Now that he’s left Amazon, Tim Bray can express heretical thoughts about the company’s priorities out loud, in public:
On a Spring 2019 walk in Beijing I saw two street sweepers at a sunny corner. They were beat-up looking and grizzled but probably younger than me. They’d paused work to smoke and talk. One told a story; the other’s eyes widened and then he laughed so hard he had to bend over, leaning on his broom. I suspect their jobs and pay were lousy and their lives constrained in ways I can’t imagine. But they had time to smoke a cigarette and crack a joke. You know what that’s called? Waste, inefficiency, a suboptimal outcome. Some of the brightest minds in our economy are earnestly engaged in stamping it out. They’re winning, but everyone’s losing.
Bray’s post goes on to reference troubling reports of shortcomings in Amazon’s corporate attitude to the health and safety of warehouse staff.
I wonder if Amazon would respond by pointing out that this is all just a stopgap until they can replace almost all of those weak, imprecise humans with much more efficient and meticulous robots.1 Instead they seem to rely on a mix of buying local political influence and being economical with the truth to avoid damage to their image with customers, just like old-fashioned capitalists do.
It might well be that a decade or two from now Jeff Bezos will be too preoccupied with beating Elon Musk in the campaign for First Speaker of the Martian Assembly to care about what’s happening back on Terra, where Amazon will still be relying on the vast, cheap supply of humans desperate to earn a living doing the bits of a warehouse job that it’s still too expensive and complicated and impractical to computerise, while still holding over everyone’s head the threat that a computer could replace them any day now. Or he could be yet another billionaire back on Earth contemplating how much he’s going to have to pay for the private army he’ll need to defend his castle from the socialists who can’t see that he just wanted to improve the lot of book buyers everywhere and are determined to be ungrateful that he happened to make some money along the way.
- Never mind that deploying robots at the scale they’d need to do that would both cost a great deal and potentially burn up a lot of political capital. ↩