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Amazon's drones will deliver the future of online shopping

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Amazon founder Jeff Bezos delights in being "disruptive," TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes said Sunday. Bezos' online bookstore "disrupted" bookselling; his Kindle e-book reader "disrupted" publishing. "Disrupt" is an interesting word. Others have said that Amazon has profited mightily by destroying other companies and even whole industries.

"The death toll tells the tale. Two decades ago, there were about 4000 independent bookstores in the United States; only about 1900 remain. And now, even the victors are imperiled," wrote Steve Wasserman in The Nation. He declared the Bookstore Wars over and a new, more serious war underway: "Independents are battered, Borders is dead, Barnes & Noble weakened but still standing and Amazon triumphant. Yet still there is no peace; a new war rages for the future of publishing."

Amazon's drive to sell Kindle e-book readers has cost regular publishers dearly. Amazon forced them (if they wanted Amazon to sell their hardcopy books) to make digital works available for no more than $9.99, thus driving down profits available to other partners involved with the work, such as the author. Since the Kindle reader was the product -- the device, not the works themselves -- Amazon gained commercial advantage by driving down the value of the works.

The latest "disruption," says Bezos, is that within five years, Amazon mini-drones may be able to deliver anything a customer could desire, including groceries, with 30-minute delivery in urban areas. This would disrupt the retail engine that drives 70 per cent of the North American economy -- and incidentally, apparently, crash retail workers' wages and working conditions to warehouse workers' levels.

The 60 Minutes segment on Bezos and Amazon came from a laudatory business angle. "Amazon has changed the way we read, shop and compute," said segment host Charlie Rose. "It has 225 million customers around the world. Its goal is to sell everything to everyone."

While British reporter Carol Cadwalladr agrees that Amazon is indeed the future of shopping, her recent article in The Observer, concludes that "being an Amazon 'associate' in an Amazon 'fulfilment centre' -- take that for doublespeak, Mr. Orwell! – is the future of work; and Amazon's payment of minimal tax in any jurisdiction is the future of global business."

To show how efficient and computerized Amazon is, Charlie Rose displayed warehouses with items stacked by size, not category. 60 Minutes cameras followed Amazon staff -- so-called "Pick Ambassadors" -- pushing carts down the aisles of million-square-mile warehouses, to find specific items by using computers and handheld scanners.

Cadwalladr went undercover for a Pick Ambassador job in an Amazon UK order fulfillment centre. "On my second day, the manager tells us that we alone have picked and packed 155,000 items in the past 24 hours. Tomorrow, December 2 -- the busiest online shopping day of the year -- that figure will be closer to 450,000. And this is just one of eight warehouses across the country."   

"Amazon warehouse jobs push workers to physical limit," said the headline on a story by Hal Bernton and Susan Kelleher in The Seattle Times a couple years ago. Reporting from Campbellville, KY, they looked at the "massive blue collar work force" -- some 15,000 workers in U.S. order fulfillment warehouses -- roaming Amazon's warehouses 24 hours a day to get the orders out.

On the plus side, Amazon offers employees profit sharing after two years on the job, health insurance, and contributes to individual workers' registered pension plans. On the other hand, the reporters found that Pick Ambassadors work hard, long hours, often 50 hours a week. Bernton and Kelleher report that, "On an average day, 51-year-old Connie Milby covered more than 10 miles in her tennis shoes, walking and climbing up and down three flights of stairs to retrieve tools, toys and a vast array of other merchandise for Amazon.com shoppers." This kind of constant walking on concrete floors has been linked to microfractures of foot bones, says the story.

Connie Milby may be able to hang up her tennis shoes before long, though. Amazon plans to install robots to handle the picking and packing. And by 2017, said Bezos, Amazon expects to have a fleet of miniature drones that could fulfill orders in 30-minutes, within certain urban areas.

Amazon's final "disruptive" triumph may spell an economic turning point for North America, at least, when management seriously considers totally eliminating the need for actual human workers.

With the manufacturing sector hollowed out, service industries outsourced to distant call centres, phones and tablets gobbling up what was once the personal computer market -- with the Internet destroying occupation after occupation – pretty soon there will be nothing for most of the population to do except play video games online and await our monthly Guaranteed Annual Income cheques -- delivered by drones.

Image: wikimedia commons

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