Holiday road show

Rural Nebraska, my ancestral home, has 14.4Kbps modem connections. Everything else goes a little bit slower.

I am heading home for the rest of the holidays, including New Year's, which I plan to spend eating Chikin-in-a-Biskit crackers on my grandmother's couch. Frankly, I can't wait. Home is home, and that's where a body likes to spend the holidays, even if the data speeds are excruciating.

Lucky me. Lucky us to have such fine holidays on tap—the vast majority of Weekly readers being gainfully employed, relatively well-housed, and more or less able to celebrate comfortably in the bosom of our families (or to whine engagingly about how insane our families are if we prefer, this still being the '90s for a few more days).

Of course, some of us are feeling a little less lucky than others this season. I'm not referring to the homeless, the hospitalized, the imprisoned, the forgotten—to any of the folk who rise onto our radar dependably during the holidays and all too rarely the rest of the year.

No, I'm talking about a Net-era downtrodden class, whose sorrows lie cheek-by-jowl with success beyond their wildest dreams, whose tear-stained diaries are bookmarked with stock certificates. I'm talking about people who have not only fallen from their accustomed station in life but who have been turned out of their very homes, cast adrift from their family, their friends, the winter wonderland that is Seattle at Christmas.

I'm talking about Amazon editors, the poor bastards.

As you may have heard or (likely) experienced for yourself, the Xmas e-commerce season is having some technical difficulties, not unlike a train that has left the tracks and is plunging down a mountain precipice with the engine on fire and aliens shooting death rays at the caboose. Oh, the money's coming in fine—the credit card companies are apparently well equipped to handle transactions whether they come from the Net or Northgate Mall. It's just that the goods aren't going out. Or they will go out, eventually, so your loved ones can look forward to opening their presents sometime around spring break.

This is not an Amazon problem. This is an endemic industry problem. 1999 was supposed to be the big mainstreaming year for online shopping, and lo! the general public came, saw, shopped, and filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau. How bad are things? Even stock prices reflect it negatively. (When the real world actually makes an impact on the wifty fantasyland that is the dot-com market, that's BAD. Not to mention almost unheard of.)

Amazon, as one of the big old dogs in the kennel, knows from Xmas madness. In fact, every year a certain number of Amazon editors magically metamorphose into Amazon stock clerks, as their editorial jobs go on hiatus and the resultant "volunteers" are encouraged to keep those paychecks coming by taking shifts in the warehouse. This is in a sense a hardship, since the torrent of books to be reviewed hardly dries up while they're busy packing boxes; on the other hand, it's good honest work and probably not lastingly harmful.

This has been a crazy growth year for Amazon, which has opened six new distribution warehouses this year (up from two). But it's not enough to have the space; you've got to have the people—which Amazon chose this year to get from the same place they normally get their holiday swing shift; that is, the editorial pool. Amazonians are packing boxes not only here in Seattle but in Atlanta, Reno, Delaware, Kansas, Kentucky (two locations), and somewhere in the Dakotas. That's over 300 million square feet of books, music, toys, boxes, shelves, fluorescent lighting, forklifts, and conscripted Amazon editors sent into the hinterlands.

They did not go quietly. Bad enough to not be editors for a few weeks; now they're out of town, away from family, alone in strange cities with all their holiday shopping undone. It's a combination of overlong business trip and temporary demotion. You would cry too if it happened to you.

So join me, won't you, in a hearty round of "that sucks, dudes!" for the editorial denizens of Amazon, whose jobs are alienating, especially right now. And then let's move on, because a holiday season with health, wealth, and plenty, whether it's temporarily delayed by slow gift deliveries, weird jobs, or even bad modem connections, is still a damn site better than much of the non-tech world is getting this year. Get some perspective, get happy, and have a good Christmas.

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