Work places

Amazon warehouse workers, Peterboro UK
Amazon warehouse workers, Peterboro UK

Constructions of the workplace vary, but one thing that is critical is the “moral” component that people often take for granted. The open floor plan, dominant during the twentieth and even twenty-first century lends itself well to surveillance. By itself, this isn’t new, but the sheer scale of it is becoming more and more mind-boggling. William S. Burroughs once quipped that the US was a “nation of finks” and I suspect he was essentially correct.

But there is more to it than that. Let’s not forget “shame” as a motivator. A recent story on the BBC repeats a Bloomberg report that Amazon is going to extremes of shaming to reduce shrinkage. The gist of it is that they are posting videos of employees caught stealing on large screen tvs, with faces blurred, as a warning for potential criminals.

“Lost stock is a massive issue affecting all retailers regardless of whether they are online or store-based,” commented Bryan Roberts from the shopping consultancy TCC Global.

“There are lots of measures in place, such as searches to make sure that stuff doesn’t go missing. But this perhaps does sound slightly extreme.”

Another expert was more critical, saying Amazon’s practices appeared to be “profoundly emotionally unintelligent”.

“What sort of an organisation has got to the point that it thinks this is a satisfactory or commendable way to be behaving?” asked Matthew Gwyther, editor of Management Today.

“It reminds me of Ben Hur with them standing over the rowers with a whip.

“I find it extraordinary that its relationships with its workforce have reached such a low point that it would do something like that.”

I find it interesting that in the U.K., where public surveillance operates more openly and is more accepted than perhaps anywhere in the globe, workplace shaming is a bridge too far. In America, the reporting doesn’t quite take the same moral tone:

Former managers in Amazon’s loss-prevention department say the use of theft stories was widespread during their tenure. Amazon didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.

Many of the workers say the screens aren’t a top concern compared with wages or workload. “Only people that would have something to say about it is people that’s doing wrong,” says Maurice Jones, a warehouse worker who left Amazon in February. “It’s just letting people know that you’re being watched.”

Yet the tales of theft and punishment are hard for workers to ignore—like a car crash, Jones says. “It could be one lane that’s blocked, but all the traffic slows down because everyone wants to look at it,” he says. “Like, ‘Who was stupid this time?’ ”

For some of the workers, the practice carries a whiff of prison. “That’s a weird way to go about scaring people,” says James McCracken, who, like Jones, used to work at Amazon’s warehouse in San Bernardino, Calif. “I think that’s offensive.”

. . .

Antitheft tactics have advanced with technology, Murphy says. In the 1980s retailers tried embedding subliminal messages in the music played in their stores to deter customers from stealing. Today, break-room warning posters and anonymous hotlines are commonplace. “The types of methods used by warehouses and fulfillment centers are only limited by your imagination,” Murphy says, “and whatever the law allows.”

Ground zero, perhaps, for this is the creation of large-scale high rise workplaces in the middle of the twentieth century. Billy Wilder’s The Apartment establishes its setting there. It’s issue isn’t workplace theft, but immorality of a different sort.

In order to achieve the sort of scale he was looking for, Wilder constructed a set that shrank the further back it went to exaggerate the receding horizon. The script details how the elevators and shifts were timed, to allow all 31,259 people to enter and leave the building without encountering bottlenecks in the elevators. Technology, while not featured in the story, provides a backdrop which situates things. The behavior of the worker drones is fiercely regulated in ten minute intervals, while the upper echelon receives the ultimate reward: the private office with more flexible scheduling.

In exchange for a promotion, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) allows the executives access to his apartment to conduct sexual affairs, often with the female staff of the corporation. Everyone, ultimately, is trying to negotiate their way free from surveillance and achieve privacy. Baxter respects that, and never asks for details regarding who or what is introduced into his home, now an extension of the workplace.

larkin-soap-companyThe scale of workplaces, even in the mid twentieth century, was massive. Watching Ken Burns’s documentary from 1998 on Frank Lloyd Wright, not long after watching The Apartment, I was struck by similarity in the office spaces betwen Wilder’s imagined space, and Wright’s Larkin office building:

inside-larking-adminThe primary difference between Wright’s office and a New York high rise is the lack of a low ceiling, which transforms this office into a different sort of moral space—a church. In an interesting Orwellian twist, Wright’s office also features slogans to motivate the workers:

Workplaces were, and are, moral spaces. The morality is dictated, both by design and by the desires of management. The cathedral atmosphere is disquieting, especially when you try to figure out just what god they honor.