Our Addiction to Amazon, FedEx and the Culture of Immediacy

We have come to rely on having anything anywhere at anytime, all the while remaining apathetic to the complexities demanded by a culture of immediacy.


| Fall 2014



Amazon packages stacked

The result of FedEx, Amazon, and their logistical kin working to such precise parameters is the creation of a culture of immediacy.

Photo by Flickr/Drew Stephens

So you probably have no idea what happens to your priority package after you deposit it in a drop box in your office lobby. It is 7:30 p.m. and you’ve worked a 12-hour day. No cause for concern if, in your post-deadline exhaustion, you inadvertently pass the box on your way out of the building; there are another 149 drop-off locations within a mile and a half of where you are standing on 42nd Street, each one equally poised to ensure your work will arrive at its destination by 7:30 a.m. the next morning. It makes no difference that you are in New York and your client is 1,500 miles away. Most likely the thought that your package has to travel cross-country in 12 hours will not register. All you care to know is that it reaches its destination on time. If you are either the nervous or curious type, you will follow the route of the package online for a detailed breakdown of its trajectory, but mostly you remain clueless about the extensive procedures and coordination necessary to make the delivery deadline. The same can be said for purchasing an item on Amazon.com. Log on to your computer, browse an infinite array of products, select the most suitable one, and look forward to seeing it on your doorstep in 48 hours, not really caring where it will come from and how it will get to you. Suffice it to say that as a user you are completely oblivious to the extensive procedures involved in what seems like a simple action—the timely delivery of a priority package to your client or finding the last pair of a limited issue of lavender shoes in your mailbox. Logistics is magic.

 

Founded in 1971 by Vietnam veteran Fred Smith in Little Rock, Arkansas, FedEx grew up hand in hand with the new economic and social structures of the post-Fordist global economy. The shift from automated manufacturing, such as the mass production of goods through repetition of tasks in an assembly line model, to a more flexible form of production whereby goods could be customized or varied in response to a range of consumer markets rose concurrently with the increasing atomization of Western culture. In addition, the rise and popularization of digital information systems and flexible production’s dependence on computer technologies can also be traced to the early 1970s when technological innovations such as the bar code, ARPANET, and early commercial video games were introduced. Smith foresaw the rise of corporate dependence on electronic systems, especially in the banking industry, which he believed would necessitate new fast-track and flexible modes of delivery. Designing an air-freight network, which up until then was limited to schedules of passenger routes, was not only a commercial and timely opportunity but also carried personal interest. In Vietnam, where he was a Marine, Smith witnessed the challenge of moving troops and supplies to remote areas in the countryside and the devastating effects that resulted from mistimed and poorly organized modes of distribution. Moreover, he was no stranger to the airline business; being familiar with his stepfather’s airline maintenance facility, he was a smart interpreter of the rules and regulations in the industry. In fact, he began his logistics empire by retrofitting two second-hand Pan Am passenger planes at his facility in Little Rock for the purpose of shipping cargo, although it would not be until mid-1975 that the company would turn a profit. Greatly enhancing the company’s position was the 1977 revision of the Federal Aviation Act, resulting in the deregulation of cargo planes, which meant air-freight providers could choose rates, routes, and planes best suited to their company structure. FedEx now handles 10.5 million packages per day and serves 220 countries and territories.

In 1971, Jeff Bezos was still in middle school but would later attend Princeton and earn a degree in electrical engineering and computer science. A job at D. E. Shaw, an innovative New York hedge fund, allowed him to develop computer software that was a forerunner to online e-trade systems. It was here, while researching internet options, that he became involved with e-commerce and the increasing market for online retail. FedEx was already a leader in logistics but not yet a cultural phenomenon by the time Amazon.com was founded in 1994. At that time, there were 1.5 million English books in print, a large branch of Borders could hold 175,000 titles, and 35 percent of books were returned to publishers. Amazon, like most other computer start-ups, began in a garage, this time at the Bezos home in Seattle. There was one modem, and the two gigabytes of storage could store one million book titles. In 1995, those who had Internet access in the U.S.—approximately 10 million users—used Netscape 2.0. Amazon began with a just-in-time distribution model, in the hope that they would only act as a broker and have books distributed from existing warehouses operated by other companies. However, it soon became clear that in order to expedite delivery and maintain control of operations, Amazon had to store the books itself. It began with a small storage space in Seattle with room for 2,000 books; initially, the inventory there included the top 10 best-selling books, later expanding to the top 25 and eventually the top 250. By July 1996, with increasing access to the web (35 million people were online by the end of the year), Amazon was selling 5,000 books per day and the company opened a larger warehouse in Seattle. Amazon.com currently has more than 80 fulfillment centers around the world to store its own stock of books and products for its direct Amazon-to-buyer system as well as merchandise for its third-party brokerage services. In the 20 years since it was launched as a bookseller, it has evolved to offering a wide range of products, as well as cloud computing and web services; in 2013, its net sales were more than $74 billion.

Amazon and FedEx have much in common. Both founded by brilliant entrepreneurs; both responsible for distribution infrastructure utilized by millions worldwide each day; both deploying proprietary technologies and information systems to coordinate the order and delivery of goods; both denying geographic limitations by compressing time and space to bring goods, services, and users closer together; both maniacally controlled organizations operating on precise time schedules that are very often measured in microseconds. In a 2009 essay in the New York Times, Tom Vanderbilt estimated that a 100-millisecond delay in the transmission of an order from a customer’s computer to an Amazon server would reduce the company’s sales by 1 percent. The speed at which orders can be transmitted across the Internet and between Amazon’s data center and its fulfillment centers is critical to its performance.