Amazonian Mail

Anglo-Saxons and the Amazonification of Royal Mail.

Amazonian Mail
Poster from the Night Mail documentary film (1936) made by the GPO film unit. There's a lovely Auden verse at the end.

Today's topic: Anglo-Saxons, Amazon, and the slow death of Postman Pat (11-minute read)

From the fifth century AD, and for around a hundred years thereafter, bands of Germanic settlers left their villages in Fresia and Jutland and headed to the coast. Once there, they pushed their clinker boats into the cold waters of the North Sea and made for Britain.

These bands made landfall all over the place, from Southampton to Scarborough. They would have had little sense of the wondrous civilisation they were founding: Inter Milan would one day play in Southampton (2016, 2-1); Britney Spears would one day perform in Scarborough (2018, with Pitbull opening).

Before they seeded such a civilisation, these Germanic settlers (they'll come to be known as the Anglo-Saxons) would first have to deal with the indigenous Britons - around a million people, who looked like the Gauls/Celts of mainland Europe, and who had seen the Romans arrive (55BC) and then flee (c.400AD).

The Anglo-Saxons did indeed deal with the Britons. Within a few hundred years of their arrival, the Anglo-Saxon minority had utterly dismantled the cultural and political structures of the indigenous Brittonic majority.

Place names became Anglo-Saxon. Burial traditions became Anglo-Saxon. The population's DNA became Anglo-Saxon. Brittonic culture was pushed to the margins, surviving as the dominant culture only in Wales, Cornwall, Devon, parts of the North West and some channel islands.

You can trace the borders between Brittonic and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms through the DNA of present-day inhabitants. The DNA of people in North Wales and Devon is less Anglo-Saxon-y than that of people in Somerset, Shropshire and Cheshire.


(Rubén Tarrío)

By the time that the written historical record restarts in the 8th century (with the economy finally large enough to sustain idle communities of monks, who do lots of writing) whatever difference there had once been between Briton and Anglo-Saxon has, for the most part, been erased.

How? No-one's quite sure given the near complete absence of contemporary written sources, but here are some theories that I half-remember from university, all of which sit on a spectrum of coercion:

  • Big love-in: a large number of Anglo-Saxons came over. There's lots of intermarriage and cross-cultural mixing. The indigenous Britons somehow adopt the language and rituals of these Germanic immigrants. Maybe the Anglo-Saxons were cooler?
  • Peaceful elite: a small number of Anglo-Saxons came over. However, they were able to establish themselves as an elite without expelling or exterminating Britons. A bit like the Normans a few hundred years later.
  • Small warband: a small number of Anglo-Saxons came over. They were more warbandy than glad-handy.Through force, they established themselves as an elite and all but enslaved the remaining Brittonic population in an apartheid-like regime.
  • Big warband: a large number of Anglo-Saxons came over. They expelled and exterminated the Britons, establishing a fairly homogenous Anglo-Saxon society.

make this relevant, please

The story of the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons is useful for understanding the story of Royal Mail and Amazon. It reminds us that there are two ways in which a newcomer is able to change a given market.

First: the newcomer leaves its mark by dominating that market itself (i.e. by establishing its own market share). Think of this as the Anglo-Saxons themselves comin over 'ere.

Second: the incumbents model themselves on the newcomer.

Amazon's growing market share is obvious. What we hear less about is the second process: the ways in which the incumbents are modelling themselves on the newcomer, the ways in which they are Amazonifying.

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Let's look at Royal Mail, because I haven't yet interviewed anyone from any other delivery companies.

what is Amazonification?

The golden rule is that consumer convenience comes above all else: buying products should be easy.

Easy is not necessarily cheap. eBay sellers often sell the same products for less.

Easy is not necessarily about choice. It's quite hard to find particular products on Amazon when you have to wade through half a page of sponsored products.

Instead, easy means being able to find quickly a cheap product with a 4+star rating, and for that product to be delivered to you in a scandalously short time.

Amazon's promise of convenience is thus a logistical promise: our supply chains and last-mile logistics are so efficient that we will get you that product quicker than anyone else, and we will turn a profit doing so.

And the other characteristics of Amazonification flow from this promise of convenience through efficient logistics. For example:

  1. The reliance on data as a means of predicting consumer behaviour (so that you can pre-emptively allocate resources), and as a means of monitoring the processes of your staff (so that you can refine those processes);
  2. Employment contracts that allow work to be quickly given and quickly taken away; efficiency means having no more workers than you need;
  3. The removal of the concept of ordinary working hours. If customers will accept deliveries late on Sunday evening, then Amazon will run last-mile delivery shifts until late on Sunday evening.

Of course, all of this only works if: (i) you take your lame ideas about the dignity of labour and stakeholder capitalism and remove them from your brain; and (ii) you first establish a stonking market share by using another of your businesses (Amazon Web Services) to subsidise the expansion of your logistics divisions.


Photo by Hannes Egler on Unsplash

Royal Mail responds

The indigenous Britons at Royal Mail must start acting like Anglo-Saxon Amazon or be consumed by it. Let's handover to our postal worker, who had his first appearance in this newsletter last week.

(Amazon warehouses?) I mean that's something we refer to near enough every day, because we're all now changing things, which is fine...

More parcel-y: Royal Mail is being drawn into Amazon's orbit by the decline in the number of letters being sent:

We make more money from letters. Because each letter is worth the stamp money. But each parcel has to be handled by so many different people. Loaded. blah blah. A letter goes through the machine, comes out, postman delivers it. But the parcel has to go through a depot, then through a tracking system, then it's loaded, and then it has to go into the van come to another depot, then when it gets here has to be scanned in, and it has to come, and it has to be loaded, and then it has to be carried. There is not as much money in it. The letters are dying out. They are concentrating on parcels.

Data: Royal Mail is equipping itself with tools that can provide additional data. It is also adopting the kind of nudge techniques that Amazon uses in its processes - a worker is reminded that the company knows they are not working:

The PDA units, the handheld guns, they've got the locations on all day. If them guns sit still for more than 15 minutes, they start vibrating. The management can look at it [the data]. I don't know whether they do to the extent that Amazon do, but we're going along that wavelength. It will come in soon.

Working hours: Royal Mail is removing the concept of ordinary working hours:

We already know Amazon, DPD, Hermes, they're all on top of their drivers. They've been given a set time that they've got to do this. At Royal Mail, they'll tell you, "it's got to be done by this time, but if you don't, cool". No one's gonna screw their face up. But if Amazon is doing it, then you know full well, we're going to be doing it. We suddenly seem to be sort of trying to play catch up here. I don't think it's worrying. But we will be doing it soon. They're bringing in working on Sundays soon. But they're making it for the part timers and if you want to opt-in. It's not a permanent fixture for us.

Flexible contracting: Royal Mail is hiring delivery drivers (separate from posties) on temporary contracts:

They're bringing out separate packet drivers for our depot. Whereas we used to take out all sorts of packets, now... any great big packets, or what they call is a above shoe size box, the drivers will take them for you.

Where will this end?

It's not unreasonable to imagine Royal Mail soon making its workers wear watches that can track heart rates, stress levels, calories burned, walking speed. Perhaps they'll put black boxes in the vans, tracking acceleration speed etc. All this stuff exists already.

Expect posties on flexible contracts.

It's not very Postman Pat-like, but these are the kind of micro-improvements to productivity and cost reductions that will allow Royal Mail to compete in the hyper-modern world of last mile logistics.

I think it's time for a gritty reboot of Postman Pat...

conclusion: is this bad?

Some concluding thoughts:

people like driving for Amazon

In December, we heard from a chef, who mentioned that lots of his peers left cheffing to drive delivery vans. He said that they were happy - more autonomy, less stress, better hours, away from the physical gaze of the boss. When we slag off Amazon for its poor working conditions etc., we should remember that the more realistic comparison is between jobs at Amazon and other low skill, low pay jobs (I know that doesn't make it okay!).

good management is key

You can collect lots of data about your employees without them feeling like their autonomy is threatened. Football clubs, for example, have been doing this for years. And, in the hands of a good manager, it can be a good tool for early intervention: if you see that a postal worker is working below their average pace for several days, this allows a good manager to step in, put an arm around them, and see if anything's the matter.

the bias towards the measurable

There's the problem that I've mentioned previously when writing about the police. In a data-driven culture, management may place greater importance on the things that can be measured easily, giving less weight to the aspects of postal work that are harder to quantify.

For instance, the average pace of a postal worker out on their walks is easily measured by wearable technology. The quality of the postal worker's interactions with the public is less easy to measure (e.g. how pleasant were their "hullos"?). These interactions are critical aspects of Royal Mail's brand - a friendly, reliable delivery company. Beware the data myopia!

Amazon without the bad stuff

Is there a third way between Amazon and the old nationalised Royal Mail? A delivery company that is efficient, techy and cheap, but which does not treat its workers poorly.

In many ways, Royal Mail has done all the hard stuff. It has a physical presence everywhere, ideally suited to last-mile logistics. It has loyal staff. An excellent brand.

Crucially, it has a monopoly on the delivery of letters that is profitable. This can be seen as its Amazon Web Services equivalent. It has its own (anti-competitive!) money-printer that it can use to subsidise capital improvements. As long as people keep sending letters!

If Amazon is broken up, and if employment law in this country is tightened, then Royal Mail suddenly looks less like a washed-up has-been, crushed by the weight of its pension obligations. Instead, it looks like a vision of the future - responsible data-driven stakeholder capitalism.

unrealistic beauty standards

The trouble with Amazon is that it isn't a delivery company. At root, it's an e-commerce company that does its own delivery. It's not competing with Royal Mail in the same way that, say, DPD are.

Yet, because Amazon does so much delivering, it has defined our expectations for how delivery companies should operate in the modern world.

Royal Mail and other delivery companies are trying to Amazonify themselves, but - to use a crass example - it's the equivalent of teenage girls crash-dieting to make themselves look like celebrities. It won't work because the celebrities have had plastic surgery and appear in edited photographs. They have had money pumped into them, just as Amazon's logistics network has money pumped into it (from AWS, from other parts of its business). Amazon's delivery services are loss-leading by design (i.e. not covered by the postage that Amazon charges) - other companies don't have that privilege.

Bonus round: here is a fascinating deep dive into Amazon's reported accounts. Amazon once used its hugely profitable Amazon Web Services division to subsidise the expansion of its e-commerce divisions. It seems this is no longer the case, as it has worked out a number of different ways of turning a profit - e.g., opening up its platform and infrastructure to 3rd party sellers, and its offering of sponsored products.

this week's reading

This week: Tony Judt (with Timothy Snyder) Thinking the Twentieth Century (2012). If you're into historians of 20th century Europe, Judt (1948-2010) was the man.

Good historians, like Judt, are often described as "titans / colossi", which is a bit much but does convey the height from which a good historian surveys the ground in front of them - their extraordinary range (Judt's best book, Postwar, is a history of Europe from 1945 to 2000).

The metaphor falls down in its implication that such titans of scholarship can only see big things from their great height. This was not the case for Judt, whose Postwar doesn't shy away from granular and underappreciated subjects: its broad arguments draw from a close-up understanding of European cinema, music, philosophy, and (the under-studied) central Europe.

Thinking the Twentieth Century records a series of conversations between Snyder and Judt. At this time, Judt had ALS. His body was losing its ability to function. He could not write, but he could talk. They discuss Zionism, Marxism, Fascist intellectuals, Eastern Europe, French socialism, and the fading star of social democracy.

Three points from this book. One for this week's newsletter. Two for next week's.

  • Today: where have the public intellectuals gone?
  • Next week: what's up with (the lack of) authoritarianism in the UK?
  • Next week: is cultural history proper history?

public intellectuals

Judt was a public intellectual. He notably took a lonely position by opposing the Iraq War whilst living in the US.

Do we have public intellectuals anymore? If so, who are they? Off the top of my head (edit: I don't think I'm talking about academics with a public profile. I think they've got to be people that would be brought on stage at some Hay Festival event to talk about something entirely unrelated to their discipline. Assorted others: Mazzucatto, Mary Beard, Picketty, David Olusoga, Judith Butler,Naomi Klein, Monbiot).

  • The gang from the Talking Politics podcast: Helen Thompson, David Runciman, Adam Tooze
  • Yuval Noah Harari
  • Lord Sumption.
  • Shoshana Zuboff
  • Richard Dawkins
  • Krugman
  • Chomsky
  • Germaine Greer
  • Elon Musk?
  • Dominic Cummings?
  • Pinker
  • AC Grayling

Things to note: not many of them; very few women (my fault probably); most of these people established themselves a fair few years ago.

It's quite strange that there aren't more. Youtube / podcasts seem to be the perfect platforms for this stuff. And there does seem to be some kind of popular desire for public-intellectual-y types. See e.g. Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray, the number of views that Christopher Hitchens' videos on youtube get.

Why are right-wing weirdos the only ones able to capitalise on this demand?

Think of the emergence of public intellectuals like a fungal bloom, particular conditions are required for it to happen:

  • An abstracted debate that seems to be outside of politics. There was an intellectual bloom during the Iraq War, where the argument for war was couched in high-minded philosophical terms - the ethics of liberal interventionism. See also: the Cold War - lots of abstraction there re. communism and capitalism. Futurism / AI seems to be fertile ground here (Harari).
  • Universities must produce them. Are they? Perhaps the Balkanisation of history & social science departments is to blame: each academic, pursuing originality, consigns themselves to a particular hyphenated methodology and a particular tiny subject matter.
  • Politics needs to be quiet. Politics is very loud at the moment and has been since 2016. You can't have debates about the future of AI on the Today Programme when the Conservative Party baboon fight is in full swing.
  • You need normal people willing to put their head above the parapet. Who'd put themselves out there nowadays? On a personal level, you'll get a load of death threats on twitter. On a professional level, the careers of young academics in the humanities / social sciences are too precarious (fixed term contract after fixed term contract) - why would you risk it all by writing polemics?
  • Low house prices. Banks will lend 4.5x salary. The average terraced house in London is c.£750k. A 10% deposit knocks that down to £675k. Your household needs an income of £150k to buy that house. Repeat the same exercise mutatis mutandis for LA, New York, Oxford. Become an accountant, a lawyer, a software developer, anything but an academic.

Given its existential/abstracted/extraordinary nature, it's weird that Covid didn't produce an outpouring of public philosophy / public history - i.e. a debate outside of formal politics.

Lord Sumption had a bit of a go of it, but then he embarrassed himself on TV by telling someone with cancer her life was "less valuable" than others, and we all sort of moved on.


The conditions are right for a fairy ring of amanita multisquamosa, by Huafang

That's all from me. Have an excellent week, dear readers.


Contact me:

If you've enjoyed this newsletter, please forward it on.

And if you aren't yet subscribed, please subscribe to receive the weekly newsletter.