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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

The Amazon Workplace: Planned Worker Obsolescence

You have, no doubt, all heard the expression 'planned obsolescence': in other words, the planning or designing of a product that has only limited use-value, and will therefore become obsolete after a certain pre-determined period of time. Our entire industrial technocratic economy is built around such a concept, not because it is an intrinsically valuable public good, but rather because it is extremely profitable for private industry—despite the fact that it leads to environmental degradation, exponential e-waste, toxic chemical pollution and so on. We usually think of planned obsolescence in terms of ‘things’ ‘objects’ or ‘electronic devices’.

But now think about planned obsolescence as a designation for a human being, and you will immediately grasp the way the new gig economy at Amazon works. The first assumption made by people like Jeff Bezos when he began Amazon was that human beings are essentially selfish and inherently lazy. They must, therefore, be constantly surveilled, their jobs minutely regimented, every motion detailed and their work habits scrutinized and analyzed in order to determine the highest level of efficiency and production. In a ten and a half hour shift the Amazon worker must stoop and stretch to retrieve an item every nine seconds. Ever-present Scanners control workers’ behavior by measuring it, preventing slowdowns and encouraging managers to create ever more efficient performance benchmarks. Think of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon in the workplace, newly realized through employee-tracking wristbands and you’ll get some idea of what the modern dehumanizing scientifically-managed Amazon workplace strives after: a new and improved Taylorism.

The only problem—worker burnout—is not really a problem. High worker turnover is not an accidental feature but rather a necessary component of Amazon’s planned worker obsolescence—its founder never wanted hourly workers to stick around for long, because he knew they would inevitably rebel against the awful exploitive conditions of their employment. Indeed, long term employees were considered by Bezos to be threats rather than assets—they might think about unionizing. Thus, in addition to long hours, physically stressful repetitive work and constant surveillance, upward mobility for hourly workers is severely limited, and guaranteed wage increases have to cease after three years. The point is to use up workers like we use up electronic devices until they are no longer productive—are no longer Amazon ‘Prime’ workers. The lowest level warehouse workers must be pushed out after a few years because the longer they stay, the more they will expect from their employer. Worker obsolescence: That is the way a gig economy works—and it also gives us a clue why Jeff Bezos's net worth exploded by $75 billion in 2020, reaching $188 billion before he stepped down as Amazon's CEO.

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