Robert Whitcomb: In the Amazon jungle


Amazon is an impressive if rather creepy company, with its style set by its cold, “data-driven’’ founder/CEO, Jeff Bezos. An Aug. 15 New York Times piece, “Inside Amazon,’’ laid out the travails of the monopolistic and Darwinian enterprise’s white-collar workforce. Their issues have gotten more attention than the much worse Dickensian conditions of the blue-collar employees in its warehouses and the company’s relentless accumulation, like the also Orwellian Google’s, of our personal information. Amazonianism’s causes?

One is in the mirror. Americans have grown addicted to buying stuff online -- of course, the cheaper the better. They seem to want to avoid face-to-face interactions in stores -- and community engagement in general -- and Amazon’s power ensures that they’ll get low prices, at least for now (see below), even as their local stores close because of such online competition.

The preference for communicating via screens rather than person-to-person is especially common among the young, who grew up in the Internet Age. Human-resource managers have told me that young job applicants often don’t look them in the eye because in-person encounters make them anxious.

The disappearance of many well-paying jobs, and static (or worse) compensation except for top executives and investors, have encouraged consumers to seek out cheaper stuff than a few decades ago. But – irony of ironies! – Amazon and other high-tech automators have helped destroy good U.S. jobs in their “data-driven’’ mania to take full advantage of the international low-wage, cheap-goods machine.

Physical-store chains such as CVS and Home Depot are doing their bit to kill jobs --- by, for instance, installing automatic checkouts. I try to boycott stores with these machines because I know that each means the loss of another entry-level or second job for someone who needs it. This makes me feel better for a few minutes.

If Amazon’s workplace brutalities offend some consumers, they could resume shopping in their own communities and thus help employ some of their neighbors. Most won’t.

And look to Washington, where ideology and campaign contributions ensure that the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division doesn’t go after such monopolies as Amazon and Google. Until about 1980, Republican and Democratic administrations actually enforced laws against monopoly. The long disinclination to do so will hit consumers hard when Amazon, which has been undercutting other retailers to gain maximum market share, killing many brick-and-mortar competitors, suddenly jacks up prices big time.

Also consider the collapse of the private-sector union movement. If there were unions at Amazon, the Third World work environment would quickly go away. Gilded Age working conditions helped spawn the union movement in the first place. Now, management’s utter dominance has employees ready to put up with anything to keep their jobs.

Meanwhile, the “Big Data’’ revolution is turning workers into organic robots, soon to be replaced by real, inorganic robots. When every move of workers is measured for maximum productivity and profit potential, as at Amazon, kindly treatment of employees pretty much disappears. Employees are mere data points.

This process started with assembly-line and other blue-collar workers. The generally affluent types who read, say, The New York Times didn’t care that much. But turning employees into metrics is now heading rapidly up the food chain. Physicians, lawyers, tech engineers, middle managers and journalists (monitored for the number of Internet clicks their work gets) are being measured daily by senior executives who see their employees as entirely fungible and disposable.

And don’t expect the executive suite to share the riches from this speed-up with lower-level employees. The tendency for more and more of the wealth of companies to be shared by fewer and fewer people continues apace. We’re on a selfishness wave.

Amazon has created a fascinating machine for distributing goods. (Its delivery drones are next -- maybe equipped with surveillance gear?) Mike Daisey, writing in The Guardian (“Amazon’s brutal work culture will stay: bottom lines matter more than people,’’ Aug. 22), quoted comedian Louis C.K. as saying about such enterprises that “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy’’ . Well, some are.

Anyway, most Americans seem to adore Amazon, which will repay them good and hard.


Lovely dim late-summer light today, and  leaves are falling off the plane trees from sheer exhaustion.

Robert Whitcomb ( is a  Providence-based editor and writer, a partner at Cambridge Management Group ( and a Fellow of the Pell Center, in Newport, He used to be the editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal, the finance editor of the International Herald Tribune and an editor at The Wall Street Journal, among other jobs.