Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Is Amazon Bad for Books?

For the New Yorker, George Packer wrote a thorough critique of Amazon’s business practices:

Even its bitterest critics reluctantly admit to using Amazon, unable to resist its unparalleled selection, price, and convenience. When Bezos talks about serving the customer, it’s as if he were articulating his purpose in life. “The customer is almost theological,” James Marcus said. “Any sacrifice is suitable for the customer.”

“Jeff is trying to create a machine that assumes the shape of public demand,” Tim Appelo, the former entertainment editor, said. “He resembles a very, very smart shmoo—he only wants to serve, to make you happy.” Appelo was referring to Al Capp’s smiling blob of a cartoon character, which happily provides people with whatever they need: milk, eggs, butter, even its own tasty self. With Amazon’s patented 1-Click shopping, which already knows your address and credit-card information, there’s just you and the buy button; transactions are as quick and thoughtless as scratching an itch. “It’s sort of a masturbatory culture,”

Amazon’s magic is in not revealing the gears and cogs required to make online shopping appear so effortless and simple. There’s a vast, deep undercurrent of lousy working conditions and near-extortive threats which are masked by the vision of the future. This isn’t necessarily unique to Amazon — consider the deals Apple struck to start the iTunes Store, or the piss-poor conditions of Far East factories which assemble products for almost all major electronics companies.

What’s most striking about Packer’s profile of Amazon, though, is just how dehumanized the company comes across. Everything — right down to their first original content series — is generated algorithmically, not artistically. If the original content that results from these sales predictions becomes popular, is that damning to people who work to create new ideas? Is the scriptwriter in as much danger of being made redundant as the factory worker?