Dear The Sophist,
After over a year of pandemic-enforced working from home, I decided I wanted something like an office environment again. The commute to my job used to be an hour each way, and I didn’t want to go back to working in my employer’s offices, so I started working from a space near my house. It’s great, I now have a nice walk to work built in to my day, and I’ve got a window with a view of some trees instead of the wall in my basement.
I didn’t need a lot to make my new work-from-not-home office functional for my work needs, I have a laptop as a backup to my home desktop computer, and I prefer a mouse to the laptop’s trackpad, so I already had an extra mouse. The one thing I needed was a mouse pad, because the whorled-wood surface of the desk in my new space confused the laser, so the mouse’s tracking was all jumpy and wonky. I got by for a couple of days by using a sheet of paper taped to the desk, but I decided to go nuts and drop ten bucks on Amazon for a “gaming surface,” which seems to be where the big use of what they used to call mouse pads now occurs.
The Amazon shipment arrived, and the package seemed ridiculously large for what I ordered. I’ve gotten a good laugh at some shipments from Amazon, notably the time I ordered a single tiny halogen lightbulb and it arrived nestled in a cubic foot of packing peanuts, but this time it just seemed like I got the wrong package, and I did, sort of.
Instead of the single gaming surface that I ordered, the package contained five of the item, separately boxed and contained in another box, barcoded, so I had a vision of an overworked, stressed-out Amazon order-picker blindly grabbing the larger box thinking it was the correct order.
I thought some more about this Amazon worker, probably not in a union shop, maybe forced to skip bathroom breaks and meals to keep their stats up, and I wondered if there would be a reckoning for that employee, but returning stuff to Amazon can be a pain in the ass at times, and I couldn’t see trying to explain to Amazon that they sent me too much stuff, so here I am with $50 worth of gaming surfaces that cost me $10. I also wonder if Amazon just builds in this sort of loss against their giant profits, but it still doesn’t mean the heavily-tracked Amazon employee didn’t get written up or otherwise punished for the loss, maybe.
Finally, my time is valuable. Do I want to spend some of it returning some stuff I didn’t order, or is it finders keepers?
Dear Gamer of the System,
You’re not going to return the mouse pads. You know in your heart it’s too late for you to help out the Amazon employee who sent you too many “gaming surfaces.” That person has already had the five-for-one mousepad event logged by the warehouse monitoring system, and the data is in their evaluation file—assuming that the person was even a person, and not a bin-picking robot. You cannot possibly stage a human-to-human intervention to straighten things out between you and whoever sent you the wrong box; the vast, impersonal globe-spanning mechanism of Amazon stands between you and them, as it was meant to do.
If you tried to make things better, you would simply compound the problem. As The Sophist pointed out to the last person feeling guilty about whether or not to return an unwanted product, every return sets in motion a whole new cascade of human effort: the driver who has to pick up your package, the warehouse worker who has to receive and open it, the further workers who have to return it to the shelf—if they don’t just divert it to a landfill, for efficiency’s sake. Moreover, your attempt to convey the message that you don’t want to make trouble for anybody can only be processed by Amazon as a CUSTOMER DISSATISFACTION EVENT, an additional 1 in the binary code where Jeff Bezos wants to see a 0, to go with the 1 already marked down for INVENTORY DISCREPANCY.
You’re aware of all this, really. Amazon is not a store where you can duck back inside and apologize for butting the line and hastily hand the clerk the extra ten-dollar bill they mistakenly included in your change, sorry everyone, just squaring things up, didn’t want to take more than I was due. Amazon was built to destroy that store and put the clerk out of a job. If you did anything wrong, it was at the point where you entered into a transaction with this ahuman system in the first place.
Where else are you going to get a gaming surface, though? It is good and wise and righteous to avoid doing business with Amazon whenever possible, but a mouse pad is exactly the sort of thing for which Amazon has destroyed all the other shopping options. And out beyond Amazon (if such a perspective is even possible), the whole cycle by which the mouse pad went from being a handy accessory to being a ubiquitous promotional item (imagine telling yourself 10 years ago that you had to go looking for a mouse pad!) to being a piece of specialized gaming apparatus—how could you expect to maintain any sort of consumer relations modeled on human relationships in the middle of all that churn?
Everything that went wrong here is beyond your meaningful sense of control. You wanted a place to work, and you wanted the tools you do the work with there to function properly, and now you’ve found yourself caught up in all this senseless waste: the waste of human effort in bringing you all the unwanted products with maximum speed and efficiency; the material waste of moving four surplus mouse pads out of inventory, toward their inevitable accumulation in our planetary garbage pile, as five new mouse pads roll off the production line somewhere behind them.
It’s good that you’re still capable of being bothered by this. Consider the fact that you wasted a little bit of Amazon’s money (or that Amazon wasted a little bit of money around you) as a small benefit in an otherwise unmitigated, if banal, disaster. If you want to feel even better, or less bad, find someone who needs some mouse pads—a public library? A community center where disadvantaged gamers play online? The person struggling with their own optical mouse at the next whorled-wood workstation over from yours?—and give them your excess gaming surfaces.
Don’t try to write it off on your taxes, though,