My Take on the Amazon Workplace Exposé

A muckraking New York Times article on white collar Amazon labor conditions prompts me to think about library values in an era of productivity measures, competition, and scale.

August 18, 2015

Both Matt Reed and Joshua Kim have written here about The New York Times’s exposé of Amazon’s work culture, and I can't resist joining them. Dean Dan looked at the issue of “transparency” at work and why that seemingly positive virtue can be problematic.There’s an interesting Harvard Business Review article that bears on this, too. (Caught reading HBR - you got me, Steven Bell!) Zeynep Tufekci has also written about the way seeming transparency is often paired with corporate opacity. Transparency and openness have their dark sides, as Audrey Watters can tell you. Joshua asked why academics find the article so chilling. Are there lessons we can take from Amazon's capacity to be "open, agile, and data driven" without losing our values? How much do we want to be like Amazon? Can we do it without being like Amazon? Or, as he puts in in his teaser, "Is this really what we need to do to increase our productivity?" (I think by "productivity" he means "do good work," but I could be wrong.)

What strikes me most from the perspective of an academic librarian is that this article is basically the story of contemporary tech capitalism, which has had enormous influence on library culture and higher ed. Short version: we hire the best, you’ll love your work so much that your life will be devoted to being the best you can be, and we’ll use data to make sure our customers get the best experience possible at scale. Moar productivity! Or, if you must be cynical, we’ll screen out people who aren’t like us, we’ll only retain workers who don’t have elderly parents, children, ailments, or anything else in their lives that will interfere with a 24/7 devotion to labor, and we will put them under continual surveillance to keep them onto  their toes. But it will be so much fun working with cool, smart people! And you’ll be part of the future, yay! We love our customers so much that we will spy on them. It's for their sake that we'll spy on you, too, and demand detailed metrics to prove you’re doing your job. We don’t have to have profits now – this is an investment in a glorious future. Resistance is not only futile, it’s embarrassing. Dude, you're showing your age. 

So faculty must publish more and gather metrics to prove that they’re not only producing more but in the right places using impact factors, which should never be used to evaluate the value of an article, but hey, it’s a number! It must be true! The anxiety level is ratcheted up as only select faculty from the right programs get prestigious jobs and most teaching is contracted out to underpaid independent creatives.That’s why you don’t get an office. They are only for our star employees, all six of them. New journals have to be launched to handle the overflow of perishable publications, but no problem, we'll just send the bill to libraries. When that well runs dry, we’ll have authors build the cost into their grants because tax-supported capitalism is a great investment in our national competitiveness. Libraries can be retrofitted to drive customer satisfaction,er, student success by housing student services in the library (one stop shopping!) and librarians will analyze all the data exhaust from websites and databases to link library use to GPAs. If we do our job right, the administration might show us mercy and we can escape the scythe of irrelevance until next year.

Snarky? I’ll stipulate to that.  

Amazon is simply a highly visible exemplar of a philosophy that emphasizes individuality, ubiquitous surveillance through data-mining, a belief that competition is the natural order of things, that enabling the consuming of things as quickly and as cheaply as possible is our highest calling, that there is no such thing as enough productivity, and that a handful of visionary leaders understand this and we should either be one of them or should at least fall in line. Librarians say we value privacy, but now we routinely send information from use of their webpages to Google because Google Analytics is free and awesome and Piwik is free and hard, or so we've heard. We know we can't make our search as easy as Google, but we'll spend tens of thousands of dollars and several FTE trying. We used to value values, but now we spend our time measuring value in monetary terms for self-defense. We help retention! Tuition-payers are correlated with library use! Shutting us down would hurt the bottom line. We have numbers!

This is nothing new. Librarians have always looked to business for leadership lessons. Way back in 1897 John Cotton Dana urged libraries to be more like factories, offices, and laboratories rather than temples, cathedrals or “mortuary piles.” He argued for open stacks to follow the contemporary shift in retail shopping experiences: people enjoyed touching the goods themselves and making choices without a middleman. (See Abigail Van Slyck's Free to All for the fascinating details.) Our drive to be more like Google and Amazon is simply the latest instance of trying to apply lesson from commerce to our day-to-day work. Open stacks is a good idea. Trying to figure out what works on our websites is a good idea, too.

But so many of the fundamental values embedded in the business practices of tech giants whose platforms have become fundamental to the exchange of information today are hostile to library values which include access for all, social responsibility, democracy, diversity, lifelong learning, the preservation of culture, the public good, privacy, and intellectual freedom. Yes, service is also a library value. But service based on our values is not the same as delivering consumer goods more quickly and cheaply than the competition. The more we conflate consumerism with service for the public good, the harder it will be for public institutions like libraries and universities to do their essential work.           



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