When a new startup promises to change some part of the economy, it usually gets the benefit of the doubt. It’s small! It shares your frustration with, say, laundromats, or, if it’s really smart, shows you a problem with laundromats that you hadn’t considered before. It’s on your side, both of you aligned against those incumbent inconvenience-makers.
This is a strange ritual. It gives startups leeway to try more daring things; additionally, it gives them permission to flout any expected conventions of behavior, be they regulations, ethics, or mere manners. It also suppresses certain lines of thought. It encourages you to imagine what the world will be like when you can do [thing] with your phone — or even when [thing] happens automatically, without any input at all. It drafts behind the wonder of this possibility. It discourages you, however, from imagining what it means that this promise will be fulfilled by a particular company run by particular people with particular ambitions and ideas about the world.
Amazon creates a lot of startup-like things. But its motives and goals, after over twenty years of operation, are not less open to interpretation. Imagine if a small startup, or a Kickstarter, offered a way to re-buy household staples with a small wireless button. You might not take it seriously! Even if you did, your mind would not necessarily race to a scenario in which toilet paper buying buttons are both taken for granted and controlled by a single commercial entity. You would allow space for this thing to be silly or cool or interesting and this would be easy because the question it asks about the future seems so narrow. Making the case for the inevitability of toilet paper buttons would be the startup’s accomplishment; your credulity — after all, you’ve been shown the future! — would be its prize.
Amazon’s button, introduced this week, asks a large set of additional questions about the toilet paper button future: How can Amazon create new forms of customer lock-in? How can Amazon develop new and profitable relationships with brands (which it may eventually replace with its own brands)? How close to full retail automation can Amazon come without alienating its customers? Amazon is admirably clear in its intention to become a logistics machine the likes of which the world has never seen. Its fixation on efficiency over profit is usually characterized as a rare example of true long-term planning, but it is better understood as a fixation on solving systems: an expression of a philosophy that demands not just the domination of a market, but the destruction of its appeal to competitors. It’s an economist’s dream, a business that has been allowed by investors to effectively operate as a non-profit dedicated to economic perfection. How does the button figure into that?
When Amazon shows us the future — when it can convince us, through cleverness or force of will, that it has discovered a new inevitability — it is also telling us that the future belongs, again, to Amazon.
This week, Amazon took its Home Services program national:
Amazon Home Services is a new and simple way to buy and schedule professional services such as furniture assembly, house cleaning, and lawn care directly on Amazon. We’ve handpicked the best service providers in your neighborhood and require all service pros to be background checked, insured, and licensed if applicable. Service pros compete for your business based on price, quality, and availability. If customers find a lower price for the same service and pro, we will match it. Pre-packaged services have upfront prices so you can add a service right to your cart. No special sign up or subscription is required. Your Amazon account is only charged after the service is completed. And best of all, all services are backed by Amazon’s Happiness Guarantee. If you’re not 100% satisfied, Amazon will make it right or give you a full refund.
Offers in my ZIP code include: voice lessons ($45, half hour); car stereo installation (~$100); a wide range of electrical, plumbing and repair services; and home cleaning ($99 for two hours). The selection is large enough to feel like a local directory; as a product, it clearly aspires to be the accountable, interactive Yellow Pages that the internet seemed to guarantee but never quite produced.
Where a smaller, newer company might focus on one logistical problem — gathering and vetting services OR providing a payment system for services — Amazon attempts to solve all of them at once. Based on a two-decade stretch of unbroken examples, we may assume that Amazon is not so much interested in participating in local economies as in managing and eventually replacing them. A consumer perception that finding a plumber is annoying is fairly well aligned with Amazon’s institutional perception that local service economies are, taken as system, spectacularly inefficient, and that an Amazon-run local economy would be better optimized. Amazon’s pitch, that “service pros” will now “compete for your business based on price, quality, and availability” suggests an orderly state of affairs in which power has been transferred back to you, the customer, away from variously competent and self-interested small businesses. Meanwhile, Amazon takes its commission, both at the time of sale and from the relationship: it gains as much, if not more, power than you do, presiding over your transaction with gentle but absolute control. If Amazon Home Services succeeds — if it becomes, for lack of a better term, the Amazon of local service jobs — this power multiplies.
Startup culture is shared tolerance for cognitive dissonance. It is small companies making their cases for various inevitabilities; it is these same companies suggesting that they are what makes these inevitabilities possible. Startup culture is writing straight-talk blog posts about the future on your venture capital firm’s blog; startup culture is the ability to read VC straight-talk as densely coded strategy. Startup culture is a constant case for the sanctity of efficiency, which is its own reward; startup culture is rewarding the reduction of inefficiencies with the highly visible creation of new ones. Startup culture is innately critical of everything outside of itself; startup culture, under scrutiny, questions the value of criticism. Startup culture is just simple business, plain as can be; startup culture is exceptional.
Amazon hasn’t been a startup in over a decade, so when it wears the costume of a startup the effect is uncanny. Magical inevitabilities, as delivered by Amazon, sound a little too much like potential future monopolies. This is the problem Amazon has with so many of its new products: They are easy to see for what they are. They often feel, first and foremost, like solutions to Amazon’s problems, not yours. The Fire Phone answered questions nobody outside of Amazon could possibly ask. The Amazon Dash button answers Amazon’s needs without clearly addressing any of its customers’ (but who knows, we’ll see). The Kindle, on the other hand, solved a logistical problem that was interfering with Amazon’s optimization of the books industry while also solving a number of problems book readers didn’t know they had.
Amazon has expressed its frustration with its dependence on humans in the highest court in the land, where it found sympathy. It has engineered its frustrations into robots and drones. It has made progress, certainly, but this progress has been frustratingly slow. Human friction keeps fucking up Amazon’s systems.
Home Services, then, represents a realization that Amazon has been approaching the problem of human labor at the wrong scale. It is not enough to treat it as waste that must be minimized. It can be embraced and made compliant with existing ecommerce systems. As long as it is necessary — for Amazon and for us — it may as well be packaged, inventoried, and sold. It can be shaped, subtly and slowly, into something a little easier to replace.