Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Nothing beyond the profit motive or self-interest?

I think I have been to Whole Foods stores three times.  Maybe only twice.  Even those trips were only because of the unique circumstances in a city that I was visiting.  A few months ago, a Whole Foods store opened in town; I don't go anywhere near it.

The founder of that business, John Mackey, has always interested me though.  Because, he seemed to offer a political vision through his business.  A libertarian, Mackey articulated his socio-business philosophy in Conscious Capitalism.  In a blog-post on this more than four years ago, I quoted from an essay:
In Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, Mackey and his co-author, Raj Sisodia, make a case that businesses are at their best when reaching for a higher purpose that ranges far beyond any simplistic notions of the profit motive or self-interest.
The business as a higher purpose that is "far beyond any simplistic notions of the profit motive or self-interest."  This is why even the anti-libertarian limousine-liberals embraced Whole Foods.

Mackey has now sold his business to Amazon, whose socio-business philosophy does not have anything "far beyond any simplistic notions of the profit motive or self-interest."

After initial enthusiasm for Amazon, I have been trying to avoid buying anything through that behemoth.  Because, it is a ruthless business that couldn't care about anything other than to be the biggest and baddest of them all.  I have been increasingly worried about its tentacles into various aspects of life--the more a person shops at Amazon, the more the big-data driven profile of that customer.  My data becomes their dollars, and I am their raw material!  I way prefer to keep my preferences about books and rice-cookers away from those businesses.

And then my worries about the worker-bees at Amazon.
Amazon’s grand proclamations, on the other hand, tend to focus on domi­nation, not on providing any sort of abstract benefit to society outside the lowering of prices and the delivery of goods. The company has never put forth a rosy vision of the future of service labor. Amazon warehouse work is hard, often subcontracted and kept out of sight of consumers. According to a 2015 investigation by The Times, even at the corporate office, the work culture is unapologetically ruthless.
Ruthless is the word!

It is not merely the contemporary situation that Amazon that worries me.  Nope.  What really worries me is that Amazon might be the model as we rapidly enter into a future service economy, in which most humans become easily replaceable workers in a ruthless business environment that helps a very,  very few accumulate all the benefits.
Amazon’s attitude toward labor is emblematic of the culture it grew out of — and an augur of the service economy that’s on the rise today. Other tech companies, in particular platforms like Uber and TaskRabbit, have helped regular consumers grow comfortable with a software-mediated system wherein jobs are sliced into an endless series of assignments, with compensation negotiated wordlessly, instantly and without room for a second thought. Even Starbucks — once a champion of compassionate capitalism — recently began experimenting with pitiless automated scheduling software to assign shifts, before backing off after public outcry.
Yep, it is for these very reasons I have not ever used Uber either.

I wish more people thought about these rapid transformations.  But, apparently most humans do not care for anything "beyond any simplistic notions of the profit motive or self-interest." Even the uber-religious evangelicals who voted for a horrible human being, despite the message of selflessness from Jesus himself!

We are screwed!

2 comments:

Ramesh said...

No No. It works the other way. Most start ups take off as ruthless money makers to the absolute exclusion of everything else. As they mature, they realise that it does not work. Then they start being more responsible. Businesses that grow to maturity and thrive tend to become far more rounded in their objectives - else they will not survive. Sure they may still reduce labour or optimise costs. But they would start "reaching for a higher purpose that ranges far beyond any simplistic notions of the profit motive or self-interest."

Remember a certain gentleman called Bill Gates ?

Just see some of the turmoil at Uber.

Sriram Khé said...

Looks like I failed in conveying clearly my concerns. The concerns are not about how startups behave.

Lemme try in a different way. As we get more and more into an algorithm-driven world, service labor (not the knowledge workers like programmers) might become more and replaceable: "a software-mediated system wherein jobs are sliced into an endless series of assignments, with compensation negotiated wordlessly, instantly and without room for a second thought." When Whole Foods' founder sells his business to the TRex of "software-mediated system"--Amazon--it is not only a mere business transaction, but also the death of Mackey's "conscious capitalism" that was "beyond any simplistic notions of the profit motive or self-interest."

The Bill Gates analogy is incorrect. Internally at Microsoft, there were never labor complaints about the work conditions unlike what is reported out of Amazon. Further, Microsoft and Gates always seemed to think "beyond any simplistic notions of the profit motive or self-interest."

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