[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

"Everybody Knows it's Me or You..."

The story on Amazon's work environment has drawn a great deal of attention, and some pushback. It's a sobering account of workplace trends that asks just who we are as a culture, and what kind of lives we intend to lead. Because the story isn't just about the lower level employees, but its high-flyers. And is an ever-intensifying, cutthroat-competitive pressure cooker with data as the fuel really where we need to go as a society? Because some of the employees sound downright embracing of just that. And so I say the article raises questions of our aspirations, for ourselves, not just of market pressures.

It strikes a bit close to home, in that I published Phineas at Bay through an Amazon company, CreateSpace, and I was very pleased with the care and creativity they invested in supporting my book. The physical book is attractive, the Kindle edition as well, and the result was most gratifying. But even more than that, the fact that the team was available for questions, hand-holding, and concerns (rational or not), was a comfort. They made the production of the edited manuscript into a book easy. I'm uneasy at the thought that I may be complicit in so all-consuming an atmosphere.

Some will speak in defense of the company, and point out ameliorating factors--policies not followed, anecdotes of supportive managers and co-workers. Others may defend the stark nature of the workplace depicted in the article, whether true or not, and valorize its efficiency. I have no easy answers, here. But I am reminded of the ending to the book Cheaper By the Dozen, the story of the family life of the early efficiency experts Frank Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth:
"Someone once asked Dad: But what do you want to save time for? What are you going to do with it? "
For work, if you love that best, said Dad. For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure. He looked over the top of his pince-nez. For mumblety-peg, if that's where your heart lies."
We must not become so efficient and single-minded that we lose all the time we are saving.


Claude Scales said...

This is from The Great U-Turn: Corporate Restructuring and the Polarizing of America, by Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone, published in 1988:

"The type of competition that conservatives postulate amounts to a Hobbsian world in which there is a war of all against all. Firms must be constantly on guard against losing their entire market to a new domestic or foreign entrepreneur with essentially the same product but a slightly lower price. And workers must continually keep an eye cocked to see which young upstarts are perched to takeaway their jobs simply by offering equivalent work for ten cents less an hour. In such a world, there is a bullish market in Maalox and valium."

This is a bit of a reductio, as it postulates a perfectly frictionless economy; something that, by the grace of heaven, we're unlikely ever to see. Still, the removal of barriers to the flow of information, enabling vastly expanded opportunities for arbitrage (in and of itself not a bad thing), along with the removal of regulatory restraints, has brought us closer to Harrison and Bluestone's "Hobbsian world."

What I find ironic is the characterization of the advocacy of laissez faire as "conservative." In the nineteenth century, it was considered "liberal"; its advocates wanted to liberate commerce from the restraints put on it by the Crown. "Conservatives" were those who cautioned against hasty or radical change, valuing social stability. Today, unrestrained markets are, I believe, the greatest threat to social stability.

Anglocat said...

A great quotation, Claude, and an even better comment. I agree with you, and am delighted to host a comment that puts it so pithily and so well.

(Outdoing the main post, mind you, but so be it.)