The other day a friend of mine tweeted this article about life inside corporate Amazon. Her descriptor for their culture was “terrifying.” I’m inclined to agree. It’s a long-ish read, with tale after anecdote, mainly from former employees. We’ve seen articles before about the sweatshop conditions of Amazon’s warehouses, especially around the holidays. This is just the corporate office version.

Jeff Bezos says it doesn’t represent the Amazon he knows. But then, isn’t he the one who invented that particular flavour of Kool-Aid?

Now, I could analyze the piece and what’s weird/wrong/surprising about the article and Amazon’s culture, but I imagine you can parse that for yourself. I’ll be looking at that from a slightly different angle in a future column.

But really, Amazon’s “burn and churn” culture isn’t unusual. It’s not even specific to American companies, though there are more of them getting more attention. I recently read Losing the Signal, and there’s plenty in there about the overwhelming demands made of BlackBerry’s employees in the years leading up to their market dominance, and in succeeding years as they tried to keep it.

So no patting ourselves on our socialist backs; Canadians are just as susceptible to jamming the corporate meat grinder full as our southern neighbours. And hey, just pick up some Dickens to see how we’ve been handling great ages of tech innovation since the beginning.

So why do we have such a strong reaction to pieces like that? Cuz here’s the thing: a) most of us have spent time in situations at least somewhat like that at some point, and b) as customers of these companies, we benefit from their blood, sweat and tears. They’re just less invisible than the kids in China pumping out Nikes and iPhones. We get uncomfortable or outraged because it’s too familiar. They’re just like us!

One of the most interesting things about the Amazon described in the piece was how stereotypically 80s the culture felt. To confirm, see any movie with “Wall Street” in the title or plot. But perhaps the most striking thing was this: they’re not sorry. They’re not trying to hide the fact that they demand your life and chew up and spit out people by the hundreds. (Well, except for that bit about forbidding most staff from talking to the media…)

Jeff Bezos himself wrote in 1997: “It’s not easy to work here.” And it’s been 18 years of growth and innovation to expand and sharpen what that means to Amazon’s culture. The article ends with a quote from a recruiting video: “You either fit here or you don’t. You love it or you don’t. There is no middle ground.” I bet that person totally has a “Hang in there, kitty!” poster in her office.

And then there are the bits about how crying at your desk is apparently as common as going for coffee. But at least it’s a tech company, so they have office dogs. You can hug one when things get too bleak. Maybe two.

The article points to places like Google that keep adding and tweaking benefits, services and culture to try and cater to the “whole employee.” Their work lives, personal lives, and mental and physical health. Spending, spending, spending.

Amazon… not so much. Their requirements, and the toll they take, are a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Though maybe the chicanery behind torpedoing fellow employees’ careers is really satisfying, too?

But here’s the thing, they have no reason to apologize. I mean, c’mon, “Unfairness is not illegal” is a great successor to “Greed is good.” Sure, you can frame it so that they’re doing it all for the customers: Better, Faster, Cheaper. Ahh yes, the refrain of Walmart. Well, faster and cheaper, anyway.

But some parent getting an Elsa doll delivered in 23 minutes didn’t bring about world peace. Having toilet paper dropped off by drones isn’t going to cure cancer.

They can innovate their way to being a trillion-dollar company and enable us all to become hikikomori. And we won’t just let them; we’ll pay them to make it happen.

Because we like convenience. We like this future where everything is at our fingertips. At least until we can 3D print everything right in our own homes. (Hey, Neal Stephenson laid it out in 1995…)

And despite the fact that Amazon has over 150,000 employees and will be able to add 50,000 more within a three years, most of us aren’t them, or their loved ones, so whatever their corporate culture is like doesn’t really affect us. (Well, unless your CEO keeps One Click and The Everything Store under his/her pillow.)

There’s been more than one expose about the conditions at places like Foxconn factories, and iPhones still sell by the millions. We don’t hear about people dying or committing suicide at Amazon corporate in Seattle, so we have no reason to get concerned. Or if we do, we can share that New York Times article on Facebook or Twitter and feel good about doing our part for social justice.

The Times article implied that ex-Amazonians can be both great, driven hires, and combative and in need of re-programming. I guess it depends what roles you’re hiring them for. There will always be high-stress, in-your-face, high-reward jobs and the need for people to fill them.

So in some ways Amazon is doing other companies a favour. Except that, per the article, a lot of the people leaving are doing so because they’re not deemed to be on the A Team (George Peppard was no Bezos…). But maybe that’s a point in their favour with other companies. I know I like to work with people who are some percentage less likely to stab me in the back (possibly literally).

Fortunately, as the article also makes clear, Amazon is supremely data-driven, in its human resources just as much as in its warehouses. It’s just a matter of time until they manage to make the employees data-driven as well. It’s just more efficient.

Eventually they’ll cry themselves dry at their desks (Kleenex Ultra Soft tissues, $11.74 for an 8-pack), tidy up the remains of their humanity (Rubbermaid garbage can, $5.58) and accept the ownership of their souls and their hyper-productive destinies (Roomba 650, $349.99, two-day delivery with Prime).

Your Amazon order of “the future” has shipped!

Photo: Soylent Green by Bill Lile is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or me@melle.ca.

About The Author

Melanie Baker

M-Theory is a guest column by Melanie Baker, who is a big fan of building communities and working with geeks. She spends her days fixing the internets (in a way), writing, chasing her puppy, and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.