For five weeks in November and December, I worked as a "picker" at the Amazon fulfillment center in Kent. Truckloads of products from suppliers flow daily into Amazon warehouses, where they are then uncrated and placed in numbered bins. When a customer places an order for a product, a picker retrieves it from its bin and sends it to a "packer," who prepares it for shipping. My bosses expected me to pick one product every eight seconds. A screen above my workstation flashed an image of the product and told me in which bin to find it. As soon as an image appeared, the timer began.
The bins were cubbyholes in an eight-foot high, four-sided cabinet that rode on top of a little robot. Books, cat food, car parts, sex toys and almost any other product you can imagine were jammed in those bins. I had eight seconds to grab the right one, verify it by scanning the barcode, put it in the right tote, then push a flashing button. Eight seconds. I never met that goal. After several productivity write ups, the company fired me by email, and reminded of my confidentiality agreement.
Now, as first reported last month by Geekwire.com, Amazon automation is taking things to the next level. The company developed wristbands that vibrate when a worker's hand is in front of the right bin, ensuring they don't grab something out of the wrong one which, at the end of a 10 or 11-hour shift of standing on your feet and being monitored by video cameras, is something us poor meat robots, or Amabots, are likely to do.
Opinion pieces began to appear denouncing the implied invasion of employee privacy. Would the wristbands track every time an employee scratched or picked their nose? Although these concerns are certainly valid, most of the pieces missed the point. The proposed wristbands, for which Amazon was awarded two different patents and have not yet put into use, reflect the company's desire to treat human beings as automated units that can be controlled by lines of code. I would know. By the end of my five-week experience, I felt chewed up and spit out like a defective automaton.
My First Day
I stood in line outside the employee entrance to the Kent warehouse, ironically called a "fulfillment" center, on my first day, waiting to get my employee badge. Over 100 of us stood in line, having passed a cattle call application process two weeks before. No one ever interviewed any of us or even asked about our employment history. All that mattered were the online forms, the drug screening, document verification, and criminal background check. Oh yeah, and if you'd ever worked there previously.
Somehow I'd made it through that filter and was now waiting for my badge. When I finally got to the front of the line, a manager glanced at my driver's license and then dug into an accordion file that contained all the new badges. I smiled. He glared, looking at me the way airport security might eye a Middle Easterner attempting to get on a plane bound for New York. He dug and dug, all the while keeping his eyes locked on mine.
Finally, he handed me the badge without cracking a smile or even saying a word, the way a cop hands you a speeding ticket. I didn't understand why. Did he have a stomach ache? I think he sized me up as a reject, too old and out of shape to hack it, someone who'd no doubt give him and the other managers trouble before being fired or quitting. He was right.
"Think of It Like a Sport"
I was assigned to be a "picker," which is the hardest warehouse position they have, and the one most new grunts get assigned to. Only slightly better was being a "stower" or a "packer," although they're all pretty grueling and disheartening.
Everyday, we attended a stand-up meeting where we performed cursory stretching exercises while one of the managers made announcements. At the end of the meeting, the bosses expected all of us to clap rhythmically in unison. We would start slowly, increasing in tempo, until we all reached an orgasm of excitement and shouted the word or motto of the day. "Teamwork!" or "Safety!" Sometimes my team's manager would have us yell, "Picking! Is! Hard!" after which we all rushed to our workstations.
My manager was a nice enough guy. Whenever he wrote me up for not picking fast enough, he always gave me a little demonstration of how he himself could pick at less than eight seconds.
"You gotta think of it like a sport," he told me.
Yeah, right. A blood sport.
The Zen of Picking
After my second productivity write up, my manager would have people watch me and critique my performance. I'd be working away, sweating and panting, and realize someone was standing behind me. I'd turn and there was someone with a tablet computer staring at me. He'd eventually stop me and tell me what I was doing wrong.
"You shouldn't keep looking back and forth at the screen and the bin. Just look once. Grab the first thing in the bin that looks like the image on the screen. Better yet, just grab. The system will tell you if it's the right one."
I discovered he was right. Don't think. Just grab. Flow. Be fluid, grasshopper. The system will catch you. I went from 20 to 25 seconds per pick down to about 11, but
I was still three seconds over the performance standard.
The Real Danger of Amazon Automation
A lot can be said about the faults of Amazon. It exploits workers, feeds our culture of consumerism, and so on. But the real danger is how the human element is slowly being eliminated. Managers manage using a computer program. Write ups are determined by machine-made decisions. No one says, "Hey, what's going on? Talk to me." There is no human wiggle room. Humanity is treated like a fault to be managed and overcome.
As a Native American, I understand the damage wrought by colonization, and I see even in the very name Amazon the specter of that demon. The indigenous people in South America probably had dozens of names for the river called "Amazon," in dozens of languages and dialects. The name 'Amazon" is a name created by European explorers set on exploiting the people and sucking their resources out from under them. How appropriate, then, for Jeff Bezos to choose it as the name of his soul-destroying empire.