This essay was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books on May 7, 2022.
Is Amazon the Borg? We Asked Their Workers
By Max Haiven, Graeme Webb and Xenia Benivolski
In Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, literary critic Mark McGurl notes that the corporation, which in 25 short years has become the world’s largest retailer and one of its largest private employers, has been guided by a self-aggrandizing science fiction narrative. The firm has in numerous ways been inspired and shaped by the favorite genre of its founder, Jeff Bezos, who has famously used his massive share of its profits to finance his own private space program. Amazon flatters itself as an angel of capitalism’s creative destruction, wielding the flaming sword of digital technology to liberate humanity from the clutches of the past.
The company has transformed how we buy books but also how and what we read. Today it is one of the world’s largest publishers, with a jealous hold over tens of millions of Kindle readers as well as over writers who pen novels (typically genre fiction) on its exclusive platform. Via its subsidiary Audible, Amazon is unrivaled in the realm of audiobooks. Beyond the written and spoken word, Amazon’s digital streaming services are among the most popular, and it has ambitiously sought to finance award-winning films and TV serials to announce itself as a leading studio and media producer. Once a platform to merely buy books, the company has become a content creator across multiple media. It shapes the stories we tell ourselves about our world. It is also quickly becoming the United States’s leading retailer, gobbling up market share in the sale of everything from garments to video games, from household staples to office supplies. Tens of thousands of smaller businesses now compete with one another to use Amazon’s order and fulfillment platforms to sell their goods and services to the giant’s dedicated customers — a kind of walled garden version of the free market.
But the firm has not been content to stop there. It has also leveraged its early success to become the world’s largest provider of web services and data management. Amazon servers are the back-end of a huge proportion of the internet, and they manage the data of many of the world’s top companies, public institutions, governments, and even military and security forces. It has also transformed the logistics industry through its advanced employment of machine learning and revolutionized how warehouses work through its extensive use of robotics. The company has sought to become a ubiquitous presence in our lives: in 2017 it acquired the American grocery giant Whole Foods, and in 2019 it introduced Amazon Care, a digital health-care service aiming to disrupt that industry in the United States as well.
While capitalist firms by their nature compete by predicting the future to capitalize on new markets and manage risk, Amazon is actively seeking to leverage its massive wealth and power to create a future in which it is dominant. Their corporate slogan “work hard, have fun, make history” indicates the kind of relentless, progressivist jouissance that animates the company’s strategy. Communication scholar Alessandro Delfanti and Bronwyn Frey’s recent study of Amazon and its subsidiaries reveals the wide array of patent applications held by the firm and indicates the type of mind-bending future they envision for us all.
Who makes the future?
And yet who is building that future? Recent years have seen numerous stories about the horrors endured by workers throughout Amazon’s operations. Workers in the firm’s corporate offices report a culture of overwork, stress, and verbal abuse. But these white-collar workers have it relatively easy. Delivery drivers work punishing schedules, often forced to compete with one another to quicken their pace, at the expense of their own health, safety, and well-being. Even the independent companies contracted to deliver packages endure punishing forms of self-exploitation in the name of the massive corporation’s profits. In what could have been taken directly from Orwell’s cautionary tale of the future in Nineteen Eighty-Four, warehouse workers toil under conditions of staggering surveillance and micromanagement, often at a pace set by robots, and are forced to wear sensors that track their every gesture and vital sign to maximize efficiency. Then there are the gig workers on the firm’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) platform, who compete from home against one another for digital micro-contracts often denominated at cents-per-second ratios and usually taking the form of medial data entry or simple coding tasks. Often this work trains the very algorithms that will eventually replace them or other workers. If Amazon is building the future, it is building it on the backs of its workers. And, indeed, many of its techniques seem the stuff of dystopian fantasy.
Around the world, workers are rebelling, forming trade unions and workers’ organizations. However, the infamous union-busting techniques of the firm in Bessemer, Alabama, indicate its violent and ruthless allergy to this kind of worker activism. To push back against these Pinkerton-esque strategies, efforts are afoot, under the banner of the global Make Amazon Pay coalition and the American Athena coalition, to coordinate efforts of unions, workers’ centers, civil society organizations, and other progressive forces to challenge Amazon’s power — and some of these efforts have recently achieved success.
Even with such preliminary victories, however, these struggles are so deeply in the trenches they have a hard time making space and time to see the horizon. Beyond defending workers’ rights and seeking to halt the relentless advance of Amazon, it is imperative to envision alternate futures. The technology and wealth that, today, Amazon and other “technofeudalist” firms monopolize can and should be used to liberate humanity from toil, not institute an even more punishing and exploitative regime of exploitation.
How might such a future be envisioned, let alone instituted? What role will workers themselves have to play in imagining and stewarding its birth? What do workers themselves have to say? Strangely, few people seem to ask. But we did.
Studying science fiction with Amazon workers
In November and December 2021, we recruited around 24 rank-and-file Amazon workers to watch science fiction shows with us and talk about the future. We met on Zoom once a week and workers were remunerated for their time. Together, we watched films including Snowpiercer, TV shows like Squid Game, Black Mirror, and Star Trek, and played games from radical gamemaker Molleindustria that reflect on the conditions of digital workers. We asked the workers if and how this media content helped them reflect on their work at the corporation. The purpose wasn’t so much to gather data for academic research but to create a space where workers could theorize their experiences for themselves. It was open to both current workers and those who had recently left the company’s workforce, but not to managers. Participants were invited to use false names or no name to protect their identities.
The first thing we learned is that there are a lot of different kinds of workers at Amazon. In our group, we had warehouse workers, delivery drivers, content writers, MTurk workers, and data analysts from all across the United States, and some from Canada. They had vastly different cultural, linguistic, educational, and economic backgrounds, which sometimes made dialogue challenging. Some were huge science fiction fans with encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. Others were casual consumers. While some had clear political views on capitalism, in general they seemed happy to lead respectfully non-partisan discussions framed by the collective desire for a better future. Most were forthcoming about how difficult it was to work at Amazon and how demanding they found the company’s management tactics and relentless surveillance. But many were also happy to have the work, either because it provided a stable income or, in other cases, because it provided flexibility.
Most of the participants tended to identify strongly with the dystopian themes in the films and TV series we watched and the games we played. They almost universally felt that the future looked pretty bleak for workers (not only Amazon workers) and that it was likely that technological changes would serve the interests of the rich. Revealingly, many questioned the relevance of wealth in a crumbling world: would class make much of a difference in the dismal, ecologically ravaged, war-torn future? But others were exasperated this pessimism and encouraged us to think about what could be done today to prevent both a terrible future and continued hyperexploitation.
One contradiction that came up again and again was that, while many workers spoke to the dystopian present and future, they also expressed an abstract optimism about their own personal circumstances. Several participants expressed the sentiment that we should stick together and help each other in facing the oppressor — which was not necessarily Amazon, but systems of inequality at large. Teamwork and working together to overcome challenges were big themes in our conversations, and often reflected in the media we watched together. Most workers also told us that feeling part of a team was the best thing about their job. They were almost all skeptical that Amazon management would ever recognize or appreciate their hard work. They talked a lot about how unfair they found the system of rewards and punishments on the job. In its factories, Amazon brought back the ’80s bastion “employee of the month” to encourage hard work, but the workers we talked with felt this was a largely dystopian gimmick. They also resented the constant technological “nudging” toward reward-seeking behavior. For example, employees with repetitive positions are encouraged to fill out surveys while they work to earn minutes of vacation time.
Many watched or read science fiction, or they played sci-fi-themed games as a way to escape from the demanding world of work itself, and so they were less enthusiastic about taking critical positions on the content we watched together. Compounding this, some reacted so strongly to the dystopian themes (a few even calling it “triggering”) that they admitted to having difficulty watching or playing the games we had selected. And yet, there was a clear sense that sci-fi, especially dark and dystopian science fiction, was appealing to the group. Why would people who already lived and worked in what would probably appear to a time traveler from the past as a dystopian sci-fi scenario enjoy the genres? What interest did these texts offer to workers who are relentlessly surveilled, measured, controlled, and pitted against one another by a huge corporation that literally uses their exploited energies to realize the megalomaniacal fantasies of their CEO to go to space?
In our discussion, it became clear that watching SF film and TV was a form of escapist entertainment, a way of winding down after a hard day (or night, or week) of work. But why not romcoms, or period drama, or soap operas? Or why not more optimistic SF, like Star Trek? Certainly the answer was different for all of the workers we spoke to, but we wonder if, on some level, the dystopian SF was somehow validating.
Toward a futurist workers’ inquiry
Our approach was deeply influenced by a new wave of an old method that intellectuals have used to collaborate with working people. What came to be known as Workers’ Inquiry emerged in Northern Italy in the 1960s as the country underwent a rapid postwar industrialization and migrants flooded from the poor agrarian South to cities like Turin and Milan. For radical intellectuals, who were increasingly disappointed with the Italian Communist Party’s slide into compromise and complacency, these new workers represented a revolutionary constituency, but one that was very different from the proletariat of Marx, Lenin, or Antonio Gramsci’s day.
These thinkers, many of whom were renegades from Italy’s highly conservative academic system, set out to study how capitalism was transforming workers and how workers, through their struggles, were forcing capitalism to transform. They did so in part by setting up study groups with workers that placed in their hands the tools for understanding their own conditions as in some sense emblematic of the capitalism of which they were part. Theorizing from the proverbial “shop floor” offered both workers and intellectuals not only an ant’s-eye view of capitalism, it also revealed workers’ power. The goal of this action research was to see how the exploitative machinations of capitalism were not the ingenious orchestrations of the powerful but, in fact, the desperate, rear-guard attempt by capital writ large to contain and combat new forms of worker militancy.
A later generation of radicals who carried forward the spirit and practices of Workers’ Inquiry combined it with a theoretical orientation that built on the “fragment on machines” found in Karl Marx’s Grundrisse, the notebooks the radical philosopher made as he prepared to write his massively influential Kapital. For Marx scholars, the Grundrisse, which was not published until well after his death and decades after the formation of the Soviet Union (and was not even translated into Italian until the 1970s), maintained a more youthful, humanitarian dimension. The text was concerned not only with the way capitalism thrives on the exploitation of workers but also how it foments and depends on their alienation. Alienation from the things they create, from one another, but also from their “species being” (their human capacity to transform the world). Also, importantly, alienation from their capacity to co-create their future. Within those notebooks, the “fragment on machines” offered radical Italian theorists a language to speak of the way that workers under capitalism were part of and also shaped the “general intellect.” Typically understood to be shaped and monopolized by capitalist institutions, this aggregate sum of knowledge, science, technology, and art was also seen to be a product that workers helped to create. The fruits of modernity were the product of the labor of a whole society and shaped that society. But under capitalism, only a handful of individuals, usually of the ruling or middle class, ever have the opportunity to become intellectuals, technologists, and scientists. As such, the ideas and technologies they develop are hoarded by capitalist enterprises where the labor of the masses is used to transform ideas into commodities. Italian Marxist activists and theorists envisioned, by contrast, a form of socialism that included a “mass intellectuality” where the power to imagine and create was democratized.
More recently, scholars, activists, and labor organizers around the world have rekindled the Workers’ Inquiry method. This resurgence stems from a recognition of the necessity to trust and empower workers to become researchers and the way it centers workers as the driving force. Academic work must be done differently and democratized if there is a chance to challenge existing structures of power. But while the original Workers’ Inquiry in Italy focused almost exclusively on male industrial workers and the conditions of exploitation in the factory, we draw from more subsequent updates to this approach that see workers’ relationship to capitalism as occurring in many places and in many ways: the extraction of value through rent, for instance, or the unpaid reproductive labor workers’ must perform in the home (cooking, shopping, cleaning, caring for children and loved ones), work still disproportionately expected of women and, today, often commodified as discounted “services” on transnationalizing markets.
As the investigation of Amazon has become the forefront of research on the intersection of labor and capitalism, there have even been several recent approaches in using workers’ inquiry to understand the changing nature of capitalism through an investigation of Amazon warehouses and work on the Mechanical Turk microtask platform. Our project takes inspiration from these projects and seeks to extend this research. It departs from conventional Workers’ Inquiry in that our project isn’t exactly worker-led and, at this point, it’s more about discovering if it’s possible to think with science fiction about the challenges workers face today, rather than about shop-floor resistance. But our hope is that this research might inspire rank-and-file Amazon and other “platform capitalism” workers to undertake similar initiatives, or that labor organizers might also see some value in using the genre to explore the new dimensions of work and resistance.
Is resistance futile?
The career of Amazon and its founder and former CEO, Jeff Bezos, is intimately connected to the science fiction genre. Bezos has at many points identified Star Trek as his single most important inspiration. So much so that he considered naming Amazon makeitso.com after the catch phrase of his hero, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which aired new episodes from 1987 until 1994, the year Amazon’s predecessor company was founded. Bezos even styles his appearance on that of Patrick Stewart and is unabashed in his embrace of the thriving and obsessive nerd culture around the franchise. According to his own testimony, and those of other founders and executives, Bezos would regularly make reference to Star Trek episodes in corporate strategy meetings and the series was in some senses pivotal to the internal culture of the company.
In fact, it is strongly suspected that Amazon was really an effort by the former financier to generate the wealth to launch his own private space program. In 2000, these efforts became reality with the creation of Blue Origin, whose mantra is “Earth, in all its beauty, is just our starting place.” When the company was finally successful at launching manned rockets in 2021, one of the first “guests” was the actor William Shatner, famous for playing the maverick Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek series, which a young Bezos watched with an almost religious fervor.
It is, then, both ironic and telling that the empire Bezos created in some ways resembles a kind of dystopian world that his idolized intergalactic explorers might encounter and seek to liberate. In each incarnation of the franchise, Star Trek has dwelled on the social and philosophical issues related to the prospects of freedom, the nature of exploitation, and the possibilities of peace and cooperation across cultures. The noble United Federation of Planets was dreamed up by the series’s founder, Gene Roddenberry, as an antidote to the culture of fear and xenophobia fostered by the Cold War. He envisioned an interstellar alliance of species, including a multiethnic mix of humans, that, together, dedicated themselves to peace and exploration. In the journeys of their flagship Enterprise across multiple different series, the Federation encounters numerous planets and societies that act as allegories for our present-day earthly concerns. Critics have noted that, in the Cold War, Star Trek often appeared as a benevolent fantasy of the American Empire, championing notions of individualist “freedom” in contrast to the collectivist pathologies of alien species. But as the series developed, it would also, at times, come to critique the kind of ruthless and reckless profiteering associated with capitalism. However, the Federation is, ultimately, a postcapitalist fantasy based on the presumption that the development of technology will, by the 24th century, have largely eliminated the need for human toil and create a world of abundance and peace.
If it is Bezos’s dream to create such a world, he seems to be more than willing to sacrifice the lives, health, and well-being of millions of workers to achieve it. A recent leaked memo reveals that Amazon executives worry that, in many of the locales where there warehouses are located, they fear that the grueling pace of work and high rates of workers’ physical and emotional burnout will mean that the company will soon experience profound workers shortages as there are not enough new (and desperate) would-be workers to exploit. The exploitative and abusive practices of the company, combined with the larger-than-life corporate culture and megalomaniacal (former) CEO all feel like they were scripted with a heavy hand in the Star Trek writing room: some producer evidently let the concept slide by, without sending it back with a note saying, “Too on the nose: make the allegory for the evils of capitalism more subtle or we’ll lose the audience.”
If Star Trek has been such a large influence on Amazon’s development, perhaps there are clues within its plot lines and tropes that might help us unpack the firm’s deeper dimensions. In 1997, two years after it started selling books online, Amazon was publicly listed on the New York Stock Exchange. In that same year, Star Trek: Voyager, then in its fourth season of network syndication, introduced the character Seven of Nine. Seven was a cyborg that the ship’s crew rescued from the Borg, a hive-minded alien species that, since their first appearance in the series in 1989, have terrorized the Federation and its heroes. Like her counterparts in The Collective, before being “assimilated” Seven was once an intelligent, independent human. However, upon being abducted as a child by the virus-like horde they were transformed into a powerful robotic drone dedicated to their collective mission of doing the same to all intelligent, independent lifeforms in the universe. Their monotone mantra, “resistance is futile,” has become so stitched into popular culture its origins have been largely forgotten.
Separated from her fellow drones, Seven eventually reclaims some sense of her individuality and morality and joins Voyager as part of its diverse crew. Her humanity recaptured, she becomes an invaluable strategic asset, not only for her superior strength, endurance, and intellectual capacities, but also because, having once been part of the hive mind, she has special insight into and even contact with it. Now part of the resistance to the Borg’s endless, viral growth, her intimate, embodied knowledge becomes a source of hope.
Is Amazon the Borg? In another chilling mantra of this intergalactic horde, will they continue their parasitic advance, seeking to: “Add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own”? Will our culture be made to “adapt to service us”? As more and more industries fall to its relentless, digitally augmented expansion or recast themselves around its model, the metaphor is tempting. Certainly it resonates with scenes of warehouses where workers wear sensors linked to Amazon servers, measuring and subtly “correcting” their movements to ensure efficiency in the service of profit. Though they retain their individuality and are framed by the company as “entrepreneurs,” the image of thousands of MTurk workers at computer terminals around the world racing to fulfill endless, mundane digital microtasks fed to them by an Amazon proprietary system transforms these workers into something not unlike drones. Amazon’s fleet of delivery drivers, who are constantly being nudged to do their work faster through arcane digital systems, is not altogether foreign. Sure, all these workers are allowed to retain their sense of individual selfhood. Unlike the Borg, they are technically free to quit at any time. But how much does that matter in an economy where increasingly every firm is learning from or being “disrupted” by Amazon’s model?
Worker as futurist
We speculate that, like Seven of Nine, Amazon workers may have some special insight and intuition of how to resist and rebel not only at the level of their conscious intellectual reflections, but also encoded in their very bodies. Workers are, of course, categorically excluded from management decision-making and strategy. The algorithms that govern their bodies and time are opaque. And yet our sci-fi-inspired conjecture is that workers intuit something about the firm and the future it is building by virtue of having been bodily assimilated into spaces and mindsets prescribed by Amazon’s corporate demands. Though their access to and power over Amazon’s “collective intelligence” is limited, they are still in some sense possessed by it and so have some preternatural awareness of it.
If that’s the case, then rank-and-file Amazon workers themselves may have the most important insights about how to challenge the company’s future-making machine. The wager of our project is that, by creating welcoming, convivial, and creative spaces we can work with Amazon workers to awaken their secret insight into the future-making (or future-killing) power of their exploiter. By using the genre of science fiction, so pivotal to Amazon’s foundation and operations, we might be able to labor together to envision a near-future world beyond Amazon’s grasp, where the potential to co-create a future is shared democratically, rather than hoarded by a corporate oligarchy.
In the next phase of our project, we will invite (and pay) 12 rank-and-file Amazon workers to become or hone their skills as writers of science fiction. We will offer a series of writers’ workshops and collaborative study sessions where, together, we can come to understand Amazon and the future it is creating. And beyond this, to develop our own powers to imaginatively seek out and share strange alternate visions of our new world. We will challenge our guests to develop short stories about a world beyond Amazon: utopian, dystopian, optimistic, or pessimistic. Amazon workers will workshop the stories together and we will work with publishing partners, including LARB, to bring them to the public.
We should, of course, not expect that the science fiction texts Amazon workers write will give us a blueprint for a universal future. Rather, their writing might invite generative public conversations and awaken the radical imagination in new ways. Another collective intelligence is possible. Resistance is far from futile.
A version of this essay is forthcoming in Routledge International Handbook for Creative Futures, edited by Alfonso Montuori and Gabrielle Donnelly and due out in late 2022.
Max Haiven is Canada Research Chair in the Radical Imagination at Lakehead University and author, most recently, of the book Revenge Capitalism: The Ghosts of Empire, the Demons of Capital, and the Settling of Unpayable Debts (2020).
Graeme Webb is an instructor in the School of Engineering at the University of British Columbia. He recently completed his dissertation, Science Fiction(ing): The Imagination, Crisis, and Hope (2020), which focuses on discourses of technology and social change.
Xenia Benivolski is an organizer, researcher, and art writer based in Toronto. Her writing appears in e-flux journal, Scapegoat Journal, and C magazine.
Featured image: “Amazon España por dentro (San Fernando de Henares)” by Álvaro Ibáñez is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.