Can Robots Offer Amazon Moral Redemption?

If you're like many liberals, you probably feel conflicted about Amazon. On one hand, they seem to carry every mass-produced product in universe, and they usually have the lowest price, or nearly so. Shopping with them is incredibly convenient. On the other hand, the "fulfilment centers" at which people toil to pick and pack all the products people buy are basically the 21st century sweatshops, where workers endure horribly demanding work and demeaning treatment for low pay (Amazon isn't the only company that uses them, but they're the biggest). A few years ago, we learned that in the summer at some fulfilment centers they would park ambulances outside to cart off the workers who got heat stroke, because it was cheaper than installing air conditioning (which they eventually did in the face of a bunch of bad publicity). And the Supreme Court just heard a case involving Amazon workers who want to be paid for the time they are required to stand in line waiting to be searched like potential criminals to see if they've stolen anything, while the company doesn't want to pay them for the time that they are requiring them to wait. If they had a union, they could negotiate a resolution to that question, but Amazon has fiercely resisted unionization of its workers.

As some have pointed out, while liberals tend not to shop at Walmart for moral/political reasons, most of the complaints people make about Walmart are also true of Amazon in some way, most fundamentally the fact that both companies are relentless in their quest to keep prices low, which in practice often means prioritizing the interests of customers over those of employees. (At this point I should mention that in addition to my place here at the Prospect I also write for the Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Bezos and I are not personally acquainted, to say the least.) In the latest New Republic, Franklin Foer argues that Amazon has become a monopoly, and something should be done about it. Annie Lowrey counters that being a monopoly isn't really the problem with Amazon, whatever else you might think of them, and I tend to agree with her.

What I'm wondering today is, can Amazon be morally redeemed by robots?

As far as I can tell, here are the major problems people associate with the company:

  • The poor working conditions and pay at fulfilment centers
  • The competition with small retailers who cannot compete with Amazon on price
  • The long fight it waged to avoid charging sales tax, which gave it an unfair advantage over brick-and-mortar retailers (Amazon now charges sales taxes for purchases in 23 states)
  • The squeeze it has put on the publishing industry, most vividly represented in its current conflict with Hachette.

While you may be particularly concerned about one or more of these problems, it does seem to me that the one with the most serious moral weight is the first, how Amazon treats its least-skilled employees (I'm sure the programmers in Seattle are doing just fine, and if they aren't they can probably get good jobs elsewhere). And this is where the robots come in.

There are lots of occupations that may be threatened in coming years by automation. But the task of getting items in vast warehouses from shelves into boxes for shipping is one that is almost guaranteed to be automated. Those fulfilment center jobs may not be gone in five years, but if they're still around in large numbers in ten years, I'd be surprised. That's why in 2012 Amazon bought Kiva Systems, a manufacturer of warehouse robots. At the moment, the capabilities of those robots are limited — they're very good at moving pallets from one place to another, but not as good at picking the right pair of nose-hair clippers out of a bin.

But eventually, they will be; or more precisely, the warehouses will be built around the robots' capabilities and limitations. Right now it's cheaper for Amazon to hire (often through temporary employment agencies so they aren't technically employed by Amazon, which is its own story) an army of people to run around warehouses picking items, but within a few years it'll be cheaper to have most of that work done by automated systems, with a much smaller number of human employees there to do quality control and service the machines.

So: At that point, will the liberal's moral qualms about Amazon be reduced to a level where you don't have to think about it anymore? I'm not completely sure. And to be clear, I'm not saying Amazon shouldn't be criticized for their employment practices now because the problem will eventually go away—they bear every ounce of responsibility for what they're doing today, and there's nothing stopping you from taking your business elsewhere until you feel they've reformed, if you feel that's warranted (if you want the case for doing so, read this from Harold Pollack). You may also find the other things Amazon does reason enough not to shop there. But the treatment of warehouse workers is one problem with Amazon that is probably temporary.

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