Erstwhile editor Graeme Pente compares present visions of consumption to late-nineteenth-century predictions for the future and suggests troubling similarities.
Early last week, online retail giant Amazon.com, Inc. released an advertisement for its projected Amazon Prime Air—“a future delivery system from Amazon designed to safely get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using small unmanned aerial vehicles, also called drones,” according to the company’s website. On the other, darker side of the company’s innovative vision, stemming from a self-described “customer obsession,” is the cutthroat and exploitative demands it places on its workers. As this past summer’s controversial New York Times exposé put it: “Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.” Similarly, the exclusive focus on customer satisfaction pushes workers in online retail warehouses to their bodies’ absolute limits. These employees at all levels suffer for the singular vision of total customer satisfaction, driven by the desire to gratify customer impulses as quickly as possible—that is, driven by the acceleration of consumption. Once Amazon Prime Air gets off the ground, I will be able to purchase an item from the online store with “One-Click Shopping” (to prevent me from having second thoughts), using wealth represented abstractly as numbers saved in my file on Amazon’s site, and the package will arrive at my door in thirty minutes without my having to get dressed, leave my house, or interact with another human.
Though it seems the cutting edge of the future, in many ways this vision reflects one first articulated 130 years ago. In 1888, American journalist and writer Edward Bellamy (1850-1898) published his utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887. The book sold some 500,000 copies in the United States alone, marking it as the most popular work of nineteenth-century American literature aside from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). In the novel, Bellamy details an image of Boston in the year 2000 in which society has overcome the late-nineteenth-century conflicts between labor and capital. Instead, people have embraced a cooperative social organization, serving in “the industrial army” from age 21 to 45 and sacrificing their labor for the common wealth. The government coordinates the distribution of goods, and, with the abolition of money, people obtain them from shops by debiting their personal accounts. As such, everyone has a personal credit card to keep track of their abstract wealth, the vestigial use of the term “dollars” answering “to no real thing.”
In Bellamy’s Boston, citizens obtain goods from one source through direct distribution from national storehouses. Each city ward contains a store full of product samples. Here, the individual peruses cards affixed to each sample product, describing the make, material, and price. The sole purpose of the sample store’s clerk is to fill out one’s order and send it (via pneumatic tubes) to the distribution warehouse. Each city has one of these central warehouses, to which producers ship their goods directly. The protagonist notes that this system is far superior to the nineteenth century’s, where “the manufacturer sold to the wholesaler, the wholesaler to the retailer, and the retailer to the consumer, and the goods had to be handled each time.” By contrast, the new system avoids “one handling of the goods, and eliminate[s] the retailer altogether, with his big profit and the army of clerks it goes to support.”
Once the orders arrive at the central warehouse, they are “read off, recorded, and sent to be filled, like lightning.” Filling the orders, one man works until “exhausted, when another man takes his place.” Large pneumatic tubes then deliver the packages to the city districts, whence they are delivered to the individual houses.
Though in some ways different, much of Bellamy’s vision is recognizable to us. By the power of the internet, Amazon circumvents the sample store, its clerk, and the pneumatic ordering system—as well as the need for its customers to leave their houses. With the potential advent of Amazon Prime Air, the company will remove yet one more figure, one more step, between its central warehouse and the consumer by eliminating the delivery person. Soon, there will only be thirty minutes separating my impulsive decision to “One-click” order and the gratification of that impulse as the commodity arrives at my door.
What might this new consumer order mean for us? Bellamy’s utopian vision, though dated, drew many critics in the nineteenth century and after. Critiques ranged from Bellamy’s evasion of the means of bringing about his vision to fears of what appeared to twentieth-century observers as a totalitarian regimentation of society. For our purposes, critics on the left derided Bellamy for the narrowness of his vision of human emancipation. His protagonist only really interacts with two other people and time is spent in an isolated state of leisurely consumption—the protagonists eating, listening to music, and socializing in the confines of their home. People go to public dining halls to eat, but do so in private rooms, which function as a part of their house “slightly detached from the rest…. Every family in the ward has a room set apart in this great building for its permanent and exclusive use.” Though cooking is done communally by people whose love of cooking led them to the profession, the isolated and private nature of eating serves to separate fully consumption from production, masking any labor exploitation.
The ordering and delivery of goods functions in a similar manner. As in our world, consumption occurs far from the site of production or distribution. It is thus easy to picture an Amazon warehouse as one of Bellamy’s central distribution centers, “like a gigantic mill, into the hopper of which goods are being constantly poured by the train-load and ship-load, to issue at the other end in packages of pounds and ounces, yards and inches, pints and gallons, corresponding to the infinitely complex personal needs of half a million people.” Like in Bellamy’s mill, the Amazon workers rush about filling orders until “exhausted, when another man takes his place”—those who cannot maintain the notoriously frantic pace of Amazon’s warehouses are easily replaced by another underemployed person, desperate for remunerative work.
Such exploitation is the result—in Bellamy’s world, in Amazon’s—when we focus all of our attention and efforts on consumption and put production and distribution out of sight and mind. In our world, production, and increasingly distribution, has largely become abstract. While consumers increasingly equate distribution with sterile, inhuman drones, the very human labor costs shift out of focus. Consumption is the only act we experience concretely. In a similar way, our money, our wealth, has become an abstraction. Bellamy himself noted the trend and its disruptive results in the 1880s. As he wrote in Looking Backward, “Already accustomed to accept money for commodities, the people next accepted promises for money, and ceased to look at all behind the representative for the thing represented. Money was a sign of real commodities, but credit was but the sign of a sign.” For us, the abstraction of money into credit, represented digitally as so many fluctuating numbers, makes it all the easier to purchase more and more commodities for consumption from our central warehouse at Amazon. As the abstraction of wealth makes spending it easier, the abstraction of labor makes its exploitation easier.
Without the state guaranteeing to meet our basic needs (a universal basic income?) or mandatory retirement at age 45—or for that matter a sense of commitment and duty to contribute our labor to a national commonwealth—we risk inhabiting a world of isolation and exploitation:
Each of us isolated in the privacy of our homes purchasing what we need (or think we need) over a computer system that prevents the necessity of stepping outside, while drone delivery of those commodities ensures we will never come into contact with another human. As the money we use to purchase those commodities is hardly real to us, so the exploited person who manufactures the commodity and the exploited person who packages it and attaches it to the drone are hardly real to us.
Looking backward makes looking forward all the more frightening.