News From the Marketplace

by wjw on August 20, 2015

Okay, news from the marketplace is supposed to be both good and bad.  While the ideal of the marketplace, as Adam Smith remarked, is to increase the world’s store of happiness (by permitting deals that both buyer and seller can be pleased with), the reality is that the market also creates winners and losers.

e.g.: Amazon.

Amazon has always maintained an uncompromising Darwinian approach to its business.  It treats its market environment as a zero-sum game: they’re not interested in increasing anyone’s store of happiness, they just want to win while making everyone else lose.

Or, as Gore Vidal put it, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

For authors, this was most obvious through KDP Select, in which writers who joined the program (and renounced all other online distributors) were allowed to compete for a share of a fixed pool of money.  In a deal that clearly sucks for them, KDP Select authors are currently competing to have the most pages read.

(I never joined KDP Select, first because I didn’t think it would be very profitable for me to compete with thousands of other writers trying in a mad frenzy to hack Amazon’s system, which could then change on them at a second’s notice; and second because I’d be stiffing my readers who preferred distributors like iBooks, Nook, Kobo, etc.)

In recent years Amazon achieved fame by beating up on publishers, its ostensible partners, and of course by shamefully treating its warehouse workers.

But what we now find is that Amazon treats its white-collar workers as badly as its blue-collar workers.

Hey!  That’s unAmerican!

They’ve created a zero-sum game in their own job market, in which employees are encouraged to savagely compete with one another for a shining reward . . . somewhere down the line.

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

. . . Many workers called it a river of intrigue and scheming. They described making quiet pacts with colleagues to bury the same person at once, or to praise one another lavishly. Many others, along with Ms. Willet, described feeling sabotaged by negative comments from unidentified colleagues with whom they could not argue. In some cases, the criticism was copied directly into their performance reviews — a move that Amy Michaels, the former Kindle manager, said that colleagues called “the full paste.”

Wow!  While other tech companies attract employees to “campuses” with game rooms, saunas, masseuses, cappuccino, and dry-cleaning facilities, Amazon has created a prison-house ruled by a society of snitches!  

Snitches will thrive in Snitchdom, of course, but you can rarely depend on them for accurate information.  Ask any cop: snitches lie all the time.  To counter this, Amazon depends on analyzing its masses of data.  Of course the data can lie, too . . . just ask Enron.

You can, of course, succeed at Amazon, so long as you inform on others, bully your underlings, and massage the data properly— and of course it’s smart to work 80-hour weeks, not take a vacation, never get pregnant or sick, or have a social life.  And of course you should never get old.

I’m not sure what exactly would make any of this worthwhile.  No amount of money, surely, when there are lots of other companies competing in the same talent pool.

“Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.”  I guess that must be it.

In sunnier news, creative people seem to be doing better out of the digital economy.  Steven Johnson has actually crunched the numbers on this one!

In 1999, the national economy supported 1.5 million jobs in [creative arts]; by 2014, the number had grown to nearly 1.8 million. This means the creative class modestly outperformed the rest of the economy, making up 1.2 percent of the job market in 2001 compared with 1.3 percent in 2014.

Despite the file-sharing threat that was supposed to destroy the music business, there seem to be more professional musicians now than ever.  What musicians lost on CDs, they’ve made up on live performance.  (Even studio bands like Steely Dan tour these days.)

The movie industry is doing fine, even the midlist films that were supposed to be dying.  Television is in its golden age.

People can make music and films for cheap these days, upload them, and receive instant feedback and possibly even money.  One recent art house film was shot entirely on smartphones.

The data seems a little less conclusive for authors— certainly there are more of them, thanks to Amazon and other online markets— and Johnson ties himself into knots trying to define “high-quality books,” i.e., books thought of highly by a professional critic class (in which category I’m sure I would never be found).  And even after all that, the data is contradictory— but then the digital economy is doing fine by me, so there’s your ringing endorsement.

So the news is pretty good, at least as good as it gets with the arts, unless you happen to work for Amazon, in which case best of luck with our Darwinian managers and all the snitches.

In either case, you volunteered.

bkd69 August 21, 2015 at 2:39 am

With regards to piracy, I’ve long ago realized that:

A: If nobody is pirating your work, you have a problem with your work
B: If nobody is paying for your work, you have a problem with your work
C: If you have a problem with the fact that piracy of your work is occurring at rates greater than zero, that’s a personal problem

TRX August 21, 2015 at 5:55 am

There are a lot of places like your description of Amazon. I’ve worked at a few…

There are lots of theories as to how that sort of toxic work environment develops, but in my experience it comes down to one thing: manager insecurity. People who don’t feel capable in their own jobs lose hope of moving up the ladder, so they try to undermine anyone who might try for their position for fear of being forced out. That sort of thing spreads throughout the organization, and then you have… Amazon.

wjw August 21, 2015 at 11:39 pm

I also think it might have to do with people who feel a lot more comfortable with metrics than with actual human beings. If the only way you can relate to the human race is through a logarithm, you’ve probably already failed.

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