When I was a child in the eighties, I remember having a conversation with my father about communism. He explained to me that kids in the Soviet Union had crappy toys because the people who made toys had no reason to try hard to make good toys since there was no competition. In our country, if you made crappy toys, somebody else would make better toys and everybody would buy theirs (in theory anyway). I think that we have entered a time thirty years later when our experience as consumers under a global capitalism that has increasingly detached itself from the manufacture of actual physical products has become quite similar to the experience that we presumed Soviet consumers to have in the Cold War.
I realize there are far bigger problems with capitalism than my experience buying a laptop on Amazon. I’m just interested in wondering aloud about the factors that have come together to make Amazon into the virtual equivalent of the proverbial Soviet factory of last generation’s Cold War propaganda. When I looked up the Lenovo Y500 laptop on the Amazon site, the specifications included “Integrated DVD reader/writer drive.” If I had looked closely and understood that a CD/DVD drive is referred to as an “optical drive,” then I would have seen another place on the page which said that no optical drive was installed on this particular Y500 build.
But because it said I was getting a DVD drive, I expected a DVD drive. I’m not sure how people install all the programs from an old laptop that has crashed without one. So my wife live-chatted with a customer support person who immediately agreed to replace what we had been shipped with a new product. There was no troubleshooting or double-checking to see whether we had in fact received what we were supposed to receive. So lo and behold, they shipped us the same damn thing the second time that they shipped us the first time, because none of the Y500’s that they have in stock include DVD drives, which nobody ever bothered to verify. They have a bay in which you can install one, but “integrated DVD drive” does not mean “bay in which you can install a DVD drive.” It seems analogous to the same move that airlines are making with charging you for baggage, inflight beverages, the right to use your arm-rest, using more than two squares of toilet paper in the lavatory per flight, and so forth.
When I got in touch with Amazon a second time, the person said she could either repeat the exact same process over again with the same results or she could give me a $200 partial refund for me to go out and buy the drive piecemeal from somebody else. So Amazon ended up wasting a week of my time and wasting their money on shipping and over-refunding me instead of giving me the product they advertised. The people who we chatted with had no direct expertise in the products about which we were chatting. They were mostly able to write the English language in mostly complete sentences, most of which was entirely formulaic. They were able to choose from a very limited array of options as to how to respond to our requests. I wonder how many times I could order replacement after replacement shipment before it would trigger a red flag. Would the customer service person even care? What’s it to them? Would they take the risk of questioning me when I could retaliate and make trouble for them?
The reason that Amazon can afford to engage in false advertising and incompetent customer service is because they know that at the end of the day, it will take a lot for me to go back to calling brick and mortar stores to see if they have the exact model of whatever doo-hickey it is that I’m looking for. And there are lots of other consumer zombies just like me. Amazon doesn’t have to deliver a quality product, because they’re convenient, and I’m a slave to convenience. Life in my world has been restructured in such a way that I honestly don’t have time to drive from store to store shopping for computers. Amazon would have to really really screw up a lot bigger for me to go back to how I lived in the nineties.
If everyone living in a centralized state economy decided to rebel simultaneously, then they could bring the system down. We could resist Amazon’s takeover of the entire retail industry just like we could stop shopping at Walmart or Target or Starbucks or whomever, but it would not take any less Herculean effort to stop Amazon than it would to bring down a communist government. I’m not sure how much freer we are than people living under communism were. The forces manipulating us are more subtle and the power synergizes are in different places. Our advertising and marketing industries that spy on peoples’ private lives obsessively and try to predict and control their behavior are our version of the secret police. There’s no need for any violence to force us into compliance with the market (at least not on this side of the Rio Grande), because we are eager to eat up our patriotic duty of consumerism without any prodding. If people started going into stores and taking the gadgets off the shelves and smashing them on the ground, then the organizers of such activities would get sent to Guantanamo Bay and our society would look more obviously like an Eastern Bloc country.
So we’ll keep on shopping at Amazon and complaining about it. We’ll keep on buying things that are designed to break quickly whose technology has become too obscure for amateur geeks to tinker with on their own. And we’ll keep our eyes focused on the pristine virtual world that isn’t cluttered with the waste of yesterday’s gadgets. At some point, the arc of capitalism will stop ascending hyperbolically. Technology cannot keep advancing more and more rapidly every year. At some point, at least the rate of advancement will flat-line. And based on its three hundred year history, I don’t think capitalism will be able to handle that when it happens.
I’ll probably be one of the ones who doesn’t last very long if and when the virtual world goes dark. Nonetheless I wrote a hopeful song about all this when I had a band: “And when the beast goes down, people who care will be around to help out those who think they’re going to drown. And when the beast goes down, people who share will work to make it work next time around.” I suppose that all eschatology has to be naive.