Is Amazon “Making History”?

Last week I visited the Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles for the first time. One of my favorite pieces was Andreas Gursky’s, “Amazon” (pictured below).

Amazon by Andreas Gursky

As a museum guide explained it, the work is a (lightly) digitally-edited photo of an Amazon.com warehouse. The ocean of consumer goods portrayed is, in itself, pretty compelling. However, what I found especially interesting about the piece was the compound slogan printed on the pillars in the background of the image. It may be hard to make out in this small version, but the left pillar says, “Work hard,” the middle pillar, “Have fun,” and the right pillar, “Make history”.

Assuming that the slogan was an actual feature of the warehouse and not an element added by Gursky, it is obviously intended to motivate the people who work in the warehouse. Amazon management hopes that hard work will be spurred both by fun and by the idea that workers are part of something “history-making,” bigger than themselves, important.

Even if the slogan was edited into Gursky’s image after the fact (which I don’t think it was), I have often heard people say that companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook are “making history” in some sense. For example, by day I work as an environmental engineering consultant. Lo many years ago I went to school in Silicon Valley, and I recently heard that one of my former professors laments how many of his graduate students do not end up applying their skills in service of the environment, but rather end up joining local internet companies. Higher pay is definitely part of the reason they do this, but another part is the sense that in joining such companies they will be involved in something of historical proportion.

But are companies like Amazon really “making history”? Of course, insofar as they are part of a larger movement that is remaking the way we buy and sell things and communicate with one another, companies like Amazon are making history in a pretty straightforward way. When historians explain events in the past they often appeal to socio-economic forces and patterns like the industrial revolution or the use of telephones, and Amazon’s work clearly seems to fit in this category. Amazon is a player in the larger history-making “digital revolution.”

However, this sense of “history-making” doesn’t quite capture the idea of Amazon’s slogan. The slogan seems to convey something at once more positive and self-congratulatory than the mere idea that Amazon is part of the grand sweep of socio-economic change. The Great Depression or the financial crisis of 2007/2008 were both part of the grand sweep of socio-economic change, but they weren’t the kind of events that inspire people to join their cause. Rather, they (or their effects) were to be resisted. The idea of Amazon’s slogan is that the company itself is bringing about profound positive change in our socio-economic activity that ought to inspire people to jump on board and work hard.

Is that true? That version of the claim seems more wobbly to me. First, it doesn’t seem obvious that the change Amazon is bringing is unequivocally positive. I’ll be the first to say that I find Amazon helpful. I order products from Amazon regularly because it is a comparatively convenient and cheap way to get things I need.

But, I also worry (as do many others) that the rise of Amazon and other internet companies has concentrated a lot of money and power among a very few people. On its face, this inequality seems unjust to me. Additionally, I worry about side-effects of the digital revolution, of which Amazon is a part. For example, it seems to have inspired a new and debilitating kind of addiction, it seems to be affecting our attention spans for the worse, and the work culture at places like Amazon has been famously brutal. So, the sense in which internet companies are “making history” seems far from unequivocally positive, not unlike the industrial revolution which made use of child labor and inordinately long work-days.

Perhaps a deeper critique of the claim that Amazon is “making history” is the thought that the change an individual company like Amazon is effecting is not really very profound either. Amazon is, of course, primarily a retailer of consumer products: but, there is nothing very revolutionary about toothbrushes and toilet paper—or movies, television, and music, for that matter, which existed long before Amazon began streaming them.

Perhaps the “profundity” is in the way Amazon sells these things, namely via online orders and mail delivery? Again, this idea doesn’t seem terribly profound to me. In fact it seems like a fairly old idea with a small tweak. Consider the original model of the Sears and Roebuck Company. In 1886 it started as a mail-order catalog company. People looked up what they wanted in the catalog, sent in their order by mail, and received the item weeks later. Sound familiar? Amazon has tweaked this model by enhancing the catalog, putting it online, and taking advantage of quick modern shipping, but essentially it is the same model. You might say Amazon is Sears and Roebuck on steroids. (Ironically, Amazon is now putting retail companies like Sears—which shifted to a department-store model starting in the 1920s and 30s—out of business.)

Perhaps the scale of Amazon’s business is what makes it profound and therefore history-making? It is, of course, a huge global retailer. But, again, Amazon’s sheer size does not seem to me a feature that necessarily makes it a “history maker.” Lots and lots of mundane activity does not necessarily add up to something profound. Indeed, you might just as easily characterize such activity as very, very mundane. It seems to me Amazon should be doing something more important, more revolutionary for it to qualify as “making history.” Just being big and influential doesn’t entail that one has made history.

As I hinted above, I think the main way Amazon has changed things for most of us is that it has made our pedestrian consumption somewhat more convenient and inexpensive. If that seems like a profound historical change, it is only a troubling testament to the ruthless grip of consumerism in contemporary global culture.

What do you think?

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