Shining blue and bright above a subterranean labyrinth of hollow shafts, a warehouse sits upon the abandoned remains of a coal mine that once defined this working-class English town. It is as bright as the mines are dark, as vast as the shafts are claustrophobic, as clean as they are filthy. This warehouse represents a future of shopping that does to brick-and-mortar retail what it has already done to the coal mine that used to thrive in its place: Bury it without filling the hole it left behind.
This warehouse is the focus of one particular vision of retail’s future captured by Ben Roberts in Amazon Unpacked, a haunting series of photographs exposing the inner workings of Amazon’s massive fulfillment center in the English Midlands.
Roberts was originally sent to Amazon’s fulfillment warehouse to contribute to a Financial Times article about the online retail giant’s impact upon the town of Rugeley, which fell on hard economic times after the closure of the area’s main employer, a coal mine, back in 1990. In 2011, Amazon announced its intent to set up a fulfillment center in the once vibrant town. It would be a packaging and delivery nexus through which Amazon’s centralized computer brain orchestrated the shipment of millions of packages every year, all throughout the U.K. More important? It would hire a significant number of locals, some of whom had been out of work for 20 years.
Rugeley was hopeful that Amazon’s move into the city limits would result in brighter prospects for the area after two decades of economic gloom. As Roberts’s photographs show, however, Amazon’s future may be bright…but it’s also soulless.
"Vast but one-dimensional. That’s what the Rugeley center is like," Roberts tells Co.Design. "It’s shockingly quiet there."
Workers at Rugeley spend their days wandering the massive warehouse, either squirreling away incoming products, pulling orders down from shelves, or packing them up for shipment. In each of these activities, the workers’ motions are not driven by the engine of human judgment or expertise but rather by the massive engine of Amazon’s exquisitely complex fulfillment mechanism: a computer that both tracks and commands every worker’s movements throughout the day.
An Amazon fulfillment associate might have to walk as far as 15 miles in a single shift, endlessly looping back and forth between shelves in a warehouse the size of nine soccer fields. They do this in complete silence, except for the sound of their feet. The atmosphere is so quiet that workers can be fired for even talking to one another. And all the while, cardboard cutouts of happy Amazon workers look on, cartoon speech bubbles frozen above their heads: "This is the best job I ever had!"
"The workers at Rugeley are effectively human robots," Roberts says. "And the only reason Amazon doesn’t actually replace them with robots is they’ve yet to find a machine that can handle so many different sized packages."
It’s a stark metaphor that emphasizes the way in which Amazon has managed to mechanize even the human element of its e-retail empire. In trying to capture it, Roberts found himself taking pictures that were very different from the tone of his usual work, which often focuses upon the intimacy and immediacy of the connection between people and their environments. There is no such intimacy on display in Amazon Unpacked. Instead, his photos of the warehouse are reminiscent of the massive industrial landscapes captured by Edward Burtynsky, a comparison that Roberts says is "almost inescapable" due to the barren humanity of the facility.
The issue at Rugeley is not that workers are ungrateful for the jobs Amazon has given them, or even that they find these jobs unpleasant. Most of Rugeley’s workers come from mining families, a stock not exactly known for its weak-livered dandyism. It doesn’t matter that these jobs are hard. It’s that they have no future.
"Mines aren’t by any stretch of the imagination utopias. Any kind of mining is a dirty, dangerous, high-risk job." Roberts says. "But what the mining industry did offer workers was a job for life. If you started working for the mine at 18, you could be the head of an entire team of miners by the time you were 35."
This is not the case at Amazon. The jobs in the Rugeley fulfillment center are almost always temporary positions handed out by agencies on zero-hour contracts. Nothing is guaranteed, and a fulfillment associate’s job can completely disappear between one day and the next. As such, the local economy is not recovering as locals hoped. Amazon is not investing in the town’s people; instead, it’s mechanizing them.
For Roberts, this isn’t about how something you order off of Amazon comes to your door. It’s about how fulfillment centers like Rugeley represent the invisible cost buried in every low Amazon price.
"When you buy something from an independent retailer, you might pay more than Amazon, but that extra bit is an investment," Roberts explains. "When you pay it, you’re investing in the quality of not only your own life but the life of the community around you."
Without that investment? No need to imagine a world without shops, just imagine the walls of a fulfillment center like the one in Rugeley—growing as fast as Amazon does—extending into the horizon, forever. And even shoppers might one day become the automatons wandering between the shelves.