Reading: Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front
Sermon: Inefficiently Yours
Every day this week, I had at least one package on my front porch when I got home.
Every day. At least one. Not all of them were from Amazon, but most.
My partner and I decided to get a bunch of small things to get more organized – new shelves, towel rack, that sort of thing.
We didn’t have a lot of money, so getting good deals mattered. We love free shipping.
Plus, with two middle schoolers, a clumsy dog, and both of us working in demanding jobs – we don’t have a lot of extra time, either.
A few clicks, a careful read of the small print and the dimensions, a few more clicks – done. Packages on their way.
It was perfect, and felt like freedom, even for a few fleeting moments.
All of this clicking was especially ironic this week because – in addition to my low-grade always-awareness of the negative impact of Amazon has on local economies, small businesses, the environment – over the past couple of weeks, in preparation for today’s service, I have been paying closer attention to the conditions for Amazon employees.
Specifically the conditions for the people who responded to my clicks by finding my item. Packing it up with other boxes in a bigger box. Placing the blow up supposedly recyclable plastic things in the empty places to keep things in place, and then shipping it directly to me in two days or less.
“Soul sucking” more than one employee called it. “Soul Sucking.”
Usually when I hear someone say “soul sucking” I assume they’re being hyperbolic. But in this case, I’ve started to think it might be accurate. That Amazon is literally sucking our souls.
To start, the work is physically demanding – 12 hour shifts where you end up walking 15-20 miles with lots of squatting, and reaching, and lifting. You can get used to this, and it’s not entirely new or unique for blue collar work.
What’s new and uniquely soul-sucking at Amazon comes down to what they call their “efficiency standards.” They ways they have centered success entirely around efficiency. Equiated efficiency with BEST.
Each employee is given a scan gun for every component of their job, which allows everything they do to be monitored, and timed, and also to alert a manager if there’s too many minutes where they are “off-task.”
Generally, you are allowed 18 minutes off task per shift.
This year, Amazon will likely employ 300,000 people, most of those working in the warehouses.
Many of us are familiar with our economy’s crisis of income inequality – As a recent NPR report confirmed:“the gap between the richest and the poorest US households is the largest it’s been in the past 50 years” –
When I first started thinking about the Amazon warehouse, my first question was: why don’t they just use machines? If they really want a hyper-efficient work enviornment – why don’t they just use robots?
After all, humans are inherently inefficient. For example, humans have bodies. And bodies require bothersome things like using the bathroom, eating, sleeping – all incredibly inefficient. And, humans are wired for conversation, connection, emotions, relationship – all, inefficient.
One Amazon employee theorized that their assignments were especially designed to ensure they crossed paths with as few other humans as possible.
Loneliness and isolation are some of the biggest complaints from workers today. Not just at Amazon. The younger you are, studies show, the lonelier you are – nearly 8 in 10 Gen Zers (age 18-23) and 7 in 10 millennials report being lonely; only half of boomers. (The study I read says nothing about Gen Xers, those of us in the middle of our working lives….which is, typical.)
Humans are not wired for loneliness – it turns out to have the equivalent health impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
And even more obviously, humans are not readily oriented towards highly inflexible, repetitive tasks over long periods of time, which is the epitome of efficiency.
But machines have none of these issues. Machines are not hard wired for connection, or relationship. Machines don’t get lonely. And they are good at inflexible repetitive tasks. That’s the point of machines.
So, why doesn’t Amazon just use machines?
As AI technology and robotics engineering continues to develop, I’m guessing, they will someday. Which will be another sort of crisis for all those 300,000 workers, when it happens.
But for now, what I learned was – humans have a few particular advantages over machines that make them preferable to Amazon and other efficiency-driven work environments.
Two things: fine motor control, and subjectivity. Machines aren’t yet as good as humans at the fine motor skills, and at least for the foreseeable future, humans are better at inference, nuance, subtlety and gut-feelings than machines. As anyone who has ever tried to ask Siri or Alexa anything but the most straightforward question would attest.
All this means that work environments – and increasingly our whole culture – expect us to perform like our machines in all areas except the couple where we are better. Our work, and increasingly our entire culture expect us to conflate efficiency with ultimacy.
Which means we have created an economy, and increasingly a culture that requires us to suppress our humanity. Suppress your humanity, or lose our job. Suppress your humanity, or struggle to do life today.
Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay. Want more of everything ready-made….When they want you to buy something they will call you.
Check, check, check, check, check.
Now, as anyone who has ever worked fast food will tell you, there’s always been a push to get the most done with the least amount of time, money, or energy. Anyone who has ever worked anywhere in corporate America would probably say the same thing.
What’s new is just how efficient we believe we can be – technology has changed our expectations exponentially.
Which is not just because of Amazon – it’s also Netflix, and Hulu, and all the apps on my smart TV that I LOVE. It’s Grubhub and Instacart and King Soopers Pick Up (which also SAVES me regularly). It’s messaging apps and facetime and its spotify, Youtube, Stitch Fix, and maybe most of all it’s Google.
All of these technologies – these amazing, salvific, liberating technologies – have taught us that whatever it is we need, we can get it now.
Without much effort – just click!
My son recently found this sweatshirt that he was so excited about, he had the money to pay for it, but then it said it would be delivered in three weeks. He was like: nope.
Three weeks. There was literally no reason for him to need it sooner.
I tried to explain to him about the Sears catalogue and about the little forms we had to fill out, number by number, and then we had to mail them in, and wait, and wait….but he’d already moved on.
If something’s going to take more than a couple steps, today – and if each of those steps aren’t guaranteed to lead us to a successful end, my son is not alone we often decide, it’s just not worth it. (Which I’ve come to believe is the business model for health insurance companies. How many people find the process to submit for reimbursement so confusing and time consuming, you just give up?! It can’t just be me…)
Our technologies have taught us that life can be, should be instant. Seamless. Effortless. Continuously available and responsive to our every impulse.
These expectations for life in turn become what we expect from each other – instant. Seamless. Effortless. Continuously available and responsive….and we come to expect this from ourselves too – that we will be continuously available and responsive…
It’s why Mark Baker encourages us to think not only about how we might influence Amazon, but even more, how Amazon is influencing US.
“Efficiency is our existential purpose;” This is a quote from Malcom Harris; he’s talking specifically about millennials and the ways the generation born between 1981 and 1996 has been “optimized” for efficiency their whole lives. “Efficiency is our existential purpose; and we are crafted to be lean, mean production machines.” He says, it’s especially true for millennials and Gen Zers; but it applies to so much of our culture today. Efficient has become a synonym for “best.”
And of course, sometimes efficiency is best. In the middle of an emergency, we hope first responders love efficiency. That they are OBSESSED with it.
Efficiency is also a necessary antidote to bureaucracy. When we set up the Emergency Immigration Fund a couple years ago, we made sure that our system for getting the money to someone in crisis – was as efficient as possible. One call, one day, check in hand.
And in case my confession at the top didn’t make it clear – as writer and activist Courtney Martin says, “efficiency is a survival mechanism” for many of us.
“I simply couldn’t care for my children and make a living and nurture friendships and contribute to a community in the way that I want to unless I was extremely judicious with my time and energy.”
When I read that I’m like: yes. I bet she orders from King Soopers pick up too.
Growing up, my sisters and I were expected to help bring in the groceries when my mom got home. Sometimes we’d try to carry lots of bags all at once; they were paper bags, so we’d have to rush to the house before the bags broke.
My dad would chastise us, saying, don’t take the lazy man’s load. And we’d sigh and put a few down, and make more trips.
But later, we started to resist his advice with a quick retort:
“It’s not a lazy man’s load, dad; it’s an efficient woman’s load.”
Efficiency can be a way to survive, it can feel like freedom, even if fleeting.
And besides, inefficiency is often a luxury, made possible by having enough resources to create margin in your life, time to dawdle, or even loiter as in that great essay from Ross Gay we read back in December.
If you can pay someone to clean your house, prepare your meals, tend to your lawn – you can be quite inefficient in all other things and still manage to accomplish the basics requirements of being a grown up today.
Inefficiency is a luxury, and at the same time, poverty is a recipe for inefficiency. Without reliable transportation, employment, housing – and all the stuff that comes in a house – a washer and dryer, a shower, a place to put all of your things for easy access – inefficiency is destiny.
It’s one of the traps of poverty, that everything that is obvious, easy and seamless to middle class folks becomes maddeningly time-consuming and demoralizing when those basics aren’t reliable.
Which makes acquiring those basics a colossal feat.
It helps to explain why, when you talk to low wage workers today, you mostly hear resignation about those soul-sucking conditions; and gratitude, for a steady job.
Anyone remember the book The Jungle from high school English? Upton Sinclair’s 1906 expose on the meat-packing industry was a part of a journalistic reform movement known as the Muckrakers.
For about a decade at the turn of the century, the Muckrakers investigative reporting led to one systemic change after another – from safety conditions for coal miners to child labor laws to election fairness and anti-corruption measures – and yes, reforms for the meat-packing industry.
I was thinking about The Jungle this week, and the muckrakers, because sometimes we forget that there is nothing inevitable or mandatory about the world we live in.
Our economy, our society, our culture – this crisis of human dignity we find ourselves in – there is nothing inevitable or mandatory about any of this.
Despite a pervasive popular pull towards efficiency as our “existential” purpose today, our faith reminds us that we hold both the agency, and the responsibility to create a world that amplifies and celebrates our humanness – our true existential purpose which our faith names as our utterly inefficient interdependent humanness – we hold both the agency and the responsibility that celebrates our humanness, rather than suppresses it.
For example, I’ve been thinking that the most counter-cultural value we could promote today might be patience. Patience that is not to be confused with complacency, but rather, patience connected to an unwavering commitment to the long-haul faith we explored a couple Sundays ago.
To create a world that amplifies and celebrates our humanness would require that we practice and prize a faithful patience, that we become experts in patience, model it, and teach it, declare it our good news for a world overly focused on instant success and frictionless ease.
Over the past few weeks, in this series about the future, I keep imagining all the people from the past who worked for a future they did not live to see. People like James Reeb that we heard about last week. Or even Roy Jones whose sermon we heard a couple weeks ago.
All those whose dreams we inherit. Our grandparents, great-grandparents. Our ancestors – familial, spiritual.
This year marks the 100 anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, so I’ve been especially tuned in to the stories of the suffragettes, women who worked to get the vote. I imagine they must’ve taken so much ridicule, including from their own husbands. They probably had so many reasons to stop turning up at the White House, for march, stop writing letters, stop speaking up.
They weren’t perfect, especially in terms of race and racism.
And still, their willingness to plant trees they would not live to harvest means that no one here today, has ever lived in a time when women could not vote.
The idea is as unimaginable to us as it is to my son to wait 3 weeks for a sweatshirt.
I wonder, what future will we invest in today so that 100 years from now, all those who gather together will take for granted its reality? And I wonder, how we will cultivate the patience required for such commitment?
Afterall, the future does not have to be faster, more automatic, more stimulating in the ways it’s been imagined in movies. The future could be slow. Manual. Even, boring. The future could also be connective, personal, playful, real.
Every day, we get to decide, in the smallest moments, private moments – the future we will make.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Wendell Berry’s manifesto is brilliant, instructive for our crisis of human dignity – most of all the last line of the poem – two words that often feel like a shock when it is read; fitting for a poem that urges us to remain unpredictable and wild – he says:
In these days, let us remember that it is never too late to begin again; to create life anew; to forge an entirely new way. It is never too late to forge a future where all of humanity flourishes, freely, and together.