Amazon's heroic phase is over

Jeff Bezos in Amazon's warehouses in 1997. A man stands in front of stacks with his hands on two piles of books.
Jeff Bezos in Amazon's warehouses in 1997. (Photo By Paul Souders/Getty Images)

What does it mean to say "the heroic phase of the tech giants is over?"

The phrase "heroic phase" has some history. It's from Marxist history and cultural theory. The idea was formulated by Marx himself, but popularized (for a certain value of "popular") by the Hungarian thinker Georg (or György) Lukács. It's part of a theory of history that states that every group that comes to power has to struggle against the dominant group that preceded it, and is in turn supplanted by another group after collapsing under its own contradictions.

The idea of a "heroic phase" is usually applied to the bourgeoisie, roughly from the Renaissance to the mid-19th century. The period was the age of the great middle-class revolutions against the church, against monarchs, against the aristocracy, in the name of political and economic liberty, reason, and constitutional republics. Scientific and literary revolutions in these centuries also helped usher in humanism, empiricism, and realism. Global colonialism by European agents helped make all of these achievements possible.

The bourgeoisie and their allies were fighting for their own interests, but their revolution took the shape of greater freedom for everyone (or at least men in the non-colonized parts of the world), and they mostly formulated their political and scientific ideas in terms of universal laws.

You don't have to get way into the weeds of Marxist theory to find this history of the heroic phase of capitalism/the bourgeoisie laid out: it gets elaborated on, but the gist is right in the first part of The Communist Manifesto. And you don't need to endorse the full sweep of Marxist dogma to agree that this is a succinct and compelling account of what the Age of Enlightenment and early modernity were all about, peaking with the French and American Revolutions, followed by the abolition of serfdom in Europe and slavery in the Americas.

The problem, at least in Marx's account of history, is that the political and economic revolutions of liberalism and the Enlightenment produced a new working class who weren't fully liberated by the new world order. In fact, their members' lives were now in turmoil, subject to economic shocks ranging from agricultural famine to crises of food, work, and housing in the ever-growing cities. These workers, like the liberal bourgeoisie before them, gathered together in cities and used the new mechanisms of the press to communicate with each other, organizing themselves economically and politically, only to find that their old allies in the middle classes no longer had the same political and economic interests.

The bourgeoisie were more aligned with a growing class of capitalists who owned the property and machinery that made middle-class life possible and profitable. After a series of famines in 1847 and revolutions across Europe in 1848, the middle classes largely sided with the capitalists, including the remnants of the aristocracy. The bourgeoisie effectively (and sometimes explicitly) told their erstwhile allies that the freedoms of formal liberalism were enough, and any more substantial gains would have to come through established political processes, not strikes, agitation, and street violence. (How this was supposed to work when these liberal humanists turned the states back over to proto-fascist emperors and their police and military forces was anybody's guess.)

You don't have to endorse Marx and Engels's political prescriptions —that the proletariat organize themselves across national lines and violently seize the means of production for themselves, ushering in a new age of material and political freedom for all of humanity —to say, okay, yeah, that's pretty much what has happened. In country after country, all over the world, most people have opted for middle-class comforts and political quietude, sometimes under liberal governments, often under authoritarian ones, while capitalism continues to transform and dominate the planet.

In most of the world, capitalism doesn't even bother with the political freedoms part; so long as it continues to produce material goods and consumer choice in plenty, the middle classes can tolerate brutal surveillance states, repression of speech, impositions of state religion, and the occasional putsch and/or genocide just fine. (As an aside, a huge chunk of Marxist theory continues to struggle with the fact that some of the most authoritarian — and even capitalist! — states are ones that are nominally Marxist.)

If you're politically liberal or a mainstream conservative, you probably think that economic freedom and more and better material goods are good in themselves, and in time, there will be more political freedom and material security for everybody. If you're politically progressive, you probably think that whatever material security we have even in liberal states came from political struggle and that we need a lot more of it to secure freedom and prosperity around the world. (I don't write for fascists or authoritarians, but you can probably guess what they think.)

So what does this have to do with Amazon — or Apple or Google, Microsoft or Facebook, Twitter or TikTok, Netflix or YouTube, and all the rest?

I have two theories, which are a little bit in tension with each other. My first theory is that capitalism doesn't stop evolving. The evolution of the microprocessor, digital computing, the internet, the personal computer, the World Wide Web, and the tech giants that have emerged in their wake are all transforming capitalism as we experience it and the culture produced by it in ways we don't even fully understand. These are the biggest companies in the world and the ones with the greatest impact on how we think, work, shop, and communicate. You can't understand capitalism in the twenty-first century without understanding how technology is changing it. I think this theory is pretty uncontroversial. It's certainly not new.

My second theory is that the arc of capitalism traced by Marx and Lukács and others writing in their tradition can also be retraced on a smaller scale. Like those early modern bourgeoisie, big tech has moved from its initial chaotic and subterranean strivings, to a heroic universalist phase where it championed political and economic liberation. Now these companies are consolidating their dominance by reducing or eliminating their workforce, shifting away from consumer goods, and brokering compromises with state power.

I mean, does any of this not sound like what's happened in the tech industry over the last fifty years? Or the last twenty-five? Or even just in 2022?

I have a lot more to say about this, but let's just sketch the relatively short history of Amazon. A company that started as an upstart digital bookstore with a dream of transforming digital retail and a mandate to serve, surprise, and delight its customers... is now an all-purpose digital infrastructure company that counts the United States Department of Defense as one of its most important customers. I don't know about you, but what surprises and delights me is probably not the same thing that surprises and delights the DoD.

I don't want to be too much of a hypocrite here. I am enough of a political liberal to grudgingly grant that Amazon and the DoD can do business with whoever they think will do the job best. And as someone who resides in the United States on net mostly benefits from the US Department of Defense doing its job well, I want them to have the best cloud provider they can get. Amazon is the best — or apparently, one of the four best, along with Google, Microsoft, and Oracle, according to the DoD.

But doesn't just saying the words "Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability" make you feel — I don't know — a little weird inside? Twenty-five plus years of progressively running a better and more efficient online bookstore, and this was the endgame all along?

If war in the cloud is all a little too big to think about, consider this press release about Amazon's new robotic techniques to route around having to scan barcodes. The writing is very striking:

The barcode has been in use for nearly 50 years. It’s ubiquitous and all but infallible.
For Amazon, that’s not quite good enough.
When an item comes into an Amazon fulfillment center, employees use barcodes to verify its identity at several different points along its journey to a delivery vehicle. Each time, the item has to be picked up and the barcode located and scanned. Sometimes, the barcode is damaged or even missing.
That process is repeated millions of times across a massive catalogue of items of varying shapes and sizes, and it can’t easily be automated. Right now, there isn’t a robot versatile enough to manipulate any item that may come into a warehouse and then scan it.
The solution? Augment or even eliminate the barcode. Or, better still, eliminate the reliance on awkward and inefficient manual item identification altogether.

This is a serious problem for both human-driven and automated warehouse work. And if you're the kind of person who nerds out about computer vision (I am), Amazon's set of solutions to this problem is seriously cool. It's the kind of thing only a company with Amazon-sized infrastructure needs and computer R&D budget could even scratch.

But if someone at Amazon were writing this press release ten years ago, or maybe even two years ago, there would be some ritual genuflection about how this new technology is actually better for Amazon's warehouse workforce, reducing their physical and cognitive load, lowering their risk of injuries, and freeing them up for tasks better suited for humans to do.

Amazon’s press release has none of that. Human hands in the warehouse handling goods in this account can only be the problem, never part of the solution:

On a conveyor belt, the lighting and the speed of the item are relatively controlled and constant. If a person is picking up an item, there are a lot more variables to performing identification in-hand. The employee’s hand might make item detection more challenging depending on how they hold it. In addition, if an item is being passed from someone’s left hand to the right, it has to be identified faster. Robotics researchers are working to address these challenges.
“This vision, of using MMID throughout the whole fulfillment process, to speed up and enable robotic automation, is going to be reached,” says [Amazon robot vision team leader Nontas] Antonakos, “and when it is, it will be another step forward in our journey to get packages to customers more quickly and more accurately.”

You might be imagining packages delivered to retail customers, but envision how this is also a pitch for how Amazon robotics can help Amazon's best new customers like the DoD. Amazon is now a company that can handle procurement and infrastructure requests for state technologists around the world, with only a tiny number of necessary humans, minimizing all the political problems such workers might cause.

Let me be clear: I don't want to say that Amazon used to be good, and now it's bad. World history (and tech history) doesn't work like that. Amazon and its leaders were always looking out for their own interests, and it destroyed as much or more than it created. That's how capitalism works! It's what's great and terrible about it. But for a time, Amazon and its leaders' interests were aligned with transforming the material, cultural, and workplace experiences of the people who interacted with it in ways political liberals could appreciate.

Amazon sold an untold-of variety of books, and shipped them all over the globe. It helped build the cloud, transforming what everyone could do on the World Wide Web and allowing unheard-of digital startups to bloom. If you were a warehouse worker, a job with Amazon might be hard, it might be dangerous, but it paid well and came with decent benefits at a time when blue-collar jobs across the world are scarce. And if you were a white-collar technologist, a job with Amazon (or Google, or Facebook, etc.) meant that you'd made it. You were on your way to more money, more security, and more opportunities than you could previously imagine.

Now consider this report from Jason Del Rey at Vox, "Layoffs, buyouts, and rescinded offers: Amazon’s status as a top tech employer is taking a hit." The whole thing is worth reading, but here's a choice passage on how much the company has changed for employees and new recruits in a short time:

“No company had hired like Amazon had in the previous decade,” said Amazon’s former head of communications, Craig Berman, who left the company in 2018 after 14 years. “And so I hesitate to even start to guess at what this could mean because there is nothing historical to base the reaction on.”
As a result, the bewilderment felt by employees and would-be future employees in the wake of the layoffs and job rescissions is understandable, Berman said, especially since the company has not had major job cuts in more than 20 years and largely kept its foot on the gas even during the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009.
“They seemed immune,” Berman said.

Amazon's often-antagonistic position with its blue-collar workers has metastasized. Its engineers, its retail staff, its research and development division, and its human resources team are all now equally expendable. Amazon isn't just burning through its staff through overwork, but eliminating whole divisions that can't prove they contribute directly to the bottom line altogether. That is new.

Inside the company, some employees are questioning whether Amazon will still prioritize pursuing big ideas that don’t generate immediate financial payoff. Crucially, much of Amazon’s success can be attributed to investing in projects that weren’t profitable in the short run but which, with Wall Street’s backing, allowed the company to increase its market share and power in a given sector by focusing instead on growth.
“The question among employees is, ‘Does this mean we should only be on teams that add revenue or that we think are ‘the most safe’?” an Amazon senior manager of more than 10 years told Recode. “That’s very damaging to the ‘Think Big’ and ‘Invent and Simplify’ ethos of this company.” (Those are two of the 16 leadership principles that are supposed to guide how work gets done inside Amazon.)

In short, Amazon's heroic phase is over. But this isn't just a development that's unique to Amazon. It's playing out all across the many sectors in which Amazon operates — which means it's playing out all across our world.

In my next newsletter, I'll briefly shift the focus off of Amazon and try to apply this framework to the other tech giants. In the next few posts after that, I'll try to go even bigger and look at what this means for the evolution of technology and society going forward. I'm not going to offer big, specific predictions, but what I hope is a more useful snapshot of emerging trends already in motion.

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