Q&A: Alec MacGillis, author of the book “Fulfillment”, on working conditions in Amazon warehouses, the filming of “Nomadland” inside Amazon warehouses, and more (Hirsh Chitkara/Protocol)

qa alec macgillis fulfillment amazon nomadland

“Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America” by Alec MacGillis begins with the line, “Regional disparity was rendering areas of the country unrecognisable to one another — one world tortured with opioids, the other polluted by elite-college entrance scams.”

“Fulfillment” recounts a narrative of falling living standards, arduous labour, rising rents, and a pervasive sense of melancholy. It is as much about Amazon as it is a larger investigation of American sorrow. By discussing Amazon’s influence on cities like Dayton, Ohio; El Paso, Texas; and Carlisle, Pennsylvania, MacGillis veers off the beaten route of tech writers. The book offers detailed portrayals of people whose lives have been drastically altered by a business that takes pride in its “customer obsession.” Additionally, it tracks such events back to American political hotbeds, revealing the origin of Amazon’s considerable political impact.

Why did MacGillis choose to depict the rise of regional inequality while telling the Amazon story? According to MacGillis, “This all stems from having grown up in a little journalistic family.” I was raised with a deep understanding of the value of local journalism and the difference between little towns like Pittsfield and major cities like Boston and New York.

When MacGillis started working for The Washington Post, he realised he had to escape the Washington, D.C., bubble. He relocated to Baltimore and now works for ProPublica as a reporter. “Fulfillment” resulted in part from MacGillis’s intention to reintroduce the events taking place outside elite bubbles into them: “A significant purpose of my book is to encourage the ordinary upper-middle class consumer to grapple more with what’s behind the one-click,” MacGillis remarked.

In our discussion, MacGillis talked about the efforts being made to unionise workers, the reason why Amazon allowed “Nomadland” to be filmed in its warehouses (the movie presents a far more favourable depiction), and how free trade agreements let companies like Amazon continue to operate.

For the sake of clarity, this interview has been trimmed and shortened.

Tech news is primarily reported from either New York or San Francisco. After the 2016 election, the media attempted to address this isolation to some extent, but the drive to do so has mostly vanished. What part, in your opinion, does the tech media play in fostering the local disparities covered in “Fulfillment”? And how does that relate to the demise of local journalism?

It is impossible to exaggerate how important the collapse of local media has been for our nation and for the issues the book details.

The demise of local journalism has now progressed to the point where it truly affects current events. It affects elections, not only the one in which Trump was elected, but also municipal ones where candidates are not yet vetted. When you turn to Facebook rather than your local newspaper [or] local TV station, it also helps to build hostility within local communities.

But I believe the issue of media concentration in general, especially the concentration of the tech media in the hubs of San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C. Since it nearly solely occurs in certain locations, I believe it’s probably considerably more intense.