Ubiquitous, yet remote. Disruptive, yet family friendly. A technologist's dream, yet dedicated to “working back from the customer.” Among writers on my newsfeed, First Things deputy editor Matthew Schmitz was the lone respondent to the recent New York Times article reporting on current and former Amazon employees who alleged extreme working hours, hostility by superiors to family and sick leave, and an office culture of intense confrontation and anonymous sniping. It made for good copy and the unique e-commerce giant is always worth another look.
Employees and ex-employees, of which I am neither, will have an opportunity to share more details on what it's really like inside Amazon. Some of the Times's details are stale, covered in Brad Stone's The Everything Store. From the company's founding, CEO Jeff Bezos applied lessons from idiosyncratic hedge fund D. E. Shaw to his plan to build something truly different at Amazon.
Perhaps the most under-appreciated difference is Amazon's remarkable commitment to serving families.The scarcest resource for any growing family is time, and in 2010, Bezos introduced Amazon Mom (Amazon Family outside the USA), a popular complimentary version of the company's two-day delivery membership offered to expectant and new parents. Shortly thereafter, Amazon acquired Quidsi Inc., parent of Diapers.com, for $550 million. The company's Kindle devices have powerful parental controls to restrict or limit children's access to media. A series of recent projects explores new ways to serve families including the Dash pantry reordering system; AmazonFresh for groceries; Prime Now one-hour delivery; and Amazon Echo, a voice activated virtual assistant for the home.
Whither communities in the path of this technological disruption? Pope Francis calls us to put technology “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (Laudato Si, available on Amazon). The company's third party seller marketplace gives family and small businesses a reliable logistics network and distribution channel for their products with access to 244 million customers, helping them moderate the ups and downs of their local customers. Industry leading Amazon Web Services puts world class scalable storage and computing power at the fingertips of any organization—big or small (including firstthings.com). With tedious errands made convenient, families can afford to waste time on more pleasant social inconveniences, like the drop-off site my wife coordinates for our local farm co-op. Why do we have Community Sponsored Agriculture, but not Community Sponsored Ziploc Bags? Amazon handles our family's need for mass market products like aluminum foil and dishwasher detergent, while creating free time to build up other institutions that make our community more humane. A minute saved online can be spent lingering in our neighborhood, where the better businesses don't worry about online price competition, but focus on providing products and services that are unique and delightful for both the customer and seller.
Politicians and popes alike critique companies that put short term profits over the long term future of their employees and communities. Catholic social teaching dedicates many pages to Labor and Capital. Where do customers fit in? How should Christians understand a company once described by Slate's Matthew Yglesias as “a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers”? What new insights should we draw from the company's remarkable response to Mr. Yglesias? (His remark was featured in Amazon's Annual Letter to Shareholders!) How do we assess the billions reinvested by Amazon today in new products, services, jobs, and facilities without an ironclad assurance of a return to investors tomorrow? What vocations lessons do we receive from an organization that draws the attention of thousands of talented young students and professionals without many of the perks offered by peer technology companies, but with the promise of long hours sacrificed to challenging projects? How can Christian churches use the tools, products, and services offered by Amazon in equally excellent and creative ways to bring others to Christ?
I look forward to reading thoughtful reflections on these questions in First Things on my Amazon Kindle app.
Stephen Schmalhofer writes from New York City.