Amazon to automate Santa’s little helpers

December 5, 2013

Einar Gislason examines the future of Amazon according to company founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. 

“Amazon is not happening to book selling, the future is happening to book selling,” says Jeff Bezos in an interview with Charlie Rose which aired last Sunday on 60 Minutes. Producers at the iconic CBS news show were offered a peek behind the closed doors of the retail giant, promising to reveal “what happens after you’ve clicked”.

The report comes hot on the heels of a BBC Panorama exposé with a remarkably similar theme. As Martha recently brought to our attention, in The truth behind the click Panorama sent a young Welshman by the name of Adam Littler to work undercover in one of Amazon’s UK fulfillment centers. But where Panorama finds pressed working conditions, 60 Minutes find the real-life version of Santa’s workshop.

With thousands of sales per second during the Christmas shopping period, Amazon today is nothing like the operation Bezos started 18 years ago in his proverbial garage. The self-made billionaire used to drive parcels to the post office while dreaming of one day affording a forklift – something that looks a relatively antiquated part of today’s automated operations. Both news shows give a glimpse at Amazon’s technically impressive and ruthlessly efficient operations, where even the conveyor belts are intelligent. The process by which items are shelved is the product of seven iterations of fulfillment center design.

To veteran journalist Charlie Rose, a book on Zen resting casually on Mrs. Potato Head is nothing short of extraordinary. Asked if he thinks the way products are organized makes sense, Amazon VP Dave Clark says it does. Why? Because they have algorithms in place that help optimize the available space at any given time.[1]

There’s an optimal solution to this problem of mass storage behind what looks like meaningless disorder to the human observer. This is why shelvers and pickers are armed with scanning devices that tell them where to go next, what to do, and how long they have to do it. “We like to go down dark alleys and see what’s on the other side,” says Bezos to explaining the company’s approach to innovation. Apart from having to navigate narrow aisles in the dark when the lights go out, as they regularly seem to do  in Wales, the technically-enhanced working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses don’t seem too terrible.[2] 

Yet the experience reported by Panorama suggests something different from the romantic visions people may have of Santa’s workshop filled with hundreds of little helpers. Fall short, and you don’t meet your target for the day. Fall way short, and a disciplinary mechanism kicks in, under which employees accumulate points. The blisters that appear on Littler’s feet are dramatic evidence of the effort required to meet daily performance targets in this heavily monitored environment. When the points stack up, you risk losing your job.

This is a working environment where everyone, including supervisors and managers, are simply following the orders of, and interpreting, a network of optimization processes. People merely fill a gap at the interface between the algorithms that control operations and their execution in three-dimensions. “We don’t think for ourselves, maybe they don’t trust us to think for ourselves as human beings, I don’t know,” says Littler.

Constantly taking orders from the little beeping scanner, never accumulating a sense of anticipation as to where he might be told to go next, it seems that the only experience that Littler can accumulate is how to, in the simplest of terms, jog the aisles, manipulate the trolley and preserve energy during algorithmically optimized shifts.

The future, Bezos tells us, is further automation, most notably in the form of drones, of all things. The promise of 30-minute deliveries by air is but a few years away. And unlike military drones which have ground crews telling them where to go, The Amazon drones will not only renders delivery drivers redundant, they won’t need a desk-pilot.

This is the future that is “happening” not just to Amazon’s rivals, but to the company itself. As profit margins close, so do the margins for operational error. Increased automation controls are envisioned to deal with uncontrollables such as the human element itself. In the future according to Amazon Santa’s little helpers are redundant because a robot won’t need an off day or develop foot blisters.

Rose is visibly in awe of the entrepreneurs’ cerebral brilliance when he asks Bezos whether Amazon is pricing smaller publishers and retailers out of the market. Bezos’ retort is the one quoted at the beginning of this post. People can complain about the disruptive nature of internet ventures, he says, “but complaining is not a strategy.”

And Bezos is nothing if not a man with a strategy.

Einar Gislason is a PhD candidate in the Department of Accounting at LSE.

  1. In the absence of context, it appears that Clark understands the system insofar as he understands that there is a computer algorithm according to which the order of things makes sense. It is highly doubtful that he himself understands the intricacies of that algorithm.  ↩
  2. Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr also worked undercover at the Amazon fulfillment center in Swansea, albeit only for a week. And, before you ask, no – she did not secretly interview Adam Littler (or vice versa). Their experiences are, unsurprisingly, very similar. I recommend her article, which places Amazon’s practices and site-selections in more of a socio-economic context.  ↩

18 Responses to “Amazon to automate Santa’s little helpers”

  1. […] shelvers and pickers who move goods in and out of Amazon’s distribution warehouse according to the instructions of optimization algorithms are another example of how labor must […]

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