In “The Unstoppable Machine,” in the Oct. 21 (2019) edition of The New Yorker, reporter Charles Duhigg looks behind the scenes of the mammoth operation that is Amazon. The article recounts worrisome stories of the rugged working conditions, details the company’s cold and ruthless approach to competition, takes us inside the highly driven corporate culture (“spinning flywheels”) and paints a portrait of founder Jeff Bezos’ quirky style and endless ambition.
Read it. You might think twice the next time a driver drops an item on your doorstep. The arrival of that next package might prod a very different image in your head of all systems and people it took to fulfill your personal shopping needs. The work environment sounds especially inhuman. More than 100,000 people work in Amazon fulfillment centers, we learn, and every movement is tracked and evaluated. Falling behind? You could be reprimanded. “Many employees carry handheld scanners that deliver a constant stream of instructions, such as a countdown clock detailing how many seconds remain until the next item must be plucked from a shelf. Workers can walk more than fifteen miles a day, and their breaks, including trips to the bathroom, are brief and closely measured.” The measurements alone can lead to warnings—or terminations.
Of course, Amazon is about much more than shopping. The New Yorker points out that the company collected $26 billion last year from its Web-services division, which has little to do with selling things to consumers, and $14 billion from subscription services such as Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited. “No other tech company does as many unrelated things, on such a scale, as Amazon.,” writes Duhigg.
In The Warehouse, Rob Hart takes the Amazon monster, jacks it up, peers a year or twenty into the future (or is it a month?), and tells a big-sweep cautionary tale about corporate greed and the inhumanity of such data-driven, mechanized mega-corporations looking to squeeze every ounce of profit they can out of every worker bee. Yes, heavy on tech and heavy on human energy. (If you think it’s robots grabbing your orders off the Amazon warehouse shelves, read that New Yorker story.) In Hart’s world, Amazon is “the Cloud.” The landscape outside its corporate-run worker villages is bleak and useless. For many reasons, including a series of mass shootings, regular old retail shops have been wiped out. Getting a job with the Cloud means security (and cramped quarters) and a dependable future (even if every bathroom break is monitored). The Cloud is Borg-like. You will assimilate. Algorithms pick your shirt color. Your shirt color determines your function.
Into the Cloud come Paxton and Zinnia. Paxton is a former prison guard, whose invention was snatched up by the Cloud. Zinnia, we soon learn, is working to infiltrate the Cloud and, well, we’re not told everything—at least not right away. All we know at the beginning is that Zinnia has tried hacking the Cloud from the outside, but it’s impossible, “like trying to scratch through a concrete wall with a fingernail.” To do what she needs to do, she’s got to go along and get along. And get inside. But Zinnia’s job as a “picker” reads every bit as much like reporting from the piece by Duhigg as she tries to keep her new employer happy by hustling—and making sure her all-knowing watch remains happy.
“With each item, Zinnia’s feet ached a little more. Soon her shoulders joined in, creaking in the joints, muscles throbbing. She stopped a few times along the wall or in a quiet corner, so she could loosen or tighten her boots, looking for a sweet spot that would keep them from ripping apart her feet. But the yellow bar was relentless. If she stopped long enough she cold watch the slow creep of it. Once or twice, when she really hoofed it, it turned green, but only ever for a moment.”
Yes, continuous feedback. The world-building in The Warehouse is thorough. Hart doesn’t rush our introduction to the Cloud and it pays off. As Paxton and Zinnia immerse themselves in the vast interior spaces, we also see dark underbellies such as drug abuse and unchecked (and brutal) sexual harassment. The Cloud, by no means, is a cure for what ails the workplace.
We get observations along the way from Bezos-esque Gibson Wells, the most powerful man in the world, who is touring Cloud facilities around the country and reflecting on his decisions and his life, now that he’s dying from pancreatic cancer. Wells tells us how he developed the employee rating system—and why. Wells tells us about his all-American approach to employee dismissals. (“Point is, a job has to be something you earn. It’s not something that’s just going to get handed to you. That’s the American imperative: strive for greatness.”) And he confides in us, at least to a point, about his thoughts for who will succeed him. We are offered the scary proposition of a corporation regulating itself (or not) simply through appropriating government functions. (See any newspaper today for Amazon’s failed bid to win the Pentagon’s $10 billion JEDI cloud—yes, cloud—contract.) Wells may see a few issues here and there, but believes he has given the world a gift.
Paxton and Zinnia bump into each other at first, bump into each other again, and are soon a thing—though we know more about Zinnia’s true motives than does the ex-prison guard, at least at first. Zinnia uncovers a dark secret about the facility’s, um, nutritional sources. Paxton starts to notice some peculiar potential security breaches. Gibson Wells makes his way to the warehouse facility where Paxton and Zinnia toil and Zinnia pulls the trigger on a plan to carry through on her undercover mission, and the big finish is full of cinematic flourishes.
Written in a matter-of-fact style (the true thriller elements pick up only toward the end), The Warehouse offers a thoughtful look at the future we’re building (each order helps!) on the backs of others.
Is The Warehouse a bleak dystopian warning, much like the books it references (The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451)? Or is The Warehouse a prescient extrapolation of what exists today? Either way, it’s an engrossing story that, unfortunately for us all, is based on a whole lot of truth.