Oral hygiene chews for petite dogs. Space-saving storage bags. Disposable face masks. High-protein small-breed dry dog food. Non-drowsy antihistamine. Behold my recent Amazon purchases! As you can see, I live a highly exciting life. I sit at my desk staring at a screen for most of the day; when I remember I need something (normally something for the tiny dog that rules my house), I often buy it from Amazon. I rarely consider buying essentials anywhere else. “Under communism you buy everything from a single state outlet,” the satirist Karl Sharro once tweeted. “Whereas under fully mature capitalism you buy everything from Amazon.”
Like millions of people around the world, I’m addicted to Amazon. It has been estimated that 59% of US households are members of Amazon Prime, the company’s paid membership service. That number is even higher among high-earning households; a 2016 survey estimated nearly 75% of households making more than $112,000 (£80,000) a year belong to Prime. Meanwhile, about 50% of Americans report belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque. We all worship at the altar of convenience now. The Lord delivereth? Not as quickly as Amazon does.
Convenience comes at a price. In Amazon’s case that price is largely paid by its workers. Amazon has programmes that gamify warehouse work in order to improve efficiency. It has made headlines for its gruelling warehouse conditions, and has patented dystopian productivity technology, such as a wristband that tracks where warehouse employees are placing their hands and uses vibrations to nudge them in different directions. It has aggressively tried to stop its workers unionising; it has been reported that it altered the timing of a traffic light outside an Alabama warehouse so pro-union workers wouldn’t be able to talk to colleagues who were stopped at the light.
For years, I’ve read stories about conditions at Amazon and thought: “That’s terrible.” But I’ve never felt terrible enough to change my behaviour and cancel my account. I’ve always found ways to justify using the service. It’s so damn convenient, after all. And I’m clearly not the only one who bypasses my principles in the name of convenience. Jeff Bezos could boast about how he likes drowning kittens in his spare time and, I’m pretty sure, people would continue to use Amazon.
Bezos, for the record, has not boasted about kitten-killing. But Amazon has apparently decided that it doesn’t need to pretend to be a Caring Multinational™ any more. Last week, as workers at an Alabama warehouse voted on whether to unionise, Amazon lashed out at high-profile critics, including Bernie Sanders, on social media. In a reply to a tweet from the congressman Mark Pocan, the Amazon News Twitter account also snarkily denied allegations that employees had to urinate in bottles at work. After a lot of people provided evidence proving otherwise, Amazon acknowledged the tweet was “an own goal” and apologised to Pocan; it did not, however, apologise to its workers.
I can’t overstate how weird those Amazon tweets were. They were so combative a staffer filed a suspicious activity report, thinking the company’s account had been hacked. It hadn’t. Rather, it has been reported that Bezos himself ordered the aggressive pushback. Sanders has said he reckons this belligerence is because Bezos is “nervous” about the Alabama union drive. I don’t know. I think maybe Amazon has become so powerful it just doesn’t care how it comes across any more. Even if you’re not a Prime member, living an Amazon-free life is basically impossible. Amazon Web Services, for example, powers some of the world’s most popular websites. You probably interact with Amazon multiple times a day without knowing it. A couple of years ago the reporter Kashmir Hill tried to block Amazon from her life and concluded: “Without it, I cannot function normally.” I’ve finally resolved to quit Amazon Prime (after I buy one last bag of small-breed dog food), but my personal boycott is too little, too late. Unless drastic measures are taken, Amazon is far too big to fail.