Thursday, 28 November 2013

Brainwashing & Bestiality: The British Shopping Experience

Last night I caught up on the Panorama documentary that exposed the working conditions at an Amazon distribution centre. It made me want to cancel my current Amazon order except, of course, Amazon being Amazon, they’d shipped my order thirty seconds after I’d placed it.

Before the programme, I’d expected to discover that the Amazon operation is dehumanising. Little did I expect it to be ripped from some dystopian novel in which human spirits are crushed with the very worst techniques taught in the gulag. Last year I wrote a book which required me to read up on brainwashing techniques. The Amazon operation reminded me of the techniques the Chinese invented to break a person’s spirit.

I don’t, from memory, recall the characteristic techniques of classic brainwashing but the list is up there on Wikipedia’s entry for Margaret Singer’s ‘Cults in our Midst’:

  • "Keep the person unaware of what is going on and how attempts to psychologically condition him or her are directed in a step-by-step manner.

  • Control the person's social and/or physical environment; especially control the person's time.

  • Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person.

  • Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person's former social identity.

  • The group manipulates a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in order to promote learning the group's ideology or belief system and group-approved behaviors.

  • Put forth a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that permits no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order."

I think at least five out of the seven techniques might be recognisable in the Amazon routine: trapping a person in a maze, running them against a clock which is continually counting down and beeping warnings, in a closed warehouse environment where they are given punishments for infractions, imposed by colleagues working for a largely faceless corporate structure beyond the control of governments to control… If the average Amazon shelf picker were a chicken, there would probably be some European rule to cover their welfare or at least prevent them from wearing their beaks down on the bars of their cage.

I’d like to say that this morning I cancelled my Amazon order but I haven’t so I can't. The reality is, of course, that none of us are in a position to do very much about Amazon. I wish I had enough money to donate £10-20 a time to a company simply to encourage them to keep existing, even with their higher prices. We vote for governments to protect us from this kind of thing but, for our sins, we seem to have voted for a government who believe in that kind of thing. Would I have used Amazon yesterday if I’d known any this? To my shame, perhaps I would have. To my credit, I hope that I wouldn’t. I just don’t know.

The problem of Amazon is really a problem with the British high street. I only saw the documentary after a day when I’d travelled to Warrington and then Liverpool hoping to find a new Wacom graphic tablet. Late Tuesday, my Bamboo drew its last cartoon and I’ve had to bite the big bullet and upgrade. Because I foolishly still like to shop rather than use Amazon, I biked the long painfully rough cycle path St Helen’s council provide (loose limestone and mud) until I hit Warrington’s cycle paths (beautiful black tarmac) which led me to the big local PC World. It didn’t sell the Intuos model I wanted but they said they could order one in for me. I declined. Since Warrington no longer has any real technology stores, I spent a fruitless morning there and then took a train straight into Liverpool.

Perhaps I was already feeling particularly remote from the crowds by the time I arrived but I began reflecting on how we individually don’t seem to matter to retailers. Outside Primark, a blind guitarist was playing Shadows hits. A crowd had gathered and was cheering and laughing as I passed. They were cheering an old tramp dancing to the music. I wondered if the guitarist knew what was happening. I wondered about people laughing at a dancing hobo who they’d normally ignore or avoid. Are you mad simply by being different to the crowd, dancing to a different tune? I felt that way after going to one store to the next and being told the same thing: that I was asking for the impossible. Why did I want the professional tablet when I could buy the cheaper model right there?

On Paradise Street, the long new shopping avenue that cuts across Church Street, a huge queue had formed. As I walked its length, heading towards John Lewis, I grew increasingly eager to discover the attraction. It was possibly the longest queue I’ve ever seen. The goal of these people was surely something meaningful. Perhaps a particularly good Santa lay at the end. Perhaps some celebrity. Was I about to see Stephen Gerrard or Ken Dodd?

Sadly not. These hundreds of people weren’t queuing to see a person. They were queuing on a freezing cold November day to have their photographs taken standing next to the Coca Cola truck. I can’t say the truck impressed me that much. It was one of those American juggernauts, decked out in Cola red and satanic chrome, with a morbidly obese Santa painted on the side. People stood up by the cab and smiled so they could say ‘this is me standing next to the Coca Cola truck you see in their Christmas ad.’

Coca Cola’s very good at brainwashing and this, I think, was a show of their strength. This was their Red Square. This their Kim Il-sung Square...

At John Lewis, Wacom’s only local dealer, I was told they only stock the basic model. ‘We can order them in,’ they said with a smile. It had become the refrain of my day and my reply was always the same: ‘What’s the point of that? I can do that myself without leaving the house.’

When I heard the same from the helpful guy in Liverpool’s Apple store, I told him ‘it makes you wonder why you even bother go shopping on the high street.’

He smiled. ‘I know,’ he shrugged. ‘I’m afraid we only stock what sells.’

I felt like pointing out that if they don’t stock something then of course it won’t sell. It means that people like me won’t go and buy other things from them and soon those things will also become things that ‘doesn’t sell’, our choices get more narrow, and their opportunities to sell me things become more infrequent. The things that sell become fewer and fewer.

The high street is dying not just because of Amazon but because of the attitudes of retailers, constantly refining their product ranges to focus on only popular products and the biggest demographic. It means that all shops of the same type have the very same stock. And if every shop stocks the same things, then there really isn’t any need for all these shops.

One final note of optimism.

In Warrington, a new shop has opened, hidden in a side street near the bus station. It doesn’t take credit cards so all transactions are cash only. From the outside it looks like a temporary operation. It sells cases for phones and tablets but they’re products you don’t see in other shops. It’s not as cheap as you might think but sells quality and is a reminder of what shopping used to be like, when you came home with some surprising object you’d discovered in your hunt for bargains. I think these shops are a reminder of what we might find growing in the ashes of the high street. These are the shops ready to open once the big branches have cleared out and rents have come down. Perhaps we need to start again, rid ourselves of the huge national chain stores, with their computerised inventories and corporate look. We need individuality back on the high street, where every town looks different and no two stores are the same.

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