Maybe it all started with the drone tease. Remember back in 2013, when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced plans to someday make deliveries via “Octocopters,” which would pick up packages from an Amazon fulfillment center and deliver them to customers’ doorsteps within 30 minutes?
What was astonishing wasn’t that Bezos and his team thought of it (any 8-year-old with “Star Wars” toys could have thought of it) but that so many people seemed to think it was a great idea. Never mind the potential public safety hazard of countless vessels whizzing through the air trying to make that half-hour deadline. Never mind all the bricks-and-mortar merchants whose biggest advantage over massive online retailers is that they have items right there on site. What matters is being able to get a new phone charger or a package of Q-tips in half the time it takes to watch an episode of “Game of Thrones,” and without rising from your chair.
It should hardly come as a shock to learn that, thanks to a much-buzzed-about New York Times article, Amazon is not exactly a relaxing place to work. According to the story, employees are expected to put in crushing hours, answer emails at midnight and devote weekends, holidays and vacations to company projects. Even by the notoriously macho work ethic of the tech world, Amazon, evidently, is in a class by itself.
Bezos responded to the story by issuing a letter to employees saying, “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I hope you don’t either.”
But the article included many past and present employees who not only seemed to recognize the situation but defended the company and spoke of its culture as a kind of addictive substance. One operations manager proudly told of helping a customer who had come up empty after searching New York City for a coveted Elsa doll. Thanks to an ultra-fast local delivery service the manager had developed for Amazon, the customer was able to get the doll in 23 minutes.
“We’re trying to create those moments for customers where we’re solving a really practical need,” said the Amazonian.
In that statement lies the key to Amazon’s success — and its excess: Somehow, the immediate procurement of an Elsa doll has been classified as a practical need.
In a way, we all work for Amazon now, even if it’s not literally the case. Americans are putting in longer hours than ever. A lot of us answer work-related emails in the middle of the night. We spend our vacations on our laptops rather than on the beach. And for many of us, our way of coping and complying with these demands is to outsource quotidian tasks to the Internet.
Because maybe working 12 hours a day isn’t so bad if we can buy groceries online in one click and then return to the work that enables us to pay the delivery fee. And maybe working all those hours has made our time so “valuable” that it makes no sense to waste it standing in line at the supermarket.
In other words, we shop online not just because we can but because we have to.
Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. For the last year (and for reasons that are entirely my fault), I’ve found myself drowning in so much work that taking even a short break feels not only impossible but terrifying. I’ve ordered lots of stuff online that I could just as well have bought from local merchants on the rare occasions that I got up from my computer screen and left the house: dog food, light bulbs, special shampoo I was convinced I needed. I’ve ordered, I’m sorry to say, books that my local independent bookseller could have gotten for me.
Some items have arrived on a Sunday or very late in the evening, even if I didn’t opt for expedited delivery. I’d hear the delivery truck pull up in the darkness and wonder if the driver was missing dinner at home. I’d wonder if he was making overtime pay, if the home-delivery revolution was good for workers like him or if he was trapped on a hamster wheel, like me. Maybe he even sat in his truck during his lunch break and ordered his groceries on his smartphone so he wouldn’t fall behind and get replaced by a drone.
The catch is, the harder I work, the harder he works. And no matter how hard he works, the drones are coming.
By then, standing in line at a supermarket may feel like a vacation.
Contact Meghan Daum at email@example.com or on Twitter: @meghan_daum.