THE BLOG
03/15/2013 03:43 pm ET Updated May 15, 2013

Amazon & The Industrial Revolution

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Behind the curtain....

Nottingham, England: Some 240 years ago, the Industrial Revolution began here, in the Midlands of England. Richard Arkwright opened his first water power mill and changed the world. The machines that Arkwright designed allowed a relatively unskilled worker to manufacture (among other things) dozens, and later, hundreds of pairs of stockings an hour.

Nottingham had long been known for its lacework. Until Arkwright, the women of Notthingham had taken great pride in their ability to weave stockings in their homes, by hand. It was a highly skilled craft and it could take as much as a week to create a single pair, which they were then able to sell for a high price. It made for a good living. But stockings were expensive. A person might own but a single pair for their entire lives.

Arkwright's invention shattered that world. He made it possible for anyone to be able to afford a pair of stockings. But in doing so, he destroyed the home crafts industry and drove thousands and later millions from their villages to work for minimum wages in factories. This was the birth and the heart of the Industrial Revolution. Cheap products, cheap labor.

Today, in England, the same story is being repeated, albeit in the digital age.

What Arkwright and the Industrial Revolution were to manufacturing in the 18th Century, Amazon is to retail in the 21st Century.

Amazon is remarkably convenient, and the notion of online instant transactions is consonant with what the web does best - two way instant communication and gratification. But just as Amazon drove the handicrafts of Nottingham out of business, so too is Amazon (and other online transactional sites such as iTunes) driving traditional stores out of business. (Tower Records, anyone?)

We all understand this.

But perhaps a more insidious analogy is also taking place. The former lacemakers of Nottingham, driven out of business by their inability to compete with machine manufacturing soon found themselves with no choice but to work in the 'dark satanic mills' that the Industrial Revolution had wrought. Underpaid, under nourished and overworked, but with little other option, they became the human component of industrialization, and its first casualties.

When we click on Amazon to buy something and have it miraculously delivered to our door a few days later, we don't think about the Dark Satanic Mills. They seem centuries removed. But they are there, albeit in a different form.

Last week, The Financial Times published a terrifying profile of an Amazon Fulfillment Center (or Centre) in Rugeley, England.

Click on an Amazon product and you unleash a reaction in Rugeley (or countless other warehouses around the world). It may all be over to you, but to someone who has to physically retrieve the book or sponge or lightbulb or chainsaw that you have just ordered and ship it to you, a distinctly non-digital kind of work has just begun.

Your purchase on Amazon may be the very cutting edge of clean and high tech, but the rest of the process is decidedly low tech. Very low tech.

Inside, hundreds of people in orange vests are pushing trolleys around a space the size of nine football pitches, glancing down at the screens of their handheld satnav computers for directions on where to walk next and what to pick up when they get there. They do not dawdle - the devices in their hands are also measuring their productivity in real time. They might each walk between seven and 15 miles today. It is almost Christmas and the people working in this building, together with those in seven others like it across the country, are dispatching a truck filled with parcels every three minutes or so. Before they can go home at the end of their eight-hour shift, or go to the canteen for their 30-minute break, they must walk through a set of airport-style security scanners to prove they are not stealing anything. They also walk past a life-sized cardboard image of a cheery blonde woman in an orange vest. "This is the best job I have ever had!" says a speech bubble near her head.

Workers, or 'associates' in these Amazon fulfillment centers are paid above minimum wage. The minimum wage in the UK is £6.19 an hour. Amazon pays £6.20.

"Pickers" run through endless miles of storage shelves, directed by their hand-held devices, forbidden from talking and admonished to 'hurry up' by their managers as they fulfill orders by foot and hand. "You're sort of like a human robot" said an Amazon manager.

This is the unseen side of the Digital Revolution.

This is what allows Amazon to function so smoothly and efficiently. This is how you get your books or lightbulbs or cleansers or crank flashlights in the post.

We may be outraged by discovering that Apple iPads are made by legions of underpaid workers in China, but we give scant thought to the chain of events we set off with each click of each order.

Maybe this is the way it has to be. Maybe this is what makes the whole thing work. People marveling at the amazing quality and low cost of Britain's cotton cloth also gave scant thought to the legions of laborers in the newly built factories of Manchester; their former friends and neighbors now unemployed and with little choice.

We are probably coming to a kind of digital divide.

Those who have the skills to thrive in the new digital online world, and those who used to work in the stores that will soon no longer exist and may find their only employment running 15 miles a day in cheap plastic safety shoes fulfilling the orders that once seemed so .....'digital'.