Convenience Has a Human Price
We should proceed with caution as we educate ourselves on what it takes to make our lives easier
When I worked at Amazon over the summer, I realized the price of convenience — making sure warehouse workers worked faster to fulfill quotas and making sure drivers got enough deliveries done to get a message in time. To have a convenient product means someone needed to work harder and faster for that product.
I worked as an Amazon warehouse picker over the summer. My quotas included picking 350 items per hour to get shipped off to packers, and it was a very stringent requirement that managers had to talk to me a couple of times to get closer to. I worked as hard and fast as I can for three-hour blocks and ten-hour days, but whether I could hit my quota was often very variable. If I had a big item jammed into a bin, it hurt my quota. If the machines didn’t work, it hurt my quota.
It wasn’t that bad, but there sure was a lot of pressure to meet the quotas.
It’s not something I saw when I was a consumer, but something I saw when I worked in an Amazon warehouse. My former employer in Amazon constantly promises fast, two-day shipping to its customers, and well, that convenience has a human cost.
I felt bad about the previous times I was addicted to convenience. And I started to wonder — does the human cost rationalize the convenience?
Last September, Patricia Callahan at the New York Times interviewed Amazon drivers who got into car accidents, some of whom killed children in car accidents in an effort to make it to locations on time. Judy Kennedy, the mother of a daughter who was killed in an accident with an Amazon delivery driver, who couldn’t sue Amazon because the company shields itself from liability for accidents involving their drivers.
According to Callahan, Amazon as a company has moved to reduce its reliance on carriers like the U.P.S. and has instead relied on contractors that allow the company to shrink their delivery force and not take permanent employees. The ProPublica investigation that Callahan was a part of identified over 60 accidents from June 2015 to September 2019 that resulted in 10 deaths and Callahan speculates that that number is underreported. A lot of people don’t sue, and it’s hard to tell when Amazon is involved versus not involved due to hiring contractors.
“Even as Amazon argues that it bears no legal responsibility for the human toll, it maintains a tight grip on how the delivery drivers do their jobs,” Callahan says.
Through an app, Amazon directs the deliveries and routes of drivers and tracks their progress. A dispatcher can call the drivers if they fall behind schedules, and the company has stringent requirements for how many deliveries arrive on time. However, Amazon has said in court that it’s not responsible for the actions of its contractors, who assume all liability and responsibility for legal costs. The company has regularly sued contractors in litigation when damages arise from crashes. Delivery companies and drivers take the toll — Amazon does not. And Amazon does not disclose the information on its delivery contractors and doesn’t give data on crashes and accidents.
Think about how magical Amazon Prime’s two-day shipping was, as of even the last couple of years. Through Amazon, you get something you want in two days for no shipping cost whatsoever. But what’s the human cost?
To be an Amazon Flex driver delivering packages for the company is a gig economy job akin to delivering for DoorDash or Grubhub. People can sign up for their own delivery shifts, and Amazon increasingly has contractors handle its delivery. In 2015, it had the USPS handle 91% of deliveries, but in 2019, researchers at Cowen estimated that contractors handle 23% of deliveries. In 20254, Cowen estimates that contractors will handle 43% of deliveries.
But convenience often manifests itself in other ways than contractor delivery drivers. It leads to outsourcing labor to other countries. Uber and Lyft, gig economy ride-sharing companies, have made our lives significantly easier. Before Uber, I would have to had to call an actual taxi cab, which was significantly more expensive and took longer to get there. However, it didn’t take long for me to talk to cab drivers who lamented that Uber and Lyft were ruining their business.
So there’s a real, human reason why we prioritize convenience. It saves us time, energy, money, and effort. And it’s hard to think outside the bubble of what convenience merely does for us. According to Ev Williams, a co-founder of Twitter:
“Convenience decides everything.”
While capitalism claims to value competition and anti-trust ideologies, Americans like myself certainly behave in ways that benefit monopolies and trusts. For a long time, especially during the pandemic, I did all my shopping on Amazon. I got all my takeout food through third-party delivery apps like DoorDash. Human nature and psychological phenomena like the mere exposure effect seem to dictate behavior that benefits monopolies making our lives more convenient.
“Given the growth of convenience — as an ideal, as a value, as a way of life — it is worth asking what our fixation with it is doing to us and to our country,” says Tim Wu at the New York Times.
Wu doesn’t suggest that convenience is inherently evil since it does ease quality of life and create jobs. After all, what would we do these days without washing machines, microwaves, and cars? Realizing that convenience has a human cost means realizing that convenience isn’t always good and has a dark side. We shouldn’t pursue convenience as a utopian ideal, but rather proceed with caution as we educate ourselves on what it takes to make our lives easier.
We want convenience because it makes our lives easier. But so often we don’t keep in mind the other side of the coin, that convenience has a human cost.