Book Review: Fulfillment

With a mesmerizing blend of stories and statistics, Alec MacGillis’ Fulfillment is like the War and Peace of books about our modern-day technology giants. A sprawling account of Amazon’s domination of the e-commerce sector, the author cites the statistics of the company’s immense growth, but also weaves in gritty real-life stories of individuals who have been affected by the societal shifts that Amazon has wrought, and gives a sense of lives displaced and cities decimated by the presence of Amazon’s huge fulfillment and data centers.

As a framing device for his subject, the author cleverly organizes his material around a few representative cities where Amazon has established a physical presence, delving deep into the changes each region has experienced. As an example of a city that has long endured an economic downturn, Baltimore, which once boasted the enormous plants of Bethlehem Steel, now finds an Amazon fulfillment center in its place, paying workers a small fraction of what factory workers previously earned. In Amazon’s world, workers whose parents once had meaningful union jobs now start at $15/hour and are reminded of the cheerful words of Jeff Bezos to “build yourself a great story” as they take their monitored bathroom breaks.

Other regions of the country have been winners in the new high-tech world. The book delineates the growth of Seattle in detail, from the time when Boeing was its most notable employer, to the arrival of Microsoft’s 13 employees in 1978 and then Amazon two decades later. By 2018, per capita income in Seattle had risen 25% over a few decades earlier, and housing prices skyrocketed. Amazon now occupies one-fifth of all office space in Seattle. Their massive corporate campus comes complete with three biospheres and stores where workers can purchase donuts for $4.25 each.

The book pays particular attention to how the company coerces third-party vendors to sell their goods on their Marketplace. Relating the example of a modest business in El Paso called Pencil Cup Office Products, the author relates how Amazon exerted pressure on the business. Under the guise of increasing competition, the typical scenario involves undercutting the prices of third-party sellers, selling at a loss if necessary, and then introducing private label merchandise to reduce sales further. As noted, the Amazon platform currently has over 3 million third-party vendors selling over 600 million items.

Another theme of the book is with Amazon’s relentless tax avoidance strategies, a maneuver very much in accord with Jeff Bezos’ libertarian leanings. Using Amazon’s explosive growth of data centers as an example, the author details how the company has placed data centers in Ohio and Virginia where electricity is relatively cheap, while at the same time obtaining huge tax breaks. With negotiations conduced under a veil of secrecy, Amazon has been successful in convincing local officials to do whatever it takes to provide power to their huge data centers. Yet, while avoiding taxes, Amazon has been equally successful in establishing itself as a major purveyor of goods for the federal government, and has a division dedicated to that purpose. Likewise, the company seeks and maintains a strong lobbying presence with the federal government, enhanced by its selection of the D.C. area as the location for its second corporate headquarters.

In the interest of fairness, the reader is often reminded that, while Amazon is an exemplary example of current trends, it is not the sole cause nor the only culprit in the situation. Certainly, Google and Microsoft have also built huge data centers and taken advantage of tax breaks. It is also true that cities such as Baltimore had been on a downward trend long before Amazon came on the scene. As documented, there have been massive shifts in the past decades in the relative economic power of various regions in the country. Amazon did not cause these shifts but does take full advantage of the situation.

As noted by the author, fulfillment is both a reference to Amazon’s drive to deliver its goods to its customers with ruthless efficiency, and a metaphor for the lives of its workers that have lost meaning, and communities that are a hollow frame of what they once were. In demanding near instantaneous fulfillment of goods ordered online, individual lives and communities have suffered. While looking at the word “Fulfillment” emblazoned across an Amazon warehouse that stood on the site of a former Bethlehem steel factory, an individual interviewed for the book remarked with a chuckle, “Fulfillment, everyone longs for that.”

Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America
by Alec Macgillis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2021
385 pages, $28.00

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