October 17, 2021

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Are Amazon’s Algorithm Bosses Coming to Your Workplace Next? – Tech News Briefing

This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.

Zoe Thomas: This is your Tech News Briefing for Monday, September 13th. I’m Zoe Thomas for The Wall Street Journal. Technology has changed a lot about the ways we work today. It’s no longer about just using computers or the internet to connect. Increasingly data collection and the analysis of various performance metrics are shaping how businesses oversee their staff and increase productivity. On today’s show, our tech columnist, Christopher Mims tells us about the company at the forefront of this kind of operation, Amazon. We’ll discuss why Amazon is so focused on metrics, what it’s like to have an algorithm as your boss and why this may be the future for more companies. That’s after these headlines.
It’s a mixed result for both Apple and Epic Games in a closely watch trial over the distribution of apps on iPhones and iPads. A federal judge said Apple must loosen its restrictions on how developers can seek payments within their apps but allow the app store to remain the only way to download programs to Apple devices. Epic brought the case, claiming the app store is too restrictive for third-party app developers. And the case has been closely watched for how it might affect Apple’s business model. Our reporter, Tim Higgins explains.

Tim Higgins: Exact changes are still to be determined. We haven’t seen any new language from Apple of how they might roll this out. The judge wants Apple to stop prohibiting app developers from communicating with their customers through the app that there might be perhaps a cheaper way or another way of paying for in app purchases. For Apple, this is a partial loss but it’s something that they’ve already been preparing for in the last few weeks. So we’ve already seen Apple making deals to loosen these kinds of rules as it’s faced pressure from another lawsuit and from regulators overseas.

Zoe Thomas: Apple says it will continue to ensure its app store is a safe and trusted marketplace. Epic CEO, Tim Sweeney said on Twitter that epic would “fight on.” Appeals were expected regardless of the judge’s ruling. DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats are suing New York City over its lawsuit permanently capping the amount of commissions the apps can charge restaurants to use their services. The three largest food delivery companies in the US claim capping fees constitutes government overreach. And will likely force them to rewrite contracts with restaurants and raise fees for consumers. Last month, New York City council voted to permanently keep in place caps on commissions that were first created to help restaurants during the pandemic. Other cities have moved to extend that pandemic related fee caps, even after COVID restrictions have been lifted. The companies say the lawsuit is seeking to prove the illegitimacy of caps more broadly.
The head of New York City council’s Small Business Committee said the council intends to move forward with the fee limits. And video game streaming platform Twitch sued two users over allegedly sending racist, anti-gay, sexist and violent messages and content to other users. It’s the latest attempt by the Amazon owned company to eliminate harassment and stop so-called hate raids on its platform. Twitch said these hate raids where users fill the comment section of someone’s live stream with hateful and sometimes violent comments, often target streamers from marginalized groups. The company said it’s using machine learning to identify these incidents and has banned thousands of accounts in recent weeks. Including those belonging to the defendants in the lawsuit. All right, coming up, technology is watching you. No seriously, it’s watching you. Why Amazon and other companies are putting the machines in charge. That’s after the break.
Do you think your boss is watching you at work, monitoring your every move? Well, if your manager is a series of cameras, sensors, and algorithms, then you’re not wrong. And then may also mean you work at an Amazon fulfillment center. The company known for the detailed tracking of packages and user information is also tracking the movements of workers at its warehouses. Looking to precisely measure efficiency and increased productivity. Wall Street Journals, a tech columnist, Christopher Mims calls this Bezosism, named after Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos. He’s got an upcoming book about it called, Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy. And he joins me now. Hi, Christopher.

Christopher Mims: Hey, Zoe. Thanks for having me.

Zoe Thomas: So Christopher, you coined the term Bezosism. What exactly does that mean?

Christopher Mims: So Bezosism is the combination of sensors and software to measure how well somebody is doing their job and then use software, which has of course logic or an algorithm in it, which was defined by an engineer somewhere to then tell that worker, okay, you’re doing a good job or you’re not doing a good job or you need to be doing this differently. And so Bezosism or management by algorithm or management by software, at the end of the day, it is just about creating a set of rules and then handing it to a machine to enforce those rules. So the person’s boss is software.

Zoe Thomas: Okay. Can you tell us about some of those metrics that Amazon is gathering? Maybe us an example of how one of them works?

Christopher Mims: So the primary metric is just the rate at which somebody is doing something. So the amount of time it takes them to complete any of the relevant tasks, picking items off the shelf, scanning them, dropping them in a bin is their rate. So it’s a very basic metric. It measures the one sort of performance that Amazon really cares about, which is the rate at which goods can be hoovered up into or delivered from their warehouses.

Zoe Thomas: And can you explain a little bit more about how Amazon is collecting those metrics? It’s cameras and sensors? How do they work?

Christopher Mims: So Amazon has a number of different automated warehouses. They’re all sort of different vintages and they’re all constantly rolling out new technology. So this technology varies but the older tech was the people would walk around with this scanning gun and that kind of was their real boss. So the rate at which they scanned items as they put them onto a shelf or took them off, that determined their rate. In a newer system, they’re using cameras. It’s almost like the just walk out system at their new grocery stores where nobody has to scan a UPC code, they just grabbing items and sticking on a shelf or taking them off. And that’s really sort of the core of what’s being measured. And of course, if somebody doesn’t do something for an interval of some seconds, then they’ll get dinged for what’s called time off task. So that’s kind of what keeps people from taking breaks or falling behind.

Zoe Thomas: What do you mean get dinged?

Christopher Mims: So the scanning gun, the older ones would actually kind of give you an alert that says time off task. In some of the newer warehouses and the newer systems, they’re having standup meetings a couple of times a day, where their managers are telling everybody in a group, what everyone’s rate is. And you can only have so many warnings before a manager will come talk to you. And if you consistently underperform, eventually, depends on the warehouse there is some discretion for managers, but if you consistently underperform even after our manager reprimands you or coaches you, will get fired eventually. But that system of course is highly automated. So in a funny way, it allows all the humans in the building to play good cop to the bad cop of the algorithm. The algorithm is what’s saying, “Hey, you’re falling behind.” And then the human manager comes along and is like, hey, I’m going to coach you on how to do this better. But of course the implication is if you can’t do it better than we’re going to let you go because there’s somebody else who wants your $15 an hour job.

Zoe Thomas: Has there been any broader pushback on this use of Bezosism, management by algorithm from outside Amazon?

Christopher Mims: So the California Senate has advanced a bill that would regulate the use of these kinds of quotas in any similar workplace to what Amazon has set up. I think in general, there’s been a lot of pushback from Amazon employees. What always leaps in my mind is that it’s very common, especially in the walkouts you’ve seen in Amazon facilities in Europe where people hold up signs that say we are not robots. Basically, we’ve created these systems of automation, which make work more efficient, but they demand that the human match their pace. I mean, this isn’t a new idea. Charlie Chaplin made a movie about it. There’s a famous Lucille Ball skit where she’s at the end of an assembly line in a chocolate factory and it goes, “Ryan, she’s stuffing chocolates in her mouth.” This is as old as industrialization and the assembly line. It’s just spreading to more and more types of work.

Zoe Thomas: So tell us a little bit about that. What other kinds of industries are using this management by algorithm and is it going to become ubiquitous to all workplaces?

Christopher Mims: Anytime that there is a specific metric that people have to hit and the only thing that matters is do they hit that metric. You see this kind of management by algorithm. You see it, it’s very common in delivery and it’s very simple of course, to create a metric there, you just give somebody a truck full of items, and you say, you have this many hours to complete this many deliveries. You also see this kind of management by algorithm, it’s very common in fast-food settings and you see it in a trucking as well.

Zoe Thomas: Most of the jobs that you’re naming are what we call blue collar jobs. Is this type of management something that could also apply to office workers to white collar jobs?

Christopher Mims: I think that it’s creeping into some types of white collar jobs, especially as they get redefined. I mean, customer service used to be more of a kind of skilled labor, right? Like in order to perform customer service, you had to have some expertise. Now of course, people in call centers can just be walking through scripts. So that white collar job has been rendered blue collar through automation. So I think the answer is anytime that something can be automated, anytime that a task is repetitive, but you still need humans to be a part of it then this management by algorithm is brought to bear.

Zoe Thomas: All right. So does that mean answering to algorithms is just an inevitable consequence of the development of technology.

Christopher Mims: I do think it’s inevitable that technology is going to be part of our lives, software can help us do our jobs better, but how we apply it is really up to us. And by us, of course, I mean, leaders at companies. I mean, I have the privilege of talking to the executives who had built and designed these systems and this automation. And one of the things they told me was this rate at which workers are asked to do their jobs, that’s ultimately a management decision. The automation itself is flexible and it can be made to fit the human, to accommodate the human, to make their work life better. Whether it does, depends on whether management decides to make it that way, or frankly, how much power workers have. And if you are working in an Amazon fulfillment center and turnover is very high, you don’t have a lot of power.

Zoe Thomas: All right. That’s our columnist, Christopher Mims. Thanks for joining us, Christopher.

Christopher Mims: Thank you so much for having me Zoe.

Zoe Thomas: And that’s it for today’s Tech News Briefing. But before we close out today’s show, we want to give you the opportunity to send us your questions on the upcoming Apple event. On Tuesday, the company is expected to launch its latest line of iPhones and possibly a new smartwatch. So are you thinking of upgrading? Do you have any questions on privacy, what to do with your old devices or are you wondering how this event can affect Apple’s competition with other tech giants? Leave us a voicemail at 314-635-0388. We’re planning on answering these questions in an upcoming episode. Once again, that number is 314-635-0388. We look forward to hearing from you. And remember, you can always find more tech stories on our website, wsj.com. And if you like our show, please rate and review it. You can do it wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Zoe Thomas for The Wall Street Journal. Thanks for listening.

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