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 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”? Continue reading