Why Even ‘The New York Times’ Can’t Agree On Its Amazon Exposé

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Unless you’ve been hiding very adroitly, you’ve probably come across last week’s New York Times cover story, written by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, which revealed the results of an in-depth investigation into the workplace practices at Amazon and drew some pretty disturbing conclusions. You may, however, have missed the follow-up from the paper’s Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, which questioned the original report. Taken together, the two pieces provide a neat summation of the debate around Amazon’s culture, and the implications that debate has for our society as a whole.

Diversity of opinion at a publication is welcome — I’ve always distrusted media outlets that clearly have a party line that every writer is expected to defend. Still, Sullivan’s response to the Amazon story was a curious piece of writing. Her concerns were twofold: a) that Kantor and Streitfeld’s report was driven by anecdotes, not hard data; and b) that it failed to provide enough context in illustrating how Amazon’s practices aren’t radically different from those of its competitors.

Both concerns are… questionable, and for what it’s worth, the Times published an update to the column, wherein Executive Editor Dean Baquet narrated how he “disagreed entirely” with Sullivan’s points. Baquet’s rebuttals were pretty spot-on: he “reject[ed] the notion that you can report a story like this in any way other than with anecdotes… You talk to as many people as possible and you draw conclusions. That’s the only way to approach it.” He also argued that there is “plenty of context in the original article about other companies with similar practices and policies, although perhaps they are not as extreme as Amazon.”

Baquet is correct, but the more interesting point here is that Sullivan’s piece reflects an instinctive aversion to questioning Amazon’s practices and the philosophy behind them, or drawing any sweeping conclusion from the answers to those questions. Jeff Bezos’s response to the article certainly drew on this idea, deploying the time-honored defense that some bad people can’t be held as illustrative of the company as a whole: “If you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly… Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.”

Sullivan’s concern is similar: that the reporters drew general conclusions from specific, anecdotal evidence, and that parts of the Amazon egg might be excellent. She suggests, “The evidence against Amazon, while powerful, is largely anecdotal, not data-driven… and anecdotes can be used and interpreted in any number of ways.” There’s an echo of the Amazonian faith in data in this concern, one that ignores the fact that if anecdotes can be “used and interpreted in any number of ways,” then so can data. (The old cliché about lies, damn lies, and statistics exists for a reason.)

More fundamentally, though, I think this discomfort — about the extrapolation from a small scale to a larger scale — gets at what is really bothering people about Kantor and Streitfield’s article. The ideas and rhetoric that drive Amazon — ruthless efficiency, hard work, a sort of workplace pseudo-Darwinism — are also those that underpin American capitalism in general. The entire cultural mythology of this country is based on the idea that competition elevates the best and weeds out the rest.

And yet, when we take that principle to its logical extreme, people get uncomfortable. Because what is Amazon if not a perfect avatar of capitalist mythology? Capitalism holds that work is virtuous in and of itself, and that hard work will bring rewards. Amazon’s mythology is certainly built around this idea, and so is that of many other companies — if anything, Amazon is only unique in the extremity to which it takes this philosophy. And to some commentators, that extremity is a virtue. Another New York Times writer, Josh Barro, used the telling metaphor of a triathlon in his defense of Amazonian practice:

Work is not meant to be fun, Barro seems to be suggesting, any more than triathlons are. It’s a matter of pushing yourself relentlessly, striving to be the best. If that’s the case, how can you then turn around and complain that things are too hard?

Again, this reflects the idea that Amazon isn’t uniquely awful — it’s just more awful than most other places. “Many of Amazon’s techniques and policies are common at other tech companies, and other companies in general,” Sullivan notes in her piece, referencing a subsequent article in the Times, which points out that “Grueling competition remains perhaps the defining feature of the upper echelon in today’s white-collar workplace.” Slate’s Alison Griswald advanced a similar argument, in a piece entitled “Amazon New York Times article: Lots of companies are probably just as bad to work for.”

This is no doubt true, but it’s notable that the necessity of — and virtue of — grueling competition in the workplace is accepted without question. No one stops to ask why such a culture is necessary; it’s accepted as gospel that this sort of corporate Darwinism is what gets result, weeding out the weak and letting the strong flourish. In many respects, Amazon is the purest distillation yet of the logic of the market. If you agree with Kantor and Streitfield that Amazon’s practices are deeply troubling — not just in terms of their extremity, but in the respect that they are fundamentally flawed — then you are really questioning something far more broad-ranging than Amazon.

Because, really, who is Amazon for? Who benefits from the operation of this finely tuned, idealized capitalist machine? Not its white-collar workers, apparently — since Kantor and Streitfeld’s piece was published, plenty of other former employees have come forward with similar stories. Perhaps most compelling is the story that the wife of a former Amazon worker published on Quartz Tuesday, detailing how her husband ended up in therapy after a stint at the company — and she doesn’t miss the irony of why he was able to afford such treatment: “[My husband] had been under so much stress… that I asked him to go to therapy. Ironic, isn’t it, that we were able to afford such a good therapist because of Amazon?” It’s an almost-too-perfect illustration of the problem with these sorts of pressure cooker jobs: what’s the point of all that money if you end up spending it on recovering from the process of making it?

So, if Amazon isn’t benefitting its white-collar workers, then who is it benefitting? Certainly not its blue-collar workers, either, as has been well documented. Is Amazon for consumers? Perhaps. Earlier this week, I ordered some vitamins and some headphones from Amazon. I’m still waiting on them. I’d have them already if I’d just gone and bought them at a pharmacist and a brick-and-mortar electronics store — although those are fewer and further between these days, largely because of the advent of online retailers like… Amazon. As a consumer, I have less choice, and isn’t choice supposed to be the grand virtue of the market?

Is Amazon for Jeff Bezos? Maybe — the man has become insanely rich, although his company loses money every year. Shareholders? A company that rarely turns a profit doesn’t sound like the greatest investment decision.

The answer, I think, is that Amazon is for Amazon. And not Amazon the company: Amazon the machine, the self-sustaining capitalist organism. In his book Present Shock, which I will quote until I am blue in the face, cultural theorist Douglas Rushkoff writes about how we have failed to make technology work for us and make our lives easier; instead, we are increasingly beholden to the always-on nature of our technology, and expected to behave like the machines that threaten to replace us in the workforce.

Amazon’s workplace seems to be one big example of this. Take, for example, the byzantine warehouse operations described in Mac McClelland’s piece for Mother Jones in March 2012, which make perfect sense to an idealized algorithm but absolutely no sense to the unfortunate workers scuttling frantically between endless aisles of boxes.

The same sort of ruthless logic applies to the work hours outside the warehouse — as Timothy B. Lee notes, in a piece called “In Defense of Amazon’s Long Work Hours,” there’s a brutal reason behind making people work crazy hours: “A 10-person team working 70-hour weeks is going to be a lot more productive than a 20-person team working 35-hour weeks, because the larger group is going to spend a lot more time sitting in meetings, arguing on mailing lists, and waiting to get answers from colleagues about how their respective parts of the software project will work together.” (Unsurprisingly, this notion is translated directly from the world of technology — from an idea called Brooks’ Law, which originated in software development.)

Again, what Lee says is probably true, at least until one of the ten employees in question keels over and dies — or, at least, ups and quits because they can’t take the strain anymore. But even then, the logic holds true — there are plenty more people looking for jobs, and a fresh, undamaged employee is likely to be more productive than the burned-out one he or she is replacing. This is the cold logic of capitalism.

To question these practices is to lift the hood on capitalism in general. In the case of Amazon, the machine is stripped down so much that you can see its pistons and cogs moving smoothly, relentlessly, unforgivingly. It reminds us that the same machinery underpins much of the world we live in — a truth that many of us would rather forget.