Views from the third world. Earth.

What Life Is Like Without Amazon

It's fine

You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes...

Where I live (in Sri Lanka) Amazon doesn't operate, so eCommerce has been able to evolve in weird ways. We have closed WhatsApp groups where people buy products, or bakers using Google Forms to take orders. Small businesses use the internet without becoming 'internet businesses' themselves. And thus the market is actually more free.

This sort of commerce existed before Amazon, exists around Amazon, and will be around when it's gone. It's just people buying and selling things using technology, just a bit slower because human beings are allowed to pee.

An Actual Marketplace

In Sri Lanka small businesses use the Internet like they would use a phone number, or a catalog. It's a place for people to reach them or browse their wares, but it's not like they have an engineering department. Small shops are able to use technology, it doesn't use them.  

For example, our baker takes orders through a Google Form and delivers twice a week. We pay cash. He pays no commission and doesn't go through anyone else. Clothing shops will take orders over instant messaging, and payment through bank transfer or cash. Some people have websites, but they're usually quite basic (but diverse). You get an ecosystem instead of one system. Global eCommerce is based on an expensive, complicated middle-man making things faster, but if customers are willing to wait you don't need a middle-man at all.

In Sri Lanka we're just used to waiting a bit. We're used to things only being delivered on certain days, or even arranging for pickup ourselves. For international orders, we're used to waiting for weeks on end. This is annoying, but it makes it possible for small companies to operate online without needing huge engineering and warehousing budgets. Willingness to wait reduces the tendency towards monopoly. It's important to understand that companies like Amazon do not do anything new. They just do it faster.

The paradox is that while using Amazon is more efficient for the customer, it actually makes the overall marketplace less efficient. It prices small businesses out, reducing competition. It squeezes suppliers and workers to the bone, while sucking money into a tax-free black hole. This is modern monopoly, which corrodes society while making customers paradoxically happy.

The Customer Experience

Convenience is what has made Amazon king, and predatory pricing was its coup. Amazon sold below cost for years, building up customer demand. Now it uses this demand to crush workers, suppliers, and even governments. The customer is king, but also a child, enabling Amazon to rule as regent indefinitely. We'll never escape as long as we remain children, wanting what we want, and wanting it now.

If you don't use Amazon, however, it really is inconvenient. You can't go to one place for everything, you have to search. And everything isn't even on the searchable Internet, some things are buried in social media feeds, or sold on closed groups. Then you also have to wait. Deliveries happen on schedules, just not your schedule. You have to wait for people to respond. And sometimes, you just can't get what you want. It's frustrating. But this is also being an adult. Immediately giving children everything thing they want isn't good for them. How is it good for adults?

Once you get used to waiting a bit, you just get used to it. I order things and then forget about them, and it's actually a nice surprise when they arrive. Sometimes I can't find something and I forget about it and I save the money. And often you interact with a person you like, or get a handwritten note, and it's nice. In lieu of convenience you sometimes get community. We've gotten abstracted from other people's labor through warehouses and screens. We get the goods, but miss the goodness.

An Anomaly

Sri Lanka is of course an artificial situation. Amazon isn't here because Amazon doesn't want to be here, not cause we're some island of mindful shoppers. We're just a glitch in the Matrix, surely overwritten in time, but for now you can see an alternate reality.

We'd be mindless in a second if they deigned to reign, but as it is we're just an anomaly. A little island where you can see what a world without Amazon is like.

What you notice is not really the absence of Amazon but the other smaller companies that are then able to play (we do have the Chinese giant AliBaba, but not at an ecosystem killing level). Instead you get small businesses that are sorta online, but people are transacting in ways similar to catalogs from a hundred years ago.

This is also more in the spirit of the original Internet, where everyone was supposed to have a presence, not be dominated by the presence of a few. It's also more in the spirit of 'free market' capitalism, which is supposed to be competition between lots of players, not internally efficient monopolies.

The Paradox

These are the paradoxes of eCommerce. Markets are more efficient overall, but a modern monopoly is more efficient for the customer. The internet is decentralized, but everyone wants to go to a few websites. This is the final paradox of prosperity. Mindlessly getting what you want can destroy what a society needs.

The hope, however, is that Amazon has not actually destroyed old commerce. People say brick-and-mortar shops are dinosaurs, but birds still exist. Given (anti-trust) space and customers that give them time, they can thrive.

Even if you're not in an eCommerce Jurassic Park like me, you can still order direct from many businesses, which I encourage you to do. Small businesses are still using their own websites and services like Shopify to do their own thing. You don't need to switch to a better Amazon. You can just shop directly and then wait a few days. Or a week. Make a phone call or message a human being. You can still get your stuff without stuffing another human being into a warehousing machine.

Is this going to overthrow Amazon? No, but it does change what you bring into your home. It means a lot to small companies. And it's just one more glitch in the machine. And you can still get stuff, the same way people have been getting stuff for thousands of years. Amazon doesn't meet a need, it meets a want, and as the song goes,

You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, well, you might find
You get what you need

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