On fulfilment

I’m not sure that humankind throughout the course of its history has ever been able to provide an image of what the slippery notion of fulfilment actually looks like – until now, that is.

Capitalism is content now to create large warehouses and blithely describe them as fulfilment centres. Fulfilment for whom, though? Just Jeff Bezos amidst all his tabloid imbroglios, it would seem.

Fulfilment 1

Not, then, for the people who work in these places, generous study funding notwithstanding. (Staff are invited to graft at Amazon whilst preparing for their vocation, with the company offering financial support to the tune of 95% of the course fees and no golden handcuffs at all.)

The generosity of the study funding provides motivation, of course, but of the sort that resonates with the wider discourse of the entrepreneurial self. Fulfilment, then, comes from labouring to escape from the work that one is doing; the work merely represents a chore that needs to be endured.

The centre I visited recently in Peterborough had a footprint of seven football pitches – and, as this picture shows, climbs five or six storeys to the ceiling. I was part of one of the company’s guided tours, ably coaxed around the site by Tony who, in turn, was supported by two young women. They merely accompanied the party as we made our way around the centre, whilst Tony ran through his “game show” style patter.

It was sparsely staffed – and those who were working there were spread across the site, which denied them the opportunity to connect closely with those with whom they work. I had a job years back as an operating theatre porter. It was largely a mundane job, lifting and moving patients (whilst, interestingly, oftentimes striking up rich conversations with them as the accompanying member of the nursing staff opted not to engage with them at a human level).

Sitting at the bottom of the stack – with nurses above me and surgeons above them – and merely being a pair of strong arms (with no need for the brain to be engaged, as far as the hierarchy was concerned) meant that it would seem at face value that it would be impossible for anyone to gain fulfilment from this experience. Yet I worked very closely with five other men, facing this shared adversity and connecting not just in the workplace but in the pub and beyond. Those human links made that three year experience deeply fulfiling – because we worked in such close proximity and so came to know one another.

The Amazon fulfilment centre may, indeed, offer some camaraderie during planned breaks and such like. (We saw a shift making their way through the centre to go for their lunch, apparently.) But there will be little fulfilment from undertaking the work that you are asked to do there when you are working at a distance from another human being and at a pace that is algorithmically determined, by all accounts.

And what of that work? Marx spoke of the distance that we experience from the product of our labour when we are delivering those commodities through production lines, where the overall task is broken down into sub-tasks of the finest possible calibration; he spoke of this as alienation. The Amazon fulfilment centre carries all of the trappings of the Fordist production line – the interaction of people with instruments, the liaison of soft and hard machines; the externally defined pace of work, over which the worker has negligible influence – and overlays it with a sheen of Japanese improvement practice (the horizon, such as it was, interrupted by the presence of seemingly countless visual control boards) and a nod towards the supposedly modern workplace, with the existence of what was being promoted through badly produced corporate posters as a “fun area”, which seemed to broadly involve a pool table.

Interestingly, those working at Amazon are the organic components of a dehumanizing production line that does not in fact produce anything in any meaningful sense. It is a Taylorist mechanism for distribution, not production, and it is highly automated. More than that, it is managed not just scientifically but computationally; as Tony explained on the tour, Amazon is an IT company – and it applies those capacities to warehousing and distribution. The computer decides where things are stored in that cavernous depot, which – as we saw – means that, in one relatively small storage bay in an array of shelves, Tony was able to show us a laptop cover, a sack of alfalfa hay, and a packet of Lego. There is no logic there, in terms of human categorization. It is simply an allocation of produce into space on the basis of a computer programme.

Similarly, the pickers – those who gather the goods from the shelves so that they can be dispatched – are sent on routes defined by the computer, which has led to some suggesting that these peregrinations can take them past an item on their list two or three times before the computer finally allows them to pick and scan it. The scope for developing understanding of the system is limited because, for the pickers, the system is completely obscured – and the discretion to act as a human agent is denied. Computer says no, then no, and then no again…and finally says yes. The staff are mere instruments of lines of code.

Of course, Amazon did not for one moment call their distribution hubs fulfilment centres on the basis of the staff experience. As has been argued, a double-alienation can be seen to be at work, as people are subsumed into a traditional production line that does not even produce anything, other than post-ready parcels fit to be sent out. In the name of confidentiality, your Amazon packer will box your item – a book, a household item, a sex toy, a child’s game, a lock box, a large bottle of detergent – but not know the name of the consumer. Instead, the computer carries that information from point to point on the line, using bar codes…until a fancy bit of kit blows a sticky label with your name and address onto your package just before it makes its final descent to the doors and waiting lorries in order to be sent out to you.

To an extent, our modern consumer habits amplify this: so eager do we now appear to avoid direct contact in favour of impersonal connection through technology that retail outlets – like BingoBox convenience stores in China – are designing operations that are completely cashierless. People are expensive, after all, and technophiles adore having an app for it, even if the action involved is purchasing groceries or coffee.

All of which stands in sharp contrast with my experience when I first left school of working as a jewellery shop assistant for four years. There was satisfaction, for instance, in helping a customer to choose a watch – and to wrap it and pass it to them, with a strong sense that they would gain pleasure and utility from the item. It was a commercial exchange, of course, but one that had a rich human element. I wanted them to get what they wanted – and I wanted what they wanted to meet their expectations. On the Amazon line, the customer is visible only as an ensemble of a number of parallel lives on a label that the person sticks to the box.

Alongside the double-alienation sits the sense that agency has been stripped away and the people have truly become mere human components of a large-scale computerized industrial mechanism. And, lastly, those components certainly look to be held in isolation from one another, lest they find common cause and means of collective “pastiming” (or soldiering as F W Taylor liked to call it) in order to resist the ensemble in which they find themselves.

No, it’s not about employee fulfilment. Conceptually, it’s about our fulfilment as consumers, the instantaneous meeting of our desires (not our needs, not really even our wants) for commodities…which is a hollow thing, a long way from any genuinely human sense of fulfilment. And, for me, that was the most desperate and depressing thing about my visit to Amazon.

As consumers, we tend to be denied a comprehensive view of the system into which capitalism has developed. I recall my first visit to a US supermarket and marveling at the array of flavourless yellow “cheese” that filled the chiller shelves. Occasionally, in a store nowadays, I will look at the selection of brands for a particular item – such as canned vegetables, biscuits, or even something like ketchup – and feel astonished that such an absurd amount of broadly superficial “choice” exists. But walking along the floor to ceiling shelves of an Amazon fulfilment centre underscored for me very clearly how wasteful and out of control capitalism has become.

These fulfilment hubs suck in all the pointless commodities that capitalism is compelled to produce and sprays them out into the world. They are monuments to the wastefulness of our consumer society…and the way in which it ideologically generates desires for things that we had no inkling about and hence no true urge to possess. Paper plates, plastic toys, perfumed hand soaps, these were just some of the things I caught sight of stacked layer upon layer from floor to ceiling.

It spoke of a system out of control, producing for production’s sake, allowing people to lounge on their sofas and click to make items appear. So much stuff being made for the sake of monetary exchange not genuine utility. These products spew out of the fulfillment centres at the press of a button, momentarily landing in our outstretched hands until rapidly their gimcrack appeal evaporates, whereupon we toss them into landfill or into the oceans and return unthinkingly to our screen for another hit.

This is the Amazonian notion of fulfillment: not job satisfaction, not pleasure in production, not meaningfully addressing and meeting global human need, not making our world a better place (or, at the very least, not making it any worse). Just speedily facilitating our wasteful and redundant desires for new things. It is a facilitator for an economic system that is fully out of control, which has at its heart a conjoined motor of production and consumption that seemingly cannot be switched off.

This is fulfillment in name only; in reality, it is closer to enslavement for us all.




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