Sunday, August 16, 2015

Amazon and Laudato Si’


The Technocratic Paradigm:

What’s the problem?

Blogger: It turns everything into an object of control, presupposing and exhalting the centrality of the Unencumbered Self: Ye shall be as gods

105. There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means “an increase of ‘progress’ itself”, an advance in “security, usefulness, welfare and vigour; …an assimilation of new values into the stream of culture”,[83] as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such. The fact is that “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well”,[84] because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience. Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations. It is possible that we do not grasp the gravity of the challenges now before us. “The risk is growing day by day that man will not use his power as he should”; in effect, “power is never considered in terms of the responsibility of choice which is inherent in freedom” since its “only norms are taken from alleged necessity, from either utility or security”.[85] But human beings are not completely autonomous. Our freedom fades when it is handed over to the blind forces of the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence. In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.


106. The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed”.[86]
107. It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.
108. The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable. The technological paradigm has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic. It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same. Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all”.[87] As a result, “man seizes hold of the naked elements of both nature and human nature”.[88] Our capacity to make decisions, a more genuine freedom and the space for each one’s alternative creativity are diminished.
110. The specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult to see the larger picture. The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant. This very fact makes it hard to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today’s world, particularly those regarding the environment and the poor; these problems cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests. A science which would offer solutions to the great issues would necessarily have to take into account the data generated by other fields of knowledge, including philosophy and social ethics; but this is a difficult habit to acquire today. Nor are there genuine ethical horizons to which one can appeal. Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence. In the concrete situation confronting us, there are a number of symptoms which point to what is wrong, such as environmental degradation, anxiety, a loss of the purpose of life and of community living. Once more we see that “realities are more important than ideas”.[91]

The NYT publishes a negative article on Amazon  on precisely this point:

“Amazon’s Bruising, Thrilling Workplace” (NYT, Sunday August 16, 2015 –[front  page].

Bottom Line:  “Amazon is driven by data,” said Ms. Pearce, who now runs her own Seattle software company, which is well stocked with ex-Amazonians. “It will only change if the data says it must — when the entire way of hiring and working and firing stops making economic sense.”
”…. Many women at Amazon attribute its gender gap — unlike Facebook, Google or Walmart, it does not currently have a single woman on its top leadership team — to its competition-and-elimination system. Several former high-level female executives, and other women participating in a recent internal Amazon online discussion that was shared with The New York Times, said they believed that some of the leadership principles worked to their disadvantage. They said they could lose out in promotions because of intangible criteria like “earn trust” (principle No. 10) or the emphasis on disagreeing with colleagues. Being too forceful, they said, can be particularly hazardous for women in the workplace.
Motherhood can also be a liability. Michelle Williamson, a 41-year-old parent of three who helped build Amazon’s restaurant supply business, said her boss, Shahrul Ladue, had told her that raising children would most likely prevent her from success at a higher level because of the long hours required. Mr. Ladue, who confirmed her account, said that Ms. Williamson had been directly competing with younger colleagues with fewer commitments, so he suggested she find a less demanding job at Amazon. (Both he and Ms. Williamson left the company.)
He added that he usually worked 85 or more hours a week and rarely took a vacation.
Molly Jay, an early member of the Kindle team, said she received high ratings for years. But when she began traveling to care for her father, who was suffering from cancer, and cut back working on nights and weekends, her status changed. She was blocked from transferring to a less pressure-filled job, she said, and her boss told her she was “a problem.” As her father was dying, she took unpaid leave to care for him and never returned to Amazon.
“When you’re not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness,” she said.
A woman who had thyroid cancer was given a low performance rating after she returned from treatment. She says her manager explained that while she was out, her peers were accomplishing a great deal. Another employee who miscarried twins left for a business trip the day after she had surgery. “I’m sorry, the work is still going to need to get done,” she said her boss told her. “From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the right place for you.”
A woman who had breast cancer was told that she was put on a “performance improvement plan” — Amazon code for “you’re in danger of being fired” — because “difficulties” in her “personal life” had interfered with fulfilling her work goals. Their accounts echoed others from workers who had suffered health crises and felt they had also been judged harshly instead of being given time to recover.
A former human resources executive said she was required to put a woman who had recently returned after undergoing serious surgery, and another who had just had a stillborn child, on performance improvement plans, accounts that were corroborated by a co-worker still at Amazon. “What kind of company do we want to be?” the executive recalled asking her bosses.
The mother of the stillborn child soon left Amazon. “I had just experienced the most devastating event in my life,” the woman recalled via email, only to be told her performance would be monitored “to make sure my focus stayed on my job.”
 “The joke in the office was that when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last.”
Mr. Berman, the spokesman, said such responses to employees’ crises were “not our policy or practice.” He added, “If we were to become aware of anything like that, we would take swift action to correct it.” Amazon also made Ms. Harker, the top recruiter, available to describe the leadership team’s strong support over the last two years as her husband battled a rare cancer. “It took my breath away,” she said.
Several employment lawyers in the Seattle area said they got regular calls from Amazon workers complaining of unfair treatment, including those who said they had been pushed out for “not being sufficiently devoted to the company,” said Michael Subit. But that is not a basis for a suit by itself, he said. “Unfairness is not illegal,” echoed Sara Amies, another lawyer. Without clear evidence of discrimination, it is difficult to win a suit based on a negative evaluation, she said.
For all of the employees who are edged out, many others flee, exhausted or unwilling to further endure the hardships for the cause of delivering swim goggles and rolls of Scotch tape to customers just a little quicker.
Jason Merkoski, 42, an engineer, worked on the team developing the first Kindle e-reader and served as a technology evangelist for Amazon, traveling the world to learn how people used the technology so it could be improved. He left Amazon in 2010 and then returned briefly in 2014.
“The sheer number of innovations means things go wrong, you need to rectify, and then explain, and heaven help if you got an email from Jeff,” he said. “It’s as if you’ve got the C.E.O. of the company in bed with you at 3 a.m. breathing down your neck.”

Amazon retains new workers in part by requiring them to repay a part of their signing bonus if they leave within a year, and a portion of their hefty relocation fees if they leave within two years. Several fathers said they left or were considering quitting because of pressure from bosses or peers to spend less time with their families. (Many tech companies are racing to top one another’s family leave policies — Netflix just began offering up to a year of paid parental leave. Amazon, though, offers no paid paternity leave.)
In interviews, 40-year-old men were convinced Amazon would replace them with 30-year-olds who could put in more hours, and 30-year-olds were sure that the company preferred to hire 20-somethings who would outwork them. After Max Shipley, a father of two young children, left this spring, he wondered if Amazon would “bring in college kids who have fewer commitments, who are single, who have more time to focus on work.” Mr. Shipley is 25.
Amazon insists its reputation for high attrition is misleading. A 2013 survey by PayScale, a salary analysis firm, put the median employee tenure at one year, among the briefest in the Fortune 500. Amazon officials insisted tenure was low because hiring was so robust, adding that only 15 percent of employees had been at the company more than five years. Turnover is consistent with others in the technology industry, they said, but declined to disclose any data.
Employees, human resources executives and recruiters describe a steady exodus. “The pattern of burn and churn at Amazon, resulting in a disproportionate number of candidates from Amazon showing at our doorstep, is clear and consistent,” Nimrod Hoofien, a director of engineering at Facebook and an Amazon veteran, said in a recent Facebook post.
Those departures are not a failure of the system, many current and former employees say, but rather the logical conclusion: mass intake of new workers, who help the Amazon machine spin and then wear out, leaving the most committed Amazonians to survive.
“Purposeful Darwinism,” Robin Andrulevich, a former top Amazon human resources executive who helped draft the Leadership Principles, posted in reply to Mr. Hoofien’s comment. “They never could have done what they’ve accomplished without that,” she said in an interview, referring to Amazon’s cycle of constantly hiring employees, driving them and cutting them.
“Amazon is O.K. with moving through a lot of people to identify and retain superstars,” said Vijay Ravindran, who worked at the retailer for seven years, the last two as the manager overseeing the checkout technology. “They keep the stars by offering a combination of incredible opportunities and incredible compensation. It’s like panning for gold.”
The employees who stream from the Amazon exits are highly desirable because of their work ethic, local recruiters say. In recent years, companies like Facebook and LinkedIn have opened large Seattle offices, and they benefit from the Amazon outflow.
Recruiters, though, also say that other businesses are sometimes cautious about bringing in Amazon workers, because they have been trained to be so combative. The derisive local nickname for Amazon employees is “Amholes” — pugnacious and work-obsessed.
Call them what you will, their ranks are rapidly increasing. Amazon is finishing a 37-floor office tower near its South Lake Union campus and building another tower next to it. It plans a third next to that and has space for two more high-rises. By the time the dust settles in three years, Amazon will have enough space for 50,000 employees or so, more than triple what it had as recently as 2013.

Those new workers will strive to make Amazon the first trillion-dollar retailer, in the hope that just about everyone will be watching Amazon movies and playing Amazon games on Amazon tablets while they tell their Amazon Echo communications device that they need an Amazon-approved plumber and new lawn chairs, and throw in some Amazon potato chips as well.
Maybe it will happen. Liz Pearce spent two years at Amazon, managing projects like its wedding registry. “The pressure to deliver far surpasses any other metric,” she said. “I would see people practically combust.”
But just as Jeff Bezos was able to see the future of e-commerce before anyone else, she added, he was able to envision a new kind of workplace: fluid but tough, with employees staying only a short time and employers demanding the maximum.
“Amazon is driven by data,” said Ms. Pearce, who now runs her own Seattle software company, which is well stocked with ex-Amazonians. “It will only change if the data says it must — when the entire way of hiring and working and firing stops making economic sense.”
The retailer is already showing some strain from its rapid growth. Even for entry-level jobs, it is hiring on the East Coast, and many employees are required to hand over all their contacts to company recruiters at “LinkedIn” parties. In Seattle alone, more than 4,500 jobs are open, including one for an analyst specializing in “high-volume hiring.”
Some companies, faced with such an overwhelming need for new bodies, might scale back their ambitions or soften their message.

Not Amazon. In a recent recruiting video, one young woman warns: “You either fit here or you don’t. You love it or you don’t. There is no middle ground.”

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