Technology and Its Discontents: Instant Gratification

Over the past few years, I have been doing more and more shopping online. I have long patronized Amazon for books, especially in the used marketplace, and I have recently had occasion to order non-book items from Amazon as well. Many of the clothes and shoes in my closet have been ordered online, and the lion’s share of the supplies I need for the Rock and Shell Club have been shipped to me from all over the country (and in one memorable, not to be repeated order, China). I appreciate the convenience of finding what I need online and having it delivered directly to me, as many of the items I need are not necessarily available locally; however, I am becoming increasingly concerned about what the Amazon model is doing to us culturally, behaviorally, and economically.

Around March 2012 I read an article in Mother Jones that pulled into focus something I had already started to hear a lot about: the backbreaking labor, low wages, and job insecurity that go into making our instant gratification economy possible. Reading about author Mac McClelland’s experience working in a warehouse subcontracted to Amazon made me seriously question the business model that allows consumers to get their goods within a few days of their order. More so, it made me scrutinize my own behavior, and I found myself asking why I expected to take delivery of my order in just a few days. The simple answer is that the Amazon model has created that expectation – order now, have it tomorrow if you’re willing to pay the price, and in just a few days or a week even if you’re not. Once you become accustomed to things arriving quickly, it creates the expectation that any delay in shipment is bad customer service – hence, Amazon becomes customer service king over your local bookstore or small online shop, which might take a few weeks to deliver the book you order.

To do business this way, Amazon must cut corners wherever possible, which is what leads to the labor conditions in their distribution centers. But consumers, being human, are out-of-sight, out-of-mind creatures, so no thought is given to what is required to make their near-instant gratification possible. That is the nature of business competition – the nature of capitalism. But what I find dismaying about this is not the near-instant gratification for items you may have trouble getting anywhere except online; now consumers are ordering things they could just as easily buy at the local store. This article, in which a man explains that he orders his 40-pound bags of dog food from Amazon because he doesn’t want to be bothered with carrying them through a store, to his car, and into his house, is a case in point. The convenience of home delivery makes it worth it to him to pay for Amazon’s Prime service. For a flat annual fee, delivery is free – delivery of anything Amazon sells, no matter the size or the weight. When I read the article, I felt sadness, contempt, anger, disgust – all those knee-jerk, visceral reactions to what amounts to sheer laziness on the part of this consumer… but is it really laziness, or is it economic hegemony? After all, why not maximize your own time and convenience if it only takes a few dollars a year to have household items delivered straight to your door?

And so we come to the crux of my rant. I think the Amazon model is bad for us. I think instant gratification is bad for us. I think Amazon, and the competition it has engendered, is destroying our ability to be patient, to be thoughtful, to be mindful of all the hidden economic exploitation that is required for us to get what we want NOW. I admit I’m not free of responsibility for my own part in this, but I am doing my part to react against it by finding any outlet other than online for getting the things I want and need. And, if I do make an online purchase, I try to buy directly from the source rather than from Amazon. When possible, I buy from small online businesses, and plan for the possibility that my order may take a week – or more! – to arrive. I re-read the Mother Jones article, and I hope for a time when the pendulum swings and the price of an item, including shipping, truly reflects the cost of doing business this way. And this is not just a monetary cost; it is a social and cultural cost, and it is helping to perpetuate the systematic inequality and labor exploitation that is inherent in the capitalist marketplace.

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