Last week, the New York Times reported that working at Amazon is hell—in a truly pioneering, use-proprietary-software-to-snitch-on-your-coworkers, future-forward kind of way. But such conditions are just the new normal, as Amazon and its Silicon Valley peers are cultivating entirely new modes of frantic, round-the-clock work to appease their digital consumers. This week, writer and editor Kevin Nguyen, himself a former Amazon employee, imagines a not-too-distant-future wherein an employee at a suspiciously familiar online retailer contemplates innovation, getting ahead, and who it really is that he's serving—who the all-important Customer really is.
The early days at the Company are difficult. They are difficult because I don't understand where I work. The Company is a store that doesn't exist in a real place. It's a store that doesn't really want to make money. It is more philosophy than business. It is beholden to the Customer, even though I don't know who that is.
I work with many other people who look like me. My manager is a man with no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever. He tells me to "think big." I ask him what I am even supposed to be thinking about and just he tells me to "think even bigger." My manager's greatest fear is that people don't think big enough. He has nightmares about it. He screams out in the middle of the night so loudly that his wife eventually leaves him.
The hours are long. Many of my colleagues do not make it. They burn out, lose their minds. When one disappears, they are quickly replaced by another. Each time a new employee sits beside me, I tell them we should get drinks. This is just a pleasantry. Most people aren't around long enough to get drinks.
"Only the strongest and the smartest stay with us," my manager says, like those who leave the Company are dead.
Over time, things become easier. No, they become clearer. When we make decisions, we think about the Customer first. We are the Company, and we will be the world's most customer-centric company. This apparently means becoming the biggest store with the cheapest prices and the fastest shipping options. I have no idea who the Customer is, only what he wants.
I ask for the day off to attend my father's funeral. My manager asks me if this is good for the Customer. He is right. My father is dead and the Customer is still alive and I have a responsibility to him.
We keep working long hours. We will become the store that sells everything, the most of everything. We work and we work until this happens.
The Company sells millions of products, ships them worldwide, and swiftly crushes all of our competition by undercutting them in price. We are beloved, but more importantly, we are making meaningful change in the world.
"What is the most valuable product?" my manager asks. He looks around the room. People have varying answers. Luxury goods, services, comfort, safety—these are all smart ideas, but they are too small. What would be the Company's next endeavor?
I know the answer. It's information.
"That's exactly right: information, data, knowledge. " My manager presses further. "And what is the largest source of information?"
This time, everyone in the room knows the answer. It is the internet.
That is how the Company gets into the business of the web. If the cloud was a lazy metaphor, then we would own the sky. The Company builds massive server farms—more massive than anyone has ever seen (not that I've ever seen them). We have the capacity to hold all of the information on the internet.
It seems ambitious at the start, but it doesn't take long until the huge portions of the internet are hosted on our servers. Like our store, the Company's servers are bigger and faster and cheaper than anyone else's. These are the only things the Customer cares about.
I am promoted, which means I get a new manager. Every time he walks by my desk he punches me in the chest and tells me to think big. He has no face—just eyes and a mouth, both capable of screaming:
"IMAGINE IF WE CANNOT BE STOPPED. IMAGINE IF NOTHING STANDS IN OUR WAY."
Don't sway the market. Become it. Don't disrupt the internet. Control it.
All products—physical or digital, goods or services—are all sold by the Company. The internet is entirely hosted on the Company's servers. We had conquered our competition. We take pride in pushing ourselves to innovate, not for ourselves, but for the Customer. We are selfless.
My manager approaches me again. He is shrieking so loudly I cannot make out the words.
I tell him I have a new idea.
We are a part of people's lives everywhere except the home. Only the Company could build a better living experience for the Customer. Homes could be connected to the Company's systems. Never again would the Customer have to worry about buying toilet paper or doing dishes or folding laundry or cleaning anything; meals would be prepared and delivered; utilities would be taken care of; all forms of entertainment could be supplied right to the Customer's living room. Everything would be integrated. Home life would become better, effortless.
At scale, it can be bigger and cheaper. Besides, if everyone already works for the Company, then they should live at the Company. No one ever has to go home.This was the final step.
Bewitched by this idea, my manager goes into a frenzy. He pushes the concept up the chain, and it is put into action immediately. The Company begins buying blocks of the city at a time. At first, it's just employees of the Company that live there. But soon, people begin working at the Company just so they can rent our units. This is the virtuous cycle.
Don't inhabit the home. Consume it.
The Company's housing project is a massive success. Nearly every human is living in a home owned by the Company.
The Founder comes to personally congratulate us on our accomplishments. I've never seen him in person before. He is smaller, frailer than I had imagined. But his skull is on fire. When he speaks, flames spew from his lips. The room is drawn to him.
"We invent things here at the Company, all with the goal of making people's lives better," he says. "We are not like other places. We don't care about money. Our only bottom line is the satisfaction of the Customer."
The room erupts in the most powerful applause I've ever heard. People holler and whistle. I see someone toward the front crying.
"People may criticize us," says the Founder. "But those who criticize do not make anything. They only condemn the people who can. These critics are just bitter and jealous of the talent you all possess."
More applause. More people start crying.
"There are some inventions that are greater than others. But has mankind ever invented something bad? Not at least worth exploring?" People are nodding in agreement. The Founder challenges us to name one innovation that has not been worthwhile.
I am not sure what compels me to speak up, but I do.
The room goes silent. I am surprised anyone had heard me, but now all eyes are trained on me.
"Excuse me?" says the Founder. "What did you say?"
"Garbage is a bad invention. There is nothing good about garbage." Nervously I continue. "Waste is a human creation."
I am anxious now. I wish I hadn't said anything. I should've kept my mouth shut. The Founder looks right at me, scanning me with a curious expression.
"That is very clever," he finally says. "I like that notion very much. Let's give it up for this man."
He points at me and begins to clap. The rest of the room joins him. The applause is rapturous.
When I arrive the next morning, my boss is waiting at my desk. His eyes are on fire. I ask him if he's done something new with his eyes and he says "YES THEY ARE ON FIRE NOW" and thanks me for noticing. Then he tells me he has bad news.
On my desk is a manila envelope. I know what it was before I even open it. It is a Performance Improvement Plan—colloquially called a PIP. It outlines the things I need to do to keep my job. My manager explains:
"YOU'VE BEEN SLIPPING YOU'VE BEEN SLIPPING YOU'VE BEEN SLIPPING."
I ask for specifics, but my manager can't hear me over his own screaming.
The PIP lists demands that seem impossible. I think about the hours I would need to put in to achieve these goals—more hours than there are in a day. But I would do them. What other choice did I have? I'd never seen a coworker survive a PIP before. But I wasn't like my colleagues. I had made it this far.
I just work through the night and into the next day. I keep at it for weeks, then months, until finally I collapse.
Several hours later, I wake up at the hospital. The doctor informs me that I had a heart attack. He asks how I'm feeling. I tell him my heart has become so full of love for the Company that it has exploded. The doctor explains that that is not how heart attacks work.
By the doctor's orders, I take a week off, and I return the following one. I am greeted by my manager, who says he is happy to see me. He asks if I'm ready to get back to work. I tell him that I have never been more excited.
I have another heart attack. I am forced to take more time off. The Company says they will call when they need me again. I wait days. I wait weeks. I check in, but no one ever calls me back. The paychecks stop coming.
I am not sure to do with myself, so I fill my empty days reading. I just know that if I can come up with the next great idea—if I can just think big enough—they will let me back into the Company.
I come across the story of a town built by the Ford Motor Company in the late 1920s, placed in the middle of a rainforest to source rubber for automobile tires. The town was named Fordlandia, and like a town, it had all the amenities for a community. Ford built houses for all the employees, restaurants, stores. Eventually there would be churches and schools. The idea was that one's place of work could also be their home. You could live a healthy, fulfilling life within the confines of Fordlandia.
This was Henry Ford's vision. Even though Fordlandia was located in Brazil, all of the accommodations were styled after American homes. All of the food represented traditional American fare: burgers, casseroles, macaroni and cheese. Ford wanted to transplant a midwestern factory town in the heart of the jungle; he wanted to tame his workers, to domesticate them with a strong American tradition.
The colony was immediately a disaster, overrun with violence and vice. Workers revolted, and eventually, Fordlandia was shut down. No matter how much money Henry Ford attempted to pour into the settlement, his utopia never produced a single ounce of rubber that would make it into a car tire.
The ruins of Fordlandia can still be found in the heart of the Amazon.
The campus of the Company has sprawled the lengths of the city. I hadn't noticed when it had happened, but it is obvious to me now that I am on the outside of it. The Company's skyscrapers suffocate the sky, the high-pitched howl of delivery drones echo from every corner.
The only way to afford a living is to have a job. The only jobs left are with the Company. There are few places left that weren't owned by the Company. I have nowhere to go. I move along circles on the outside, drifting past other lost people. I recognize many of them as my fallen colleagues of years past. We give each other a nod of recognition. We share that drink that I'd offered years earlier.
The only food we can scavenge are the leftovers of the Company, the only shelter in the forgotten nooks and alleys where the Company cannot be bothered to look. How could there be so many people forgotten? Who did the Company serve if not me? Who was the Customer, if not me?
I begin to scream. I catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection of a skyscraper. My skull is ablaze.
When will I be the Customer?
WHEN WILL I BE THE CUSTOMER?
This dispatch is part of Terraform, our home for future fiction.