from the success of Amazon’s mission. While the young woman uses the metaphor of drug addition, I would suggest that some Start-Ups develop in a manner not unlike cults. I’m active in the Okanagan tech community which is a very diverse group of people with various viewpoints. I’ve also been around the block a few times and seen some weird stuff in my life. Yet, I was not prepared for 2014 MetaBridge some Start-Up speaker talking about how his start-up company workers got tattoos of the company logo on their bodies. I had a visceral reaction when they said 30 of the 40 members of the company were now wearing the brand of the company on their bodies. It was one of those “WTF am I on the same planet moments” or perhaps it was an intergenerational old Gen-Xer disconnect since for my generation tattoos were what folks got to rebel, not conform. It was a way people identified with a specific tribe of people … punks, bikers, metal-bands, etc. Billy Idol had a tattoo of the comic character Octobriana. Hey its a free country and if someone wants to have the company brand on their butt all I can say is “Moo”.
The tattoos were part of promoting a certain kind of culture and with it, a certain level of commitment. I see company tattoos as more than just the stamping of one’s body as property of the company, but rather a ritualized commitment to the group. By getting a tattoo, the person was demonstrating their 100% commitment of their life to the start-up, body, mind and soul. What the speaker saw as culture, I see as cult-like. The wearer belongs to the Start-Up as their new religion yet has not realized they have metaphorically or perhaps even literally sold their soul. Look at the following comment from an Amazon worker.
“The joke in the office was that when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last.”
I sometimes confuse people when I toss about the term “religion”. I am a Christian, which is what most people think of when we use the word religion. Yet, I when I talk about religion, I mean that which we ultimately rely upon for our self-worth, meaning, purpose and direction in life.
The word religion derives from the word “religare” which literally means to “to bind fast”. It is what we rely on or the “bond between humans and gods.” Or it comes from “religiens” which means to be “careful” opposited to “negligens” from which we get the word “neglect”. The current meaning of religion is relatively new (mid-1500’s), and mostly means a “recognition of and allegiance in manner of life justly due to a higher, unseen power or powers”. Or in my view, the powers upon which you rely to give ultimate meaning to your life.
The “joke” at Amazon that work came before life is telling about the culture which surrounds the people who’ve decided to offer their skills to the mission of the organization. The “joke” is that there is no balance … Amazon’s culture has become a defacto cult whereby the employee is expected to give over the manner of their life to the power of Amazon’s mission. I don’t mean that Amazon is just being a slave driver and expecting people to work hard. From these reports that people who experiencing the normal range of human tragedies like ” cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises” are being punished. No doubt others seeing the punishment will understand that to transgress against the god-Amazon is to reveal one’s self not to be a true devotee of the new religion.
I don’t think I am giving in to corporation-bashing or hyperbole. The comments sound similar to what cults like Scientology expect from those who run their organization. Any organization wanting “your absolute all” is akin to a cult.
“When you’re not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness,”
This is why I think Amazon is hiring younger and younger workers. It’s not just because they can get them to work 80 hours a week, but because they can get them to do so and think its a good thing … at least for a while. Sorry young readers, but the younger you are the easier it is to be manipulated. This is why cults go for young people who’ve just moved out. They are at a liminal time in their lives when their identities are fluid. They are impressionable, especially if they have not been formed in what we traditionally call a religion. I recall in my study of cults, that the most difficult young people for the Moonies to recruit were orthodox Jewish kids, and kids from solid Roman Catholic homes. They had an identity and they often had solid relationships with family and an outside community (Synagogue and Parish). The easiest were the kids of secular progressives. These kids could be manipulated into thinking they were serving an important cause greater than themselves. They could be manipulated by the group processes to unwittingly hand their identities over to the self-serving mission of the Moonies.
No Amazon, life comes before work. No Amazon, nothing in your mission is more important than morning a miscarriage, dealing with cancer, seeing one’s parents … or after working hard week (6 days of labour and one of rest) … is less important than whatever Amazon is doing. Let workers at Amazon not loose site that it is just retail … books and retail … nothing more. It’s an app for selling stuff. It’s not discovering the cure for cancer, life on other planet, or unlocking the mysteries of the universe. It’s an online mall not the Manhattan Project.
In interviews, 40-year-old men were convinced Amazon would replace them with 30-year-olds who could put in more hours, and 30-year-olds were sure that the company preferred to hire 20-somethings who would outwork them. After Max Shipley, a father of two young children, left this spring, he wondered if Amazon would “bring in college kids who have fewer commitments, who are single, who have more time to focus on work.” Mr. Shipley is 25.
As I have said, I think this is more than just about the hours. It is about ensuring that the only relationship that matters is Amazon. Marriage, kids, and even caring for parents must come second to “the mission”. Yet, the older a person gets the more likely they are The Great Oz is a fraud. Workers eventually wake up and realize that they’ve been manipulated by a toxic culture created by technocrats who understand how to motivate people to place work above their lives.
Amazon officials insisted tenure was low because hiring was so robust, adding that only 15 percent of employees had been at the company more than five years. Turnover is consistent with others in the technology industry, they said, but declined to disclose any data.
Any organization “obsessed with metrics” obviously has the data. Any organization faced with such damning reports from employees, including human resource workers could easily rebut the allegations if they had data to do so. Even if they did, one must ask whether the fact that a toxic work culture being exposed at Amazon points to a wider problem with the IT industry in Silicon Valley? If there are huge numbers of older workers with the skills to put what my dad called “a good days work for a good days pay” why are some companies turning to the young and, as I’ve written about, the H1B Visa (or as they call it in Canada … the Temporary Foreign Worker Program). Is it because technocrats know that these two groups of people are cheap and easily manipulated into handing their mind, body and soul to the mission of the organization? At least until they realize they are being manipulated … then some will be angry enough to act … I see Class Action lawsuits in Amazon’s future … on the grounds that they failed in their duty of care to ensure that the mental health of employees did not suffer due to work conditions.
I rarely blog about my political thought, however the problem of the technocratic worldview is central to Amazon’s apparently inhuman approach to those who are in relationship to it. I’m being sardonic when I say, “relationship” since for the technocrat, human beings in all their uniquess, complexity, and beauty are tools for the greater mission. For the Nazi technocrat is was for nationalism and racial superiority, for the Communist technocrat is for a just society for the working class, for the Capitalist technocrat it is for the just society free from government control, and for the technocrats at Amazon, it the petty ambition that Amazon be the supreme app. It’s not some supposed glorious future society dreamed of by left or right technocrats, but just an app.
What shocks me most is Amazon’s lack of shame about their Machavellian approach to employee relations. It’s well know that most of Silicon Valley companies espouse progressive politics, yet their approach to their employees would make even a Reform Party (read Republican, American readers) Red Neck Oilpatch businessman blush. This isn’t hyperbole, I worked on an app for Far Right Red Neck Old Patch businessmen. Most would give an employee with cancer, a miscarriage, sick parents, personal issues, etc time off and say, “Of course you can take time off, I wish you well.” These are hard nosed, expect the best, “no time for sissies” men, but they are in relationship with their workers and consider them more than tools.
Yet, it appears that even the most basic justice is cast aside at Amazon and other hyper-technocrats throughout Silicon Valley. While some will still say its the excesses of Capitalism, I think its something much worse. It is what I’ve coined as Technocratic Nihilism ie applying complex schemes to manipulate and exploit people into believing that they are giving their lives to something important, but in reality they are just being chewed up and spit out to serve the petty self-serving needs of the technocrats. I think there is something rotten at the core of Modernity itself. My question is whether secularism of the left, right or center logically will descend first into Technocratic “the ends justify the means for the greater future”, then into “My petty needs justify the means” in company cultures, and then into the more intimate of human relationships, the family. Is this Amazon story pointing to humanity moving from seeing each other as relationships into seeing each other as merely tools? Is that why workers once they get older are increasingly cast aside for cheaper and more compliant tool. Sure governments, companies, and people have always done this sort of thing. What is different is that once it was seen as immoral, now it is seen as normal and even praiseworthy. One of my favourite TV series was Firefly. The ultimate villain is a sweet technocratic true believer set against a motley crew of criminals, who with all their faults, struggle together to survive on the edge of his technocratic dystopia. The series lasted only one season, yet has become a cult classic in Geekdom. I think it was so popular because prophetically it points to the rot at the core of modern secularism of both the left and right.
This concern about Technocratic Nihilism is at the heart of the Sci Fi trilogy I am writing for Tweens. The evil empire in the trilogy is called The Perfection Continuum and is THE ultimate Nihilistic Technocracy. Maybe I’ll change the name to “The Great River” (Amazon … nah, just kidding. The website for the books is TomandPip.com. I’m going to sell it on Amazon.com … is that hypocritical, subversive, ironic, or all of the above. 😉 Wow, we live in an increasingly complicated world.