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Tech by VICE

Online Shopping Hides Black Friday’s Real Violence

Hidden supply chains, hidden labour, and hidden violence.

by Jordan Pearson
Nov 27 2015, 3:30pm

Luwowo Coltan mine near Rubaya, North Kivu. Image: Flickr/MONUSCO

After the annual Black Friday tradition of packing your Amazon cart full of gadgets and hitting "checkout" is complete, you can be sure that another, equally ingrained tradition is close behind: the annual shaming of Black Friday shoppers, out there in meatspace, busting their chops over a cheap TV.

It's a curious contradiction, isn't it? Sites that happily update their audience about the hottest online deals in the lead-up to Black Friday aren't above posting WorldStar-esque fight videos that started over Black Friday deals. Functionally, there is no difference between participating in Black Friday from behind a screen or in an overrun mall, of course. But on the level of appearance and affect, the two methods of participation in the same activity are sharply divided: the former maintains a veneer of sanitized civility, while the latter is derided as "barbaric."

To be sure, Black Friday is sometimes a violent and even deadly affair when experienced in stores. The numerous tales of people being trampled to death or straight up murdering each other are unsettling. But is shopping online really any better? No. Rather, online shopping merely obfuscates the substrate of violence and coercion underlying Black Friday, and the people who still shop in physical space are a convenient—not to mention classist and racist—scapegoat.

Image: Flickr/Powhusku

What online shopping entails, in no uncertain terms, is hidden supply chains, hidden labour, and hidden violence. We know all too well the coercion and exploitation involved in mining the minerals that go into most electronics, not to mention assembling them. Even if we ignore all that, though, online shopping platforms obscure their own sordid reality. In stark contrast to the ease and convenience of shopping on the site, working in Amazon's offices seems like absolute hell. In its warehouses, its blue collar workforce reports being mistreated in different, but equally serious, ways.

In a classic bit of orthodox wisdom, Karl Marx wrote that commodities, presented on store shelves without context save for the goods next to them and the price attached to them, hide the social reality of human labour that went into them. Online, the sanitizing effect of the digitized commodity is even more efficient and total. In a mall, with fists flying, at least a hint of the essential violence of the whole thing is felt.

Fluidity, liquidity, immediacy, and, yes, the sanitized efficiency of high technology, all reflect the logic of late capitalism. These values, manifest in Amazon, both reinforce the core mechanisms of consumption while at the same time making them appear somehow different from the old, brick and mortar ways—somehow better.

An Amazon warehouse. Image: Flickr/Scott Lewis

Moreover, the ensuing vitriol and mockery directed at the poor saps clambering for goods in physical space (while participating in the exact same event online) is nothing less than racist and classist scapegoating that absolves us of a structural critique of Black Friday.

First, let us acknowledge that the actual demographics of Black Friday are somewhat unclear. There's not much conclusive information out there, but there is lots to suggest that the people in the malls are less well off than those who forego the madness. The stores that open their doors on Thanksgiving evening to start the sales instead of waiting for Friday are mostly of the mid-range and discount variety, for example.

A 2012 Gallup poll suggested that the majority of shoppers braving the malls fall largely in a middle range of income, but people who earned less than $30,000 per year were planning on shopping more than people in the highest income bracket. The Gallup poll also suggested that Black Friday shoppers are non-white by a large margin. Another study that used 2014 numbers came to the same conclusion.

In short, most Black Friday shoppers appear to be either economically average or below-average non-white people. Black Friday shoppers are thus largely the racialized poor clambering for material goods that they are often denied. The impulse to call these people "savages," a term loaded with harmful racist implications, or other dehumanizing terms is extremely problematic here. The class dimensions of this sort of labelling are obvious.

Image: Flickr/Matt Wakeman

So, what's wrong with the people who shop in-store? Why do we revile them? It's obvious that the violence of some Black Friday events is likely to be a turn-off for just about anyone, but I think there is another reason. These people have overplayed their hands as consumers; they're too bought in. There's none of the distance that online shopping provides.

Really, the amount of violence inflicted at the point of sale on Black Friday is infinitesimal compared to the violence doled out every step of the way, from South American gold mine, to Foxconn factory floor, to warehouse, to… Well, Walmart's shelves or your doorstep. The suffering spared by choosing one direction or the other at that final fork in the supply chain is minuscule when taken in aggregate.

To crack jokes about Black Friday shoppers in physical space, then, is to maintain some sort of cynical distance from the very activity that we nonetheless participate in when we shop online; it is to gift ourselves with the ability to carry on without having to think too much about the situation in whole. After all, we're not like them.