The more things change… Amazon’s “anticipatory shipping” and the village square

Media outlets recently publicized Amazon’s patent for what it calls “anticipatory shipping.” The premise is as simple as it is creepy: Amazon will charge and ship items before customers have the chance to buy them themselves. In other words, Amazon knows what you want and is happy to spare you the trouble and effort of actually buying it, simply delivering the item –and, of course, your bill.

Here is the fruit of the information technology revolution. A giant corporation with which a person might have no face-to-face contact has complete enough psychological profiles that it can anticipate wants. Mass media brought us the creation of wants without our knowing, now the internet takes it one step further: the item that you didn’t know you wanted shows up at your doorstep unannounced. Hooray.

One common critical reaction to such innovations involves a retreat into the past. For the very youngest generations, it might ironically involve a wistful look back at the anonymity offered by the megamall. For most, however, the argument is that things were once different: people knew each other and many everyday transactions were based on personal relationships. Sure, the butcher knew your favourite cut of meat – but it was your butcher, not a computer knowing what you wanted. “If only we could go back to a world where relationships mattered.”

The problem with this argument is that it does not challenge what is truly wrong with something like “anticipatory shipping”. Even personal relationships can be embedded in a problematic economic logic. In many ways, in fact, today’s information-based economy is becoming more and more akin to that of the village square of the past. The anonymity of the past several decades may have been just a brief interlude during which information-processing capabilities lagged behind production capabilities.

Precarity Unions USA Workers

Precarious workers or satisfied customers: a fine line for giant retailers

This post is an appendix of sorts to my article, “Fired by Walmart for Christmas”, to be published this weekend by Common Dreams. In the article, I describe the stresses and difficulties faced by Walmart workers during the holidays. Overwork, a climate of fear and barely-organized chaos make for taxing shifts at work. Low wages, insufficient hours and inadequate benefits stretch budgets and make it harder to find holiday joy at home. A Walmart Christmas could have easily been written by Dickens.

Here, I want to focus on an aspect of Walmart’s practices that stood out from my interviews with long-time Walmart employees and OUR Walmart organizers: the increased use of temporary workers and the greater degree of precarity experienced by all workers at the retail giant. The workers and organizers I interviewed all described a long-term shift in company culture. From the perspective of veteran employees, the company has gone from one that at least outwardly respects its workers to one solely focused on profit, even at immense cost to worker well-being. My interviewees all claimed this change took place during the transition in management after the death of founder Sam Walton.

Make no mistake: Walmart was always focused on cost-cutting. However, through a shrewd mix of charisma and good business sense, Walton was able to maintain a sense of community amongst his employees. He knew what he needed to do to keep costs down, but he also knew how to do it in a way that did not completely alienate and break his own employees.

In the two decades since his passing, Walmart has changed. Without Walton’s calculated approach to cost savings, working conditions have deteriorated. Wages, benefits and hours have all been reduced.  In addition, without Walton’s charisma, not even a veneer of respect for workers remains. Today’s Walmart employees are not only tired, poor and often on social assistance; they are also deeply disheartened and afraid.