On & Off Campus Blog

Our one click world
Our one click world
Nicholas Kolbas '20


It's 7:00pm on a Saturday night. With the intention of doing homework, I open my laptop, pull up Safari, and watch my school email load on the homepage—seventeen unread messages. Most of the emails I've received don't really concern me. Many are from colleges that I'm not even considering, regarding application deadlines or inviting me to on-campus events. Of course, numerous What's Happening messages either invite me to clubs, announce lost phones, or list the upcoming week's lunch menu (that regular email always brightens my day, Chef Jones). And several emails are from Amazon.com, encouraging me to stay up-to-date with Amazon Music's customized selection of "songs you love," and to purchase "items we think you might like" based off recent purchases.

Most of the time, I try to avoid the consumerist pitfall this personalized marketing attempts to establish. However, advertising sometimes wins me over. Today, I succumb and take the link to a particularly comfortable-looking flannel shirt (it has a subtle, earth-toned, plaid pattern that aligns well with my personal style). After reminding myself that I haven't bought new clothes in a while and that I deserve a little something to look forward to, I select "buy with one click." There's no harm in a little self-indulgence, right? Well.

In Phoenix, Arizona, fulfilment center #PHX3—an Amazon warehouse—receives my order as soon as I make that one click. (#PHX3 is one of 175 fulfillment centers worldwide, the total consisting of more than 150 million square feet of space.) Randomly stored with millions of other items, my flannel waits mere minutes before an Amazon worker loads it onto an orange, self-driving robot weighing over 700 pounds and capable of lifting 3,000 pounds. Moving by the direction of QR codes stuck periodically on the warehouse floor, this robot uses motion sensors to prevent collisions as it carries my flannel to a packing station. The robot requires energy to function, electricity derived from generators derived from deposits of burning fossil fuels, which leak into the atmosphere like toxic gas into a swelling balloon.

At the packing station, an Amazon worker places my flannel in a cardboard box, which they stuff with inflated, plastic bubbles before sealing the package with tape. This cardboard comes in regular shipments from manufacturing companies, which own thousands of acres of land where pine trees are first harvested, then stripped of their limbs, loaded onto a truck, driven to a mill, broken down into a fibrous pulp, sent to a paper machine, pressed, dried, converted into kraft paper, and shipped to a corrugating plant to complete its transformation into cardboard. Now, this cardboard box contains my flannel shirt.

The worker then loads my package onto a conveyor belt called the SLAM (scan, label, apply and manifest) line. There, different machines attach a label with my name and address to the box. A computer system tracks my package; it weighs the box to confirm the order is correct. At the end of the conveyor belt, an orange robot carries my package to a trailer truck.

Coughing up black exhaust from its engine, this trailer truck begins to carry more than 2,000 boxes to a sortation center. Here, an Amazon worker sorts my package based on my location (the Boston area) and my indicated delivery speed (Prime, two-day). The employee stacks my package alongside hundreds of others into a metal container called a Unit Load Devices. These devices slide into an Amazon Air plane, which consumes 17,100 gallons of gasoline to travel 2,300 miles from Phoenix to Boston. When the plane arrives, an Amazon employee unloads my package and places it in a van for delivery locations in my area. The van driver circles through Greater Boston, delivering packages at a hundred locations before stopping at my house in Needham.

It's 7:00pm on Monday when the deliverywoman approaches my front door with a package. I hear the doorbell ring from my bedroom and hurry downstairs to retrieve my box from the front steps. After breaking the tape with an exacto knife, I pull out the strip of inflated plastic packaging to reveal my flannel shirt. It seems to glow in the moonlight (poetic, I know), and I eagerly try it on. My hands can't reach out of the sleeves, the shirt nearly down to my knees. My heart sinks. The flannel is too big.

Oh, well. I guess I'll have to return it. Then I'll order another.

With one click, I play my role in perpetuating the country's consumerist culture, the idea that we can self-worth through possessions and material wealth. Admittedly, the prospect of a new flannel brought me a degree of excitement while I waited, and I failed to consider the countless factors and energy that constituted my order. In shame, I could renounce online shopping to focus solely on the "pure" happiness friends and family bring, but my relationship with consumerism extends far deeper than one click on Amazon. It's tied directly to the society to which I belong: American culture.

One simply couldn't exist in modern America without falling subject to consumerism—if not for happiness, then for necessity. The food I eat my family must buy from the grocery store, where we find every loaf of bread wrapped in plastic, every egg in a carton, every fruit with an annoying sticker. To provide ourselves with even the most basic sustenance, we must become consumers, discarding waste as an intrinsic part of our lives. I want to exempt myself from this habit, to prove that survival is possible without a consumerist lifestyle. But America's systematic, cultural consumerism stifles my desire for rebellion. Instead, I'll do what I can to lessen my dependence on consumption—beginning with my flannel. I won't return it. I'll just find myself a sewing kit and hem the sleeves.