Recently, a good friend and I exchanged links to stories about the sinister underbelly of our On Demand culture. And in case you missed it, the iPhone 5 was released to the frenzied fanfare that greets many Apple products nowadays. It is hardly surprising that the former stories seem destined to be emptied from the recycling bins of history permanently, while the latter event was greeted, by some, as a national holiday.
By On Demand culture, I mean a lot of things. It’s an amalgamation of the greater interconnectedness that the Internet has allowed, more powerful technology, mobile computing, and globalization. It is a culture in which thousands of users produce millions of by-the-second, 140-character messages on Twitter, creating a living, breathing stream of consciousness for the world. It’s a culture in which 955 million active Facebook users share minute-by-minute details of their social lives. It’s a culture in which Google has made any answer to any question available in seconds. It’s a culture in which an almost unfathomable amount of consumer goods are available on Amazon.com, and elsewhere, ready to ship to your front door in two days. Perhaps most tellingly, it’s a culture in which all of these things are available on a $600 mobile device, just an app and a tap away. The On Demand culture is the sense of immediacy we have about the world around us. Actually, it’s more than that. It is the expectation of immediacy we have about the world and our collective exasperation when that expectation is not met. Louis C. K. does this funny joke about people visibly frustrated by their cell phones not doing a task as fast as the user wants; paraphrasing, the punch line is: “That’s right, it’s only sending information through the air to a satellite thousands of miles in space, and it’s taking five seconds to do that. Stupid cell phone.”
In a world like this, it’s not hard to see how stories like the ones I mentioned at the beginning can be easily forgotten. In fact, the On Demand world is designed precisely so that they are forgotten.
The first story takes place at a thinly-disguised Amazon mega-warehouse. The reporter goes undercover as a warehouse picker, the person responsible for locating and packing the thousands of products stored in the massive facility, in middle of nowhere America. “Well, it’s a job,” you may think, “and one in America at that.” This much is true. But it’s a job with a temporary staffing agency so that the employee does not receive benefits and the retailer does not have its name associated with the absurdly demanding conditions under which the workers are employed. The employees are paid $11 an hour. It is estimated that, in a day, they walk across 12 miles of pure concrete, bending, reaching, and stretching for items in ways that would give OSHA executives nightmares. They have insane time targets for locating items in this massive expanse of concrete and steel – targets provided by electronic scanners that monitor every move they make. Supervisors threaten that if they don’t meet the targets they will be replaced by one of the hundreds of other people who want the same job. If they are absent in their first week for any reason at all, they are fired immediately. If there are subsequent shortcomings or, for lack of a better word, demerits with respect to their work, the employee accumulates negative points. 6 ½ points and you are terminated without exception. My last Amazon order was an extra-large beach umbrella for $49.98 with free two-day shipping.
The second story also takes place, not coincidentally, in the world of massive, anonymous, industrial boxes – this time filled not with mountains of consumer goods but rather with rows and rows of computer servers. Yes, computer servers, the little boxes that power Internet giants like Facebook and Google and Yahoo. “What’s so wrong with computer servers?” you might ask. Nothing per se. Except there are thousands and thousands of warehouses filled with computer servers – so-called data centers, which sounds so clean! – just sucking energy off the grid to the tune of 30 billion watts of electricity, or the equivalent of the output of 30 nuclear power plants. It is estimated that 90 percent of the energy used by data centers is wasted because companies run their servers at full capacity in the off chance that there is a large increase in traffic to their website. As a further precaution, the companies use backup generators to make sure the sites never go down, even when the power goes out. These generators emit diesel exhaust, causing many data centers to appear on something called the Toxic Air Containment Inventory. Why the need for all this juice? According to the New York Times:
The inefficient use of power is largely driven by a symbiotic relationship between users who demand an instantaneous response to the click of a mouse and companies that put their business at risk if they fail to meet that expectation.
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My friend and I had a brief conversation about these two stories. I explained that I had never read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food (it is on my reading list), but I imagine that the book makes a point about consumer decision making with respect to food similar to this: As long as the chicken breast is $1.29/pound at the local supermarket, the consumer doesn’t really care where it came from or how it got there. (Pollan, I am guessing, argues this is a very dangerous phenomenon). My friend suggested that if America were not so large, geographically, there might not be enough anonymous places to hide these activities from the consumer’s view. I thought that was an interesting perspective, and that she was right, except for the places to hide them in China. That’s where this factory, which makes many Apple products, is located. Apple products like, say, the iPhone 5. In a facility described as military-like and authoritarian. Where workers receive no benefits and are forced to work overtime assembling technological marvels for the rest of the world.
In business school, we occasionally talked about externalities – costs outside of the traditional supply/demand, price/purchase economic models, costs usually born by third-parties. Air pollution is the classic example. It’s a cost associated with buying a car or most manufacturing activity that is not reflected in the price of the good itself. It’s basically a hidden cost. Our On Demand culture has become particularly adept at creating and hiding externalities, things like inhumane working conditions or energy-sucking computer complexes (or, Pollan would say, disgusting industrial food facilities). We don’t really have the time or desire to think about them.
We don’t like consequences. We hide them away in massive, anonymous, industrial boxes, and we hope no one will notice that they are there.