Hunger Games

Michael Metzger

If a recent New York Times article describing Amazon’s culture is anywhere close to the truth, Amazon is not a healthy place to work. In fact, it’s more like the Hunger Games.

A few weeks back, NYT reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld wrote a scathing review of Amazon’s corporate culture. The sub-title was “wrestling with big ideas in a bruising place.”1 That’s putting it mildly. Amazon’s not bruising. It buries people.

Workers are encouraged to savage one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late past midnight, with text messages followed by more messages asking why they were not answered. Colleagues select sacrificial lambs to protect “more essential players.” A marketer who spent six years in the retail division said, “You learn how to diplomatically throw people under the bus. It’s a horrible feeling.”

Yes it is. That’s what the Hunger Games feel like. In the films, the rulers of Panem keep an iron grip on their districts by forcing each one to select a boy and a girl (called Tributes) to compete in a nationally televised event called the Hunger Games. Every citizen must watch as the youths fight to the death until only one remains. The victor’s district is showered with gifts, namely food. It’s a Darwinian survival of the fittest.

Interestingly, one former human resources director called Amazon’s game of winners and losers “purposeful Darwinism,” where losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff. This however is an oxymoron. Darwinian biologists insist that life isn’t purposeful. The appearance of design is an illusion. Life is unguided material processes. Unguided means there is no design. If there’s no design—and nature abhors a vacuum—something else will fill the void. In our modern world, data often does the trick.

This explains Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. In a 2010 graduation speech at Princeton, he recalled trying to get his grandmother to stop smoking. Bezos just did the math, calculating that every puff cost her a few minutes. “You’ve taken nine years off your life!” he told her. She burst into tears. Bezos was 10 at the time.

Two decades later, while at the financial firm D. E. Shaw, Bezos overturned Wall Street convention by using algorithms to get the most out of every trade. Then came Amazon. Bezos has “created a technological and retail giant by relying on the power of metrics,” Kantor and Streitfeld write. Big data drives Amazon’s decisions. Sean Boyle, who runs the finance division of Amazon Web Services claims that “Data is incredibly liberating.”

I doubt the losers at Amazon would agree. Same goes for losers in the Hunger Games. Clay Parker Jones, a business consultant, is closer to the mark. The way to win in Amazon’s Darwinian corporate culture is to “stay ahead of the executioner’s blade.”

Big Data can be of immense help but the Amazons of the world idolize it. It’s evidence of what is called “the mathematization of the market.”2 This dates from the 19th century with the advent of Darwinian thought. With its ascendency, confidence in the existence of God declined. As Americans became skeptical as to whether a moral universe exists, mathematization became the only game in town.

In 1963, William Bruce Cameron noted that not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. For instance, big data cannot provide companies with a sense of purpose. But it can reveal their culture, for whatever an organization systematically pays attention to and measures becomes its culture.3 Amazon appears to be driven by data more than by any transcendent purpose, making it feel very much like the Hunger Games.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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1 Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Place, The New York Times, August 15, 2015.
2 John Lancaster, “Melting Into Air: Before the financial system went bust, it went postmodern,” The New Yorker, November 10, 2008, p. 80-84.
3 Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Third Edition (New York: Wiley Publishers, 2004).

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9 thoughts on “Hunger Games”

  1. Did you read Bezos’ response saying he didn’t recognize the Amazon portrayed in the NYT article, or the point by point refutation by a guy who works there, and made a convincing case that the Times reporters didn’t do their homework very well? (I should add that he did so of his own volition, and did not ask anyone for permission to respond so publicly.)

    I trust you more th an Bezos or the NYT, but it would be nice to have a little independent verification on both sides. Without it, it’s hard to know the truth.

  2. Mike Metzger

    Andrew: I agree. The truth is likely somewhere between Bezos and what the writers describe. I only know one individual who worked under Bezos, making me suspect the NYT is closer to the truth. In any event, that’s why I began with a qualification – “If the article is anywhere close to the truth.” And close with: “Amazon appears to be driven by data…”

  3. Speaking of a companies culture, what do the continual barrage of customer and employee surveys say about their culture? Is it the lack of confidence that drives this constant need for affirmation? I work for a large communication company and we are strongly pushed to “coach” the customer about how to correctly answer the survey. Even communications between different departments was conducted with a phone call, but now they are mostly “chat sessions” on an app followed by a survey. We are even coached by the other agent as to how the survey needs to be filled out. We call someone insecure when they are continually looking for affirmation from other people, could we look at the stability and heath of a company by taking note of the amont of customer satisfaction surveys they are pushing out?

  4. Mike, you wrote: ““the mathematization of the market.”2 This dates from the 19th century with the advent of Darwinian thought. With its ascendency, confidence in the existence of God declined. As Americans became skeptical as to whether a moral universe exists, mathematization became the only game in town.” Could you break this down some?

  5. Mike Metzger

    I’ll try. Determining right and wrong in various markets requires a moral sense. Adam Smith said this required virtuous people looking to something transcendent–an overarching purpose or canopy. With the collapse of our sacred canopy (Darwin + “The Gay Science” 1882), we’re left with social conventions to define right and wrong. One such convention is Milton Friedman’s injunction that the sole responsibility of a company is to maximize shareholder return–mathematization.

  6. Mike,
    I really like your breakdown of mathematization being a result of the collapse of a sacred canopy. That certainly rings true to me.

    The example of this that I struggle with most these days is market based pricing, driven by greed instead of fairness or consideration for the consumer/client. I believe capitalism is far more biblical than socialism, but in our culture today, salaries and pricing of goods and services is based on what someone can get and not based on reasonable levels. For example, I was quoted an $80/hour price for someone to dig a ditch and install a French drain at my former house, simply because the demand was high and suppliers low enough that he could get that (but not from me). He was an independent contractor that had to cover his overhead, but that was way beyond in my opinion. I’m not sure how to push back on this trend in our culture, other than refusing to pay the mark-ups when I can. (In all honesty, I probably benefit from this in some degree in my own salary.) I would appreciate your comments on this area, if you have any.

  7. The sobering aspect of the “Hunger Game” world is that it is the children of a particular age that are selected at random, by a self appointed elite detached and remote from the general population. An appearance of ‘scientific management’, but actually cynical de-humanisation of the masses. Failure to set a watchmen for the welfare of all, in the vested interest of a few.Adults detaching themselves from responsibility.

  8. Under the leadership of Martin O’Malley, Maryland state government became more and more data driven. New systems were required to provide data and “accountability”. The consequence has been a lessoning quality of community in the workplace. I am mortified as HR has become impersonal and people become mere numbers.

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