How Amazon Is Remaking Our World

A new book explores the ways that corporate giant Amazon is remaking our cities and towns – from overcrowded homes for low-income workers to the gentrification that accompanies its vast developments.

In May 2021, Amazon announced it was creating 10,000 new jobs in the UK by opening fulfilment centres in Hinckley, Dartford, Gateshead, and Swindon, as well as a parcel centre in Doncaster and corporate offices in London, Manchester, Edinburgh, and Cambridge. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, his speech ripe with Amazon terminology, welcomed the news as “prime investment in our retail sector.”

For Alec MacGillis, a reporter at ProPublica, and author of Fulfilment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, behind Amazon’s tale of frictionless transactions, are the towns and cities that the corporation has an outsized role in shaping. In designating some places worthy for engineers and software-developers, and others for precarious positions at warehouses, Amazon has “segmented its workforce into classes and spread them across the map.” Regional inequality and economic concentration, rather than being two singular yet separate trends, are intertwined – an intertwining encapsulated and intensified by Amazon.

In MacGillis’ telling, an emphasis on income inequality – Bernie Sanders’ talk of the ‘top 1 percent’ or Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘For the Many, Not The Few’ slogan – has eclipsed attention “on the landscape of inequality across the country.” The concentration of the economy into certain sectors and, in turn, certain companies, is connected to the concentration of wealth in certain areas. As the rich get richer, so too do the places they live – in this case, Seattle, Washington D.C., San Francisco.

The regional dimension of inequality has likewise eluded attention due to Amazon’s strategic cultivation of ‘placelessness’, a concept that contributes to the company’s invisibility. In 2014, Amazon sold $2 billion worth of goods in Illinois, and a further $1 billion in Missouri, without employing a single person in either state. Similarly, the Cloud is suggestive of an ethereality rather than a physical data centre, while Amazon employees carry “misleading business cards so that the company couldn’t be accused of operating in a given state and thus forced to pay taxes there.”

Such regional divergence renders “parts of the country incomprehensible to one another,” MacGillis writes, making it “difficult to settle on nationwide programs that could apply across such wildly disparate contexts.” With no fixed meanings, talk of a housing crisis can mean gentrification and astronomical rents in New York, or abandonment and decline in Ohio.

When choosing between three Ohio towns in which to build a data hub, the town of Dublin offers the incentive that Amazon would not be required to deal with unionised labor. When Amazon fixed on Arlington for its second headquarters, Jeff Bezos donated $3 million towards “affordable housing,” before stating: “As a citizen, I don’t want to turn over government functions to private entities.” As MacGillis observes, what is left unmentioned is that “government at all levels had become less able to carry out its functions as a result of the tax avoidance the company had perfected.”

The book is concerned not only with geographical, but also spatial detail. It opens in the basement of Hector Torrez, an Amazon warehouse worker forced to live underground so as not to infect his wife Laura, and her elderly mother, with Covid-19. In Seattle, there’s a cafe on Amazon’s headquarters that cooks food just for dogs, while in Ohio, Amazon builds three warehouses on the sites of former shopping malls.

In one section, MacGillis dutifully records the architectural plans for Bezos’ $13 million renovation of his Washington house – 191 doors, 1,006 light fixtures, five staircases. A rough calculation suggests it would take Bezos three weeks and four days to use each of the house’s twenty-five bathrooms. In a later chapter, we are told of a Kentucky Amazon call centre employee who alleged that when he requested a flexible bathroom-break schedule to accommodate his Crohn’s disease, he was accused of stealing time, and fired.

How to write about Amazon? Our relationship with the company has emerged in tandem with the repeated documentation of its reliance on exploited labour, tax avoidance, and plunderous extraction of tax subsidies from states. Some writing appears in the tradition of ‘stunt journalism,’ like Emily Guendelsberger’s On the Clock, or James Bloodworth’s Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, while others track the lives of itinerant seasonal labourers, like Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland.

One particularly interesting account is Seasonal Associate, by German writer and translator Heike Geissler. A finely-textured swirl of labour memoir and theory, the book draws upon the author’s stint at an Amazon warehouse in Leipzig. Like Fulfilment, the book’s intention is to make real the humans whose work is behind the ‘one-click.’ Narrated in the second person, her musings arrive as she slices cardboard boxes with her company issued cut-resistant gloves and fish knife: “You, in the midst of your coworkers […] are nothing but a placeholder for machines that have already been invented but aren’t yet profitable enough to permanently replace you and your workmates.”

She writes of forklifts that arrive without respite, dumping pallets of products – advent calendars filled with novelty tea bags featuring politician’s faces, glass bathtub ducks, stuffed animals named My Friend Conny and Mombel Wombel, a pre-distressed Iron Maiden baseball cap, Ken Follett books – and so on and so on. This cataloguing of merchandise – of products both generic and oddly specific – produces a dizzying effect on the reader.

On shift, Geissler writes, “you’re a tool gifted with a voice no one wants to hear.” Yet in Fulfilment, it’s the inverse: there are scant details about the particulars of work undertaken by Amazon’s tools, but an extensive cast of characters, whose voices we are introduced to throughout the narrative. If Geissler’s method is the minute depiction of her strained labour, then MacGillis’ is a purposefully meandering approach to reporting.

Although his reporter’s tone avoids indictment, MacGillis is deeply attuned to Amazon’s human cost. This sensibility is evident even in the book’s chapter structure, which mimics a working day, punctuating every three chapters with “breaks,” and ending on a brief chapter titled “Overtime.” Just as warehouse employees are required to forego their breaks in order to meet the demands of Amazon’s algorithmically automated performance tracking system (in Seasonal Associate, Geissler is entitled to a “half-hour break that includes the walk to the break area and the walk back to [the] workplace”) MacGillis similarly foregoes any pause in his story.

Both breaks take place in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and in short and devastating detail, describe the final hours of two of the company’s warehouse employees: the 2014 death of Jody Rhoads, pinned and crushed by a pallet loader; and the 2017 death of Devan Shoemaker, run over by a tractor trailer. Investigating Rhoads’ death, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration report began by describing the nature of the business where her death had occurred. “The company operates warehouses and fulfilment centres nationwide. The establishment is engaged in interstate commerce.”