The Amazon Fulfillment Center I visited was a giant sad yet also scary industrial building, sitting in a flat featureless dried-out plain, close to an unremarkable western city’s airport. Fortunately, I wasn’t expecting the Great Library at Alexandria. I could only sigh and ask myself, “Is there anything left to say about the world, other than ‘it sucks’?” What on earth was I doing here, what was the point of anything, what was there left to do anymore on a hot day while the Arctic melted and the Amazon burned except perhaps use the fact that I was standing outside an Amazon Fulfillment Center as an excuse to light myself on fire as an act of protest?
A little background here: Amazon was founded in 1994 by a man named Jeff Bezos, a man who is worth $113 billion, a man who fell in love with computers in fourth grade and, last year, fell in love with a woman who was not his wife and thus forced the world to contemplate his having actual sexual intercouse with a live human female.
Faced with longstanding criticism from politicians and non-politicians that his company was a shitty, even deadly place to work, Bezos had Amazon open its doors to the world so that, Wonka-like, they might see “the magic” of high-tech item distribution up close and hopefully ignore the bodycount. “I think you’ll be impressed,” he wrote to shareholders about these tours. (I have just one more thing I feel I need to say about Bezos: He went to Princeton, so however much of a turd he seems like on paper, in person he is bound to be much worse.)
If you had told me when I was a little girl, “Someday you will stand in a vestibule with 25 strangers waiting for the opportunity to watch other strangers put things in boxes” I would have responded “Please just kill me now, don’t make me wait for the immolation stunt.” Why would anyone who wasn’t writing about this tour ever go on it, I wondered as I looked around me, at a mom and dad with two young boys, some couples in their 30s and 40s, a lot of older people, in groups of four, a few by themselves. There were not a lot of white people on this tour; in fact, the only white people I remember were a dad with two teenage kids, one with pink hair, and me. I asked a tall black guy in his 40s whose accent and name made me think he came from Brazil why he came. “Morbid curiosity,” he said.
Posted over the center’s entrance, which featured iron turnstiles painted a friendly blue, were the words WORK HARD HAVE FUN MAKE HISTORY, and I thought well, there’s my whole article right there, I guess I can go home now. Through the turnstiles you could see a little of the action inside, a large enclosure for reception/security, and beyond that, the actual guts of the fulfillment center, symmetrical, horizonless. Badges on lanyards were distributed.
Once inside, one was enveloped by a dull roar, all machines, and never, ever, aside from the tour guides, a human voice. We were brought into a big classroom type room by our pretty, young, happy tour guide. She was dressed in skinny jeans and spotless white sneakers, with subtly winged eyeliner and a fresh brick-red manicure, her nails filed to points. Her balayaged hair was pulled into one of those effortlessly messy buns that require a great deal of precision, perhaps the first metaphor for things seeming other that they are. She told us to put our cell phones in our pockets.
Those who needed a restroom were escorted there, past announcements and advisories on large-screen television screens, like, “Don’t bring weapons into the warehouse” and a helpful list of items — guns and knives, for example — that are considered weapons. “We’re now halfway there,” the employee escorting us semi-shouted. At that point we were about 90 seconds from where we’d started. A big deal has been made about the distance employees must walk to the bathroom, but if this comment was made on their behalf I don’t quite get why, as we were not employees.
The bathroom was clean, totally empty and unremarkable except for being quiet. Inside door was more reading material: “Are you currently pursuing a degree or have you graduated during or after May 2018?” Confused, I moved on to dress-code advisories: “Shorts may not be shorter than mid-thigh” and “Tank tops must be greater than one inch wide.” Wow. I want to meet the sexy, confident person, or possibly gerbil, who inspired that! Finally, I read about some “guided mind and body wellness activities that last less than one minute,” which would be “provided on lanyard cards for all non-workstation process paths.”
Back in the classroom, the tour guide talked very fast for about three minutes about how well Amazon treats its employees. They have parental leave, they offer classes. “The one on computer games is my favorite,” she said. The pay at this fulfillment center, she said, ranged from $16.20 to $18.85 an hour. She asked if there were any questions. A 40ish woman, there with several other women her age and possibly her husband, piped up, “Yeah, are you hiring?” and everyone laughed. “We are,” said the tour guide. “We are always hiring.”
We were given wireless headphones, so we could hear her once we left this room, and told the tour would take 45 minutes and I was pleased because on the last two corporate tours I went on, both having to do with biomass, it was precisely after 45 minutes that I found myself muttering, possibly aloud, yeah, you get wood, you burn it, it pollutes stuff, you pretend it doesn’t, it makes electricity, I get it. In addition to the tour guide, we were accompanied by three Amazon employees, a better ratio of supervision than at most daycares. They had the unsmiling demeanor of the police, and they stood police-like too, legs wide, arms at their side, ready-looking. When we walked, they spread out evenly among us, one always bringing up the rear. I longingly touched my cell phone through my pocket but I wouldn’t have dreamed of taking it out. There were whiteboards everywhere covered with employee feedback and I tried to read them several times, but one of the minders would kind of get on my tail and I’d just keep moving.
I will now unabashedly reference The Matrix to describe what this facility is like once you get deep inside: It looks exactly like the scene where Neo learns the truth — that we are all just barely conscious viscera having the life force sucked out of us for profits — except that you need to imagine that all drawn with a gray pencil, and the people are clothed, standing and working.
The stars of the tour were hundreds of yellow shelving units mounted onto orange robots. The shelving was composed of four-sided rectangles, each with variously sized cubbyholes, inside of which was a removable crate printed with a barcode. The robot, essentially a bigger, smarter, heavier, oranger Roomba, directed this shelving bearing its many barcoded crates around the fulfillment center and at work stations positioned around the robot habitat. Associates placed items in crates the crates organized by shelving, and then, as the process moved on, sorted and re-sorted these crates items to get them ready for packaging.
There was a lot of scanning and automatic traffic control and 45 minutes was not exactly enough time to understand how it all worked, except to say that it mostly does, except for once in a while like recently when I ordered a short history of the Netherlands and got some basically self-published nonsense written by some American expat who lives there and clearly smokes a shitload of hash. The shelving weighs about 350 pounds and so does the robot, the tour guide tells us. At the first station, a 25-ish man in jeans and a blue T-shirt, fit and unsmiling, removed newly arrived products from boxes on a workstation in front of him into the crates.
“When we get to this station, people always ask, hey, can we buy this stuff,” the tour guide said. Everyone looked at each other and laughed. Was it because that’s what they were thinking too? I tried to guess why anyone would ask that, but could not think of a single reason. She told us that the moment that an item is loaded onto the shelving, it’s scanned, and, “That’s the moment when it’s available on Amazon.com for you to buy it.”
People smiled at each other again, like, isn’t it amazing that there’s an instant during which a box of Arm & Hammer detergent, a value package of ballpoint pens, a middle-grade biography about Serena Willams, goes from being a sort of dead, useless thing to a state of sellable aliveness. The tour guide made a sort of weird big deal about how the guy is allowed to place the items any way he sees fit. “It’s his choice,” she said.
The entire message of the tour could be summed up as: “Here’s how we do it so fast, no one died in the process, at least not today, here, as you can see, here is an Amazon water bottle, good-bye.”
We kept moving. “We are coming up on one of my favorite views, the robot superhighway,” the tour guide announced. She gestured at a particular stretch of the robot experience where they get to move in a straight line for a while. “This is my favorite station,” she said. It did not seem like the favorite station of the young man working it, all of 20, who wore a blank expression. It was the packing station, she further explained, where the associate was directed to take ordered items from the crates they’d been packed into upon arrival into new crates with other items that had been ordered.
As we watched him work, I wondered why the tour guide could have possibly favored this station over any other, as they all seemed to be about goods being taken out of one container and put into another. I thought of all the items, after a lifetime of only seeing things exactly like themselves, taking each other in, a vegetable peeler eyeing a stuffed alligator and wondering when cucumbers got so ugly, a bottle of Car Guys Tire Shine Spray trying to get up the nerve to ask the Tracy Anderson DVD to go for a drink.
The station after that fulfilled some different stage in the sorting process, but as I am just a simple person, all I could see was another not terribly thrilled looking person sorting things with the help of robots. “A lot of people are like ‘oh you have robots at Amazon, that’s scary,’” our guide said. She assured us that at Amazon, “We work alongside the technology,” and that “none of the robots here can pilot the Millennium Falcon.” I think that the worst thing an Amazon robot could do is trip you, and then take your job, and the whole time it would just be like “Duh I’m a robot, not sorry, not not sorry either.” She then apologized that, although we are just about to see the station where single-item boxes are packed, we won’t be going to the station where they package multiple items in a box. This was a cross all of us would have to bear.
The tour guide might have had terrible taste in stations, because my favorite station was unquestionably the single-item-packed-in-a-box station. I mean, if you can just forget knowing that out there in the world is a person who ordered one regular-sized, 8 oz. canister of Hershey’s Cocoa powder, this station rules. The packager was a beautiful woman in yoga pants and bright blue sneakers and her arms moved balletically as she opened a box, filled it, shut it, taped it closed, opened a box, filled it, shut it, taped it closed. It was by far the best free-dance performance I have ever seen, and the third best of all time. In the two minutes or so we were standing there, she did maybe 15 boxes, and, as she left the station for a moment and stretched out her arms, she flashed us a performer’s smile.
On the way out, we passed what the tour guide called her “favorite machine”: the SLAM, or, Stamp, Label, Apply, Manifest. “See how it stamps the package really lightly? Like it’s just giving it a kiss,” she said. A conveyor belt rushed the stamped items in boxes past us, and they then dropped down onto slides, and out of sight. The tour guide said a lot of people ask if these products were shipped only to the city we were in, and she said that no, they were shipped all over the country, and all over the world. “I’m jealous of those packages for being able to go down that slide,” she said, “It just looks so fun, doesn’t it?” Obviously, she wasn’t actually jealous of the packages, I hope. It was just the sort of line said in a corporate P.R. situation like this, a change in the tone of patter from “facts” to “jokes” in which the joke didn’t need to be funny, it just needed to be said.
The entire message of the tour could be summed up as: “Here’s how we do it so fast, no one died in the process, at least not today, here, as you can see, here is an Amazon water bottle, good-bye.” We didn’t talk to a single worker, in fact, other than the packaging lady smiling at us, once, we didn’t interact with a single one.
I went on indeed.com to see what workers had to say about this particular fulfillment center. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people said the job sucked, that they had to walk four minutes to and from the break room, that they couldn’t listen to music, that it was depressing to be inside for so long without windows. There were a few people who gave the job five stars, and the fact that one of them said “this Job is not for slackers!” is both enraging and heartbreaking. Can you imagine thinking there is some kind of virtue in busting your ass to make some asshole rich? Of course you can, because it’s what most of us do all day; we have been taught to believe our salaries are fair compensation for working and to forget that the only reason profit exists is because of our work.
I admit that through the whole process of touring the site and writing about it I felt a little cut off from the whole thing emotionally. I was like “this is bad we know this is bad, of course this is bad,” but I was so beaten down by knowing this that my feelings had kind of shut off. Then I read this comment: “When you talked to your coworkers too much managers moved the person that made the job more enjoyable,” and horror of it all hit me as if it were brand new. Imagine you have this shitty boring job and you never see sunlight and you only just make enough to live and not even that and the one thing about your day you enjoy is that person alongside you who makes you laugh or vice versa. This person is not your partner or your child or your parent. Your relationship serves no discernable purpose to your employers, and in fact may be threatening to them, so it is terminated.
And then every day you must come back to this unbearable place which that one person once made bearable, and you wave, you pass each other in the bathroom, but they are really gone to you forever, there’s no amount of hard work or good behavior or any promotion that will ever get them back. And you can’t just find another person like this, because you know how that ends, so you turn to yourself, to your own thoughts, and just go on working, alone.