Amazon could be (almost) OK if it just became a SLOW standard

 

Central planning works great. Not in USSR, in “capitalism”. Now, if it only were slower…

Amazon could be (almost) OK if it just became a SLOW standard /img/amazon-like-ussr.jpg
Answer: because Walmart and Amazon became it

The largest economies in the “capitalist” West, says the book titled “People’s Republic of Walmart”, are amazingly efficient and profitable because they are centrally planned just like the old USSR. The only differences is that those economies are corporations like Walmart and, above all, Amazon.

The question then becomes how to make that efficiency-by-centralization work for society as a whole, without polluting so much. Here I argue that two big parts of the answer are slowness and standardization.

The problem: pollution and exploitation

Amazon could be (almost) OK if it just became a SLOW standard /img/dog-selfie-stick-ice-cream-lock-keyboard-waffle-iron.jpg
Dog Selfie Stick. Ice-cream lock. Keyboard Waffle Iron. BUY them just to make more trucks MOVE. NOW!

Amazon does not just create surveillance nightmares, transform workers in robots and unfairly outprice competitors. It also pollutes a lot with both its data centers, which are not the topic today, and its trucks. The number of trucks on US roads has doubled since Amazon launched in 1994. Today, transportation in US emits more CO2 than power plants, and about a quarter of those emissions come just from “last mile shipping” by trucks.

Slowness in shipping reduces pollution

Will Amazon pollute less by replacing normal trucks with driverless ones, or drones, powered by renewable energy? No, of course, because of the Jevons paradox. The only thing that would make a real, big difference is the same thing that I suggest for other digital platforms, that is slowness. The shipping part of e-commerce, in fact, can become (much) less carbon-intensive, if, and only if, online stores can minimize number and length of delivery trips, that is choose the delivery times themselves.

Amazon could be (almost) OK if it just became a SLOW standard /img/onlineshoppingaddiction.jpg
Online shopping addiction growing in leaps and bounds

Of course, this will happen only by taxing like hell not just same-day, but even same-week delivery. And possibly mandating that the extra CO2 produced by fast shipping is clearly showed in each receipt. But technically it would be very easy to enforce, and would reduce much more pollution than that caused from trucks, not to mention some personal debt. Fast shipping, that is quick gratification, is what drives millions of impulse purchases every year. If the only way to buy online every year, at a decent price, a different Halloween costume is doing it three months earlier, most people will just reuse or barter the one they already have. With any luck, lots of frankly useless products may disappear altogether. Make shipping slower, and much non-recyclable junk will not be manufactured anymore. And it doesn’t even stop here.

Slowness facilitates fairness and democracy

Amazon could be (almost) OK if it just became a SLOW standard /img/just-slow-down.jpg
Democracy and fairness work SLOWLY

Much of the privacy, pollution and exploitation problems caused by Amazon are prerequisites (not consequences!) of it being a for-profit, privately held monopoly. Some of those problems could be solved if Amazon became a cooperative or, much better, a federation of cooperatives. But it could not be enough.

Any cooperative, or federation of cooperatives, shipping exactly like Amazon does today would give its members better salaries and treatment, but it would still pollute as much as Amazon does today.

Enforced slowness, instead, would not just reduce pollution caused by overproduction and hysteric shipping. By reducing profits, it may facilitate the evolution to cooperatives, or other less psychotic kinds of companies. Second, working at a slower pace makes better conditions for workers easier to provide. With the right kind of management, of course.

Governance and interoperability

Maybe the right question is not, as the “Republic of Walmart” puts it, “whether planning can be democratic”. I doubt that “planning” anything as complex as Amazon could ever be managed without restricting decision power to a small number of very competent people.

So maybe the right question are whether planning can be really fair, transparent and accountable, and how to fairly distribute its profits. Here are some thoughts:

  • Breaking up? OK. Let shipping be done, in any region or country, by different, independent organizations, and support creation of shipping cooperatives (or make it a civil service?). BUT:
  • centralized, worldwide planning of slow shipping would remain absolutely necessary, to minimize both pollution and costs
  • much of that “planning” should be infrastructural, that is only in the form of fiscal and other regulations, together with open source protocols and algorithms to calculate shipping schedules, ran by the federated servers of many independent local organizations (cooperative or not) that would do the actual shipping
  • algorithms and working conditions would be periodically reviewed by (representatives of) all the stakeholders
  • regulations should also impose that each end customers can clearly see the different costs and implications of each mode of shipping
  • support for anonymous digital payments and deliveries (as equivalent of cash and, respectively, P.O. boxes). Whatever replaces Amazon must not have its same surveillance capabilities

Nothing new here…

Amazon could be (almost) OK if it just became a SLOW standard /img/onlineshoppingaddiction.jpg
Online shopping addiction growing in leaps and bounds

Of course, this will happen only by taxing like hell not just same-day, but even same-week delivery. And possibly mandating that the extra CO2 produced by fast shipping is clearly showed in each receipt. But technically it would be very easy to enforce, and would reduce much more pollution than that caused from trucks, not to mention some personal debt. Fast shipping, that is quick gratification, is what drives millions of impulse purchases every year. If the only way to buy online every year, at a decent price, a different Halloween costume is doing it three months earlier, most people will just reuse or barter the one they already have. With any luck, lots of frankly useless products may disappear altogether. Make shipping slower, and much non-recyclable junk will not be manufactured anymore. And it doesn’t even stop here.

Slowness facilitates fairness and democracy

Amazon could be (almost) OK if it just became a SLOW standard /img/standard-containers-changed-shipping.jpg
Shipping containers changed the world. Now shipping algorithms must save it

The thoughts above may seem a pipe dream, but the nature of their content surely is not. WTO tariffs, worldwide scheduling and booking of air travel, freight container sizes, IBAN codes… already “ship stuff” all around the world, and are built exactly with what I propose: laws, algorithms and technical standard that enable people to work.

Yes, of course my version decreases GDP. But that is such a cretin and counterproductive parameter that it is going to disappear anyway.

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