We've heard the fable of "the self-made billionaire" a thousand times: some unrecognized genius toiling away in a suburban garage stumbles upon The Next Big Thing, thereby single-handedly revolutionizing their industry and becoming insanely rich in the process — all while comfortably ignoring the fact that they'd received $300,000 in seed funding from their already rich, politically-connected parents to do so.
In The Warehouse: Workers and Robots at Amazon, Alessandro Delfanti, associate professor at the University of Toronto and author of Biohackers: The Politics of Open Science, deftly examines the dichotomy between Amazon's public personas and its union-busting, worker-surveilling behavior in fulfillment centers around the world — and how it leverages cutting edge technologies to keep its employees' collective noses to the grindstone, pissing in water bottles. In the excerpt below, Delfanti examines the way in which our current batch of digital robber barons lean on the classic redemption myth to launder their images into that of wonderkids deserving of unabashed praise.
This is an excerpt from The Warehouse: Workers and Robots at Amazon by Alessandro Delfanti, available now from Pluto Press.
Besides the jobs, trucks and concrete, what Amazon brought to Piacenza and to the dozens of other suburban areas which host its warehouses is a myth: a promise of modernization, economic development, and even individual emancipation that stems from the “disruptive” nature of a company heavily based on the application of new technology to both consumption and work. It is a promise that assumes that the society in question is willing to entrust such ambitions to the gigantic multinational corporations that design, implement, and possess technology. This myth of digital capitalism is based on a number of elements, including magical origins, heroes, and stories of redemption. Some are by now familiar to everyone: A couple of teenagers tinkering away in a garage can revolutionize or create from scratch an entire industry, generating billions in the process. The garage is an important component of this myth. Here we are not talking about the garages where MXP5 workers park their cars after a ten-hour shift in the warehouse, nor about the garages where Amazon Flex couriers store piles of boxes to be delivered. The innovation garage is the site where individuals unbounded by old habits and funded by venture capital turn simple ideas into marketable digital commodities. Nowhere does this myth run deeper than in California: William Hewlett and David Packard’s Palo Alto backyard shack is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places as “the birthplace of Silicon Valley,” while the garage of Steve Jobs’ parents’ house (where he and Steve Wozniak built the first batch of Apple computers) has been recently designated as a “historical site” by the city of Los Altos. These garages have even been turned into informal museums and receive thousands of visitors a year, some even arriving with organized tour buses. For Californian historian Mario Biagioli, the garage has become an important rhetorical device in contemporary discourses, helping mythify the origins of contemporary innovation. Masculine innovation in particular, since the garage is a strictly male space. Bezos himself started Amazon in a garage, albeit not in California—or so Amazon’s origin myth goes: in 1994 he left his lucrative but dull Wall Street hedge fund job and wrote a business plan while driving cross-country from New York to Seattle, where he used his and his family’s money to start the company.
The myth of the redemption and success of the hero entrepreneur trickles down to the warehouse, insofar as Amazon presents work to its employees through the frame of emancipation. The idea of redemption through work is nothing new. On the contrary, it is a damnation common to modern society. In the early 1960s, militant sociologist Romano Alquati pointed out that the culture of mid-20th century Italian factories included the construction of a “myth” or “cult” of emancipation. In this instance, it was directed at the masses of migrant workers who, following World War II, moved from the rural south to the north of the country to find manufacturing work with the flagship companies of the Italian postwar economic boom, such as FIAT or Olivetti. Redemption from the backwardness of rural life was ensured not only by steady paychecks and the prospect of a pension at the end of the line, but also by participation in technologically advanced production processes—the assembly line of industrial capitalism. Amazon simply repeats and updates such promises. In Italy, for example, Amazon positions itself as an employee-focused company that brings stable employment back to a precarized labor market—a boon to a labor market hit by financial crises, lackluster growth, and lack of opportunities for retraining and upskilling. So Amazon continues a historical trajectory of Italian capitalism, but imports onto the local context novel characteristics borrowed from the American digital corporation model.
Indeed, digital capitalism updates industrial capitalism’s promise of economic and social emancipation with some novel elements of its own. Rather than simply swapping out the assembly line with the robot or the algorithm, the culture of digital capitalism mixes libertarian ideology with entrepreneurial elements. At the core of this myth lies a form of individualism. The combination of new information technologies with free-market dynamics enables emancipatory potential for the entrepreneur. Furthermore, digital capitalist companies state that they exist to change the world, to make people happy, to create value for everyone and not just for investors—technological optimism at its apex. After all, how could you deliver a bad outcome when your first principle is don’t be evil, as Google’s old slogan famously put it.
Amazon extends this old myth to all its workers. Indeed, in corporate documents, the company goes so far as to state that everyone is an “owner” at Amazon. While this is quite literal in the case of engineers and executives who receive shares of the company, it can only be understood at the level of mythology for warehouse workers. A figurative or spiritual commitment to the company’s destiny. Managerial techniques used in the warehouse contribute to building this myth, as associates are asked to have fun at work and help Amazon make history, as one of its corporate slogans goes. The myth brings with it the idea that there is no alternative to digital capitalism. Only co-option, or failure for those who can’t keep up or won’t adapt or submit.
Myths are not just old stories or false beliefs. They are ideas that help us make sense of the world. The myth of digital capitalism itself is not simply fictitious, but instead has very concrete effects. For Big Tech corporations, this myth projects a positive contribution to the world, helping to attract workers and investment, and boost corporate value on financial markets. But it has other concrete effects as well. In different areas of the world, and in different communities, the myth of redemption stemming from participation in high-tech production has impacted economies and cultures. Feminist media studies scholar Lisa Nakamura recounted how, in the 1970s, electronics manufacturers operating on Navajo land in New Mexico justified the employment of Indigenous women. Labor in microchip production was presented as empowering for the crafty and docile Navajo women—assumptions derived from racist stereotyping. Italy is completely different from the Navajo Nation, and yet the idea that an imported version of American digital capitalism can be a force for collective modernization and individual emancipation is alive and well there too. Belief in this myth is evidenced in many different and even contrasting ways. Some bring resources, like the $1.5 billion state-owned venture capital fund launched in 2020 by the Italian government to support start-up companies in the hope they will foster economic growth. Others sell resources off, like when mayors of small towns with high unemployment compete to attract the next Amazon FC, offering the company both farmland newly opened up for development and a local workforce ready to staff the warehouse. Over the years, the mayors of Castel San Giovanni have described the presence of MXP5 as a force of “development” and a source of “pride” for the town. This is not unique to Italy. American mayors are routinely quoted praising the arrival of a new Amazon facility as a “wonderful” or “monumental” thing for their town.
Amazon’s corporate slogans also hedge up its myth. Central is the valorization of disruption—the idea of a hero entrepreneur defeating the gods of the past. Some of the slogans (the so-called Leadership Principles) are repeated time and again and painted everywhere in the warehouse. While Aboutamazon.com, the company’s corporate website, describes them as “more than inspirational wall hangings,” that is exactly what they sound like. Customer obsession is perhaps the most famous one, a slogan that captures the strategic goal of focusing on customers’ needs: the rest (profits, power) will follow. It also signals that workers are by design an afterthought. Other slogans are even more predictable, like Leaders are right a lot or Think big. Amazon’s myth trickles down to fulfillment centers like MXP5 in many ways. Amazon routinely conducts marketing operations aimed at finding new workers, not new customers. Billboards sporting smiling warehouse workers, recruitment events, and glowing articles commissioned by staffing agencies in the local newspaper are common sights in Piacenza, as in the areas surrounding other FCs. Social media multiplies the message. Amazon encourages employees to join its army of “ambassadors”—workers who plaster social media with positive stories about their job or videos in which they happily dance inside the warehouse. Like the FC’s walls, all these practices are soaked with the Leadership Principles: at a recruitment event near Toronto, slogans, such as Fulfilling the customer promise, were projected as part of a slideshow filled with smiling arrow logos, accompanying a presentation of more mundane details like job descriptions or benefits. “Every Amazonian who wants to be a leader,” we were told, should focus on “customer obsession” and “never settle,” and let’s not forget that Amazonians “are right a lot.” The event wrapped up with free pizza.