In his book 1984, George Orwell imagines a dystopian society where the rulers control people by restricting their language. It appears that Amazon has decided that that policy need not just be used by governments but can also be used by big companies.
AMAZON WILL BLOCK and flag employee posts on a planned internal messaging app that contain keywords pertaining to labor unions, according to internal company documents reviewed by The Intercept. An automatic word monitor would also block a variety of terms that could represent potential critiques of Amazon’s working conditions, like “slave labor,” “prison,” and “plantation,” as well as “restrooms” — presumably related to reports of Amazon employees relieving themselves in bottles to meet punishing quotas.
But company officials also warned of what they called “the dark side of social media” and decided to actively monitor posts in order to ensure a “positive community.” At the meeting, Clark suggested that the program should resemble an online dating app like Bumble, which allows individuals to engage one on one, rather than a more forum-like platform like Facebook.
Following the meeting, an “auto bad word monitor” was devised, constituting a blacklist that would flag and automatically block employees from sending a message that contains any profane or inappropriate keywords. In addition to profanities, however, the terms include many relevant to organized labor, including “union,” “grievance,” “pay raise,” and “compensation.” Other banned keywords include terms like “ethics,” “unfair,” “slave,” “master,” “freedom,” “diversity,” “injustice,” and “fairness.” Even some phrases like “This is concerning” will be banned.
In Orwell’s book, the ruling party created something called Newspeak in order to ensure ideological conformity. “Newspeak is a controlled language of simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary designed to limit the individual’s ability to think and articulate “subversive” concepts such as personal identity, self-expression and free will.”
Also in true Newspeak spirit, company officials are suggesting that this is for the benefit of its workers.
In November 2021, Amazon convened a high-level meeting in which top executives discussed plans to create an internal social media program that would let employees recognize co-workers’ performance with posts called “Shout-Outs,” according to a source with direct knowledge.
“Our teams are always thinking about new ways to help employees engage with each other,” said Amazon spokesperson Barbara M. Agrait.
The major goal of the program, Amazon’s head of worldwide consumer business, Dave Clark, said, was to reduce employee attrition by fostering happiness among workers — and also productivity.
I am reminded of the scene from the 1957 film Bridge Over the River Kwai where the commander of a prisoner of war camp orders the prisoners who are toiling away under brutal conditions to “Be happy in your work!” That always goes over well. I am surprised that Amazon has not adopted that slogan and plastered it all over its workplaces.
I remember a bit in T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone in which Merlin changes the young Arthur into an ant so that Arthur could learn what being an ant is like. It turned out that the ants’ language contained only two adjectives, “done” and “not done.” Arthur tried to explain that sometimes not done things could really be done, but that obviously made him a not done ant. Merlin rescued him just in time.
Another real world example of Newspeak: “Arbeit macht frei.” Many of the common or shorthand names of legislation are rendered in Newspeak (e.g., the “Patriot Act”).
The term I most often use related to Amazon is “evil”. I wonder if they block that one?
Marcus Ranum says
Why would anyone use a corporate internal messaging app, unless they were forced to, by having firewalls blocking off freethoughtblogs, or twitter, or whatever?
Orwellian would be:
-- You must use only our in-house chat/bbs app
-- Nobody likes it, so you must also use it at least 1 hr/day
-- All comments must be friendly and favorable
-- In fact, management has prepared a page of standard comments that comprise the comments you are allowed to make
Marcus Ranum says
I read that when I was a kid. Great stuff. Then, I wound up listening through the (excellent!) audiobook version a few weeks ago, and was amazed at the amount of adult stuff and politics that White managed to sneak in there. I was horrified to discover that the badger was a caricature of a communist ideologue, which was odd because I just remembered badger as being cute. (Unlike The Wind In the Willows‘ badger)
It reminded me of the phrase “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” It seems that the absolute last thing any large corporation wants to do in order to retain workers is to treat them better and/or pay them better.
I thought similarly to Marcus Ranum, this app will go over like a lead balloon and when no one uses it, they’ll make its use part of your performance.
I just want to point out that, unlike many of the evil regimes in the world, we all have a direct way to express our disapproval of Amazon: DON’T GIVE THEM YOUR MONEY!
Yes, the A word is convenient. Yes, we can combine shipments of books, spices, clothes and woodworking tools to save on shipping costs, but is that the best we can say to our fellow human beings? “Sorry you are being oppressed in your job, but it’s just so damned CONVENIENT!”
How much money did Jeff Bozo waste on AI to detect altered or coded words (e.g. “the robots” instead of labour) instead of just paying people?
I’m always baffled why people think there’s a film called “Bridge Over the River Kwai”. “THE Bridge ON the River Kwai” is a pretty universally lauded film, so I can’t understand why people so frequently get the title wrong. I’ve never heard anyone refer to “Back Into The Future” for instance.
I do know that the book upon which it is based is titled, in English translation, “THE Bridge OVER the River Kwai” (from the original French “Le pont de la riviere Kwai”, and I don’t get why it’s not “sur” rather than “de la”?), but I’ll bet about as many people have even seen, much less read, that book as have read “Monkey Planet”, the translation of “La Planète des singes”, better known as “Planet of the Apes”… by the same author.
On the actual subject -- I worked until recently for a US company that introduced “Yammer”, a corporate social network. It seemed like at least a few of the happy clappy drones in the company’s US locations embraced it. Since it wasn’t directly helpful to doing our jobs, and its use wasn’t mandatory, UK staff entirely ignored it, as they mostly ignored the inhouse “Touchpoints” system of saying thanks to colleagues for things, bafflingly preferring to… say thanks to colleagues for things. Bod forbid you could say something nice without there being an audit trail…
@#5 Marcus Ranum
“I was horrified to discover that the badger was a caricature of a communist ideologue”
Well, communism is a great idea in theory, unfortunately, nearly all of the hippie communes I’ve read about ended up with the women doing all the work while the guys got high and sang songs and composed poetry. Also, many of them suffered due to not understanding that the latrines have to be separated from the potable water.
Lenin compounded the error by forcing people to become communists who did not want to be.
“I’m always baffled why people think there’s a film called “Bridge Over the River Kwai”. “THE Bridge ON the River Kwai” is a pretty universally lauded film, so I can’t understand why people so frequently get the title wrong.”
Sheesh! Did you forget to take your meds today?
@11: OK I get it, minor linguistic oddities don’t interest you. Is there really a need to joke about mental illness?
John Morales says
What exactly is the problem, anyway? So don’t use the internal messaging app to express those ideas, just use any of the myriad of existing non-internal apps.
(Amazon ain’t the man in the middle)
Exactly. I too worked for a USA multinational (EDS) at one point, and the USA-based norms just neither took nor worked here in Oz.
John Morales says
Yeah, but not in this particular manner. A different thing.
The idea is that one can only express that which their vocabulary allows, and thus a limited vocabulary leads to a limited idea space.
It’s not Orwellian.
This is traditional Company Store behaviour -- the age of, well, shall we say Oligarchs? Is returning, and impositions on employees with reduced options is inevitable.
The U.S absolutely NEEDS a functional national health insurance system (among other things) as a bulwark against such behaviour -- with the wealthy imposing on those with restricted options.
Such institutions are not socialist -- the are an essential element of functioning capitalism allowing for freer markets (less restricted by coercion).
@fentex: Bezos and his ill don’t want functioning capitalism. Their target is private monopoly.
I agree wholeheartedly with the remarkes Marcus made. I’d probably just add that the idea of filtering and then flagging messages sounds like a real issue.
The article also mentions that the execs think people will use their social media because it will give them stars or something around their icon I guess? I’ve played MMOs for a long time and I know people are willing to go to considerable effort just to get particular appearances in the game. I’m sure there are people who would like to dress up a portrait or icon, too. But while this is wildly popular in games, no one is going to fire you if they don’t like what you say and it gets flagged. Internal communication systems are only beneficial if they’re unmonitored. You have to trust your employees to come to you with issues and give them reason to trust that you’ll do the right thing when they do. What the article describes is just the typical “employee of the month” system but with extra chat and a lot of control freak nonsense thrown in.