That American corporate culture can be aggressive and unpleasant is no surprise. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the most aggressive American retailer in history operates like a bootcamp. Or given Amazonians self-identify as Amabots, perhaps we ought to say Botcamp. But with only 100 people out of 150,000 employees interviewed for the New York Times piece at the weekend, we should think carefully about how outraged we want to be. It’s a vanishingly small sample.
Amazon is the SAS of retail
And guess what? Innovation is hard. To be a company that pushes boundaries and breaks new ground, you undoubtedly need to push your people. Amazon would probably say the SAS and Navy SEALs are tough, and Amazon is the SAS of retail. Anyone who’s run a creative department would know that you need tension and friction to get sparks flying. You need the irritant of grit to make the pearl in the oyster.
But that said, it’s a pretty damning indictment of our "advanced" society that people should feel compelled to sacrifice their families and their happiness just so someone can get an Elsa doll delivered in 23 minutes. This feels like the ultimate example of late-era capitalist delusion. Efficiency of purchase has become so important that thousands of people are willing to give up any greater sense of life purpose in its pursuit.
"Jiro Dreams of Sushi"
America is not alone in harnessing pain to get results. Japan is famous for it too. Watching "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," you can see the attention to detail and the obsession between father and son, which is surely unhealthy but compelling in its outcomes, and rooted in an ancient craft pursuit.
Rooted in culture as it is, the lesson from Jiro is perhaps one that reverberates across Japanese culture. Deference to the master has stymied creativity in Japan. Excellence pursued in narrow confines and an inability to criticize one’s elders arguably holds Japan back.
As the New York Times article shows us, Amazon has no such issue with criticism, institutionalizing a system where employees are encouraged to expose those who they feel aren’t up to scratch. So the question we ought to be asking ourselves when we read the New York Times piece is what kinds of values do we want to live by? Nobody is forced to work at Amazon, and nobody is forced to buy from it. But Amazon’s success (founded in no small part on its brutally single-minded culture) has led to a kind of online retail lock-in. Yes, we can chose other online retailers, but Amazon has just made it so easy not to.
Instant access to toilet paper
If there is something disturbing in Amazon’s working practices we shouldn’t just blame Bezos and the culture he’s created. What we’re disturbed by is ourselves. In supporting the Amazon way, as so many of us do with our wallets we’re saying that it really does matter to us that we can get the Elsa doll in 23 minutes, or that one day a button in the bathroom will allow us instant access to toilet paper.
As the very American Dallin H Oaks said "You can never get enough of what you don't need, because what you don't need won't satisfy you."
Amazon’s potential therefore seems infinite. But this infinitely insatiable desire upon which Western culture is built contains, just like the Japanese example, the seeds of our demise. Resources aren’t infinite. It’s a shame so many of us are prepared to focus on the most efficient means possible of finishing us off.
We need to think of Jay Gatsby
Maybe it’s appropriate when we think of this all conquering American giant which exists to cater to our every consumer need to think of Jay Gatsby.
As Fitzgerald so famously wrote:
"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter— tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther ... "
Amazon is pushing its employees to the brink to deliver that orgiastic future. But it’s almost certain that we will not find happiness or fulfillment either in that pursuit or the illusory goal.
Chris Clarke is chief creative officer, international, at DigitasLBi.
This article first appeared on marketingmagazine.co.uk.