Earlier this week, Jeff Bezos announced that he will no longer be the CEO of Amazon handing over the baton to one of his lieutenants who ran Amazon’s hugely successful web services (AWS) business. So, it is an occasion to look at the journey of the world’s largest company, all built in 25yrs and the man who built it, who in the process created incredible wealth for himself (the richest man in the world until recently when his space race competitor Elon Musk dislodged him to second best). There are plenty of directions to take our study of this incredible journey. One obvious lesson is from a business standpoint – there’s none better than Ben Thompson’s piece in the Stratechery
for that. But the one we chose to feature is this piece in The Guardian about what does this journey mean to humanity or indeed what does this journey say about us as humans? Mark O’Connell does a remarkable job of thorough research combined with brilliant prose to bring out the conflicts about the man, for example, his obsession with delighting customers and shareholders at the expense of oppressing labour and suppliers. A large part of Mark’s research is from a book called “Invent & Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos”,
the introduction to which is by biographer Walter Isaacson (best known for his biography of Steve Jobs). Mark draws heavily from Isaacson’s introduction, not necessarily kindly though.
“…its introduction.. is intent on framing Bezos as a contemporary renaissance man, a figure on the revolutionary order of your Leonardos, your Einsteins, your Ben Franklins (all of whom Isaacson has written books about). After running through the qualities he considers peculiar to such “true innovators” – passionate curiosity, an equal love of both the arts and the sciences, a Jobs-like “reality distortion field” that inspires people to pursue apparently impossible ends, and a childlike sense of wonder – Isaacson concludes that Bezos embodies all of them, and that he belongs in the pantheon of truly revolutionary thinkers.”
Mark goes on to clarify what exactly is revolutionary about Bezos:
“Bezos has not been personally responsible for the introduction of any new technology into the world. He was not the inventor of online shopping. The year before Amazon.com was founded, the first consumer purchase was made on the world wide web: a copy of Sting’s album Ten Summoner’s Tales, purchased for $12.48 plus shipping, from an online store called NetMarket. Neither did he, or any of his employees, invent the e-reader: a company called Rocket was selling e-readers through Barnes and Noble in the late 90s, back when Bezos was still packing boxes with his own hands.
But it would clearly be wrong to claim that there is nothing radical about the nature of Bezos’s achievement. Amazon’s vast logistical innovations have made the consumer experience, from order to delivery, as frictionless as possible, and in so doing have changed the nature of consumerism. This is to say that it has changed the texture of the world. It’s not that Bezos is doing any one thing that no one had thought to do before: it’s that he’s doing it faster, more efficiently, and at unprecedented scale. His achievement, in this sense, can be seen as one not one of quality but of quantity. But the sheer scale of the quantity, the unprecedented mass and velocity of Amazon’s power, becomes itself qualitative – in the way that getting stung by two bees is quantitatively different from getting stung by one, but getting stung by a billion would be qualitatively different.”
The piece also digs out the motivations for his other obsession – inhabiting the solar system, what he is leaving the Amazon’s CEO post for:
“Every year, Bezos liquidates a billion dollars’ worth of his own Amazon stock, and puts it into a company he founded in 2000 called Blue Origin, which develops technologies aimed at facilitating travel to, and settlement of, manmade colonies in outer space. “We want to go to space to protect this planet,” as he put it in a 2019 speech, included in Invent & Wander under the title The Purpose of Going into Space. The big problem the Earth faces, according to Bezos, is not environmental destruction per se; it’s the prospect of running out of energy resources. But if we move into outer space, he argues, we will have access to unlimited resources, and there will be, to all intents and purposes, no limits to growth, or to the consumption of energy. “In a nutshell,” as Fortune journalist Brian Dumaine puts it in his book Bezonomics, “he wants to make Earth a residential and light industrial zone and move all the mining and heavy industry to space.”
“What happens,” Bezos asks, “when unlimited demand meets finite resources? The answer is incredibly simple: rationing. That’s the path we would find ourselves on, and that path would lead, for the first time, to your grandchildren and their grandchildren having worse lives than you. That’s a bad path.””
But the article’s central message of conflict is turned inward upon us:
“Amazon thrusts my identity as a consumer into open conflict with my other identities – writer of books, holder of vaguely socialist ideals – in such a way that my consumer identity too often prevails.
…the idea of “boycotting Amazon” arises out of a misreading of what Amazon actually is, and of its position in the contemporary marketplace. Amazon is not, and has not been for many years, merely a gigantic online shop that you can chose either to patronise or not. It is also, increasingly, the infrastructure undergirding the internet itself. Even if my task here was to convince you, the reader, that Amazon was bad and that you should boycott it – which we both know it is, and that you should – we would both of us still, in a strictly technical sense, be using Amazon. (Another, perhaps more accurate way of putting this would be to say that Amazon would still be using us.)
Amazon Web Services (AWS), which launched in 2006 and is now the largest cloud computing platform in the world, provides hosting for the Guardian, and for tech mainstays such as Netflix and Twitter, as well as for industrial giants such as General Electric and Unilever. While researching this piece, I watched Amazon Empire: the Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos, a highly informative – and highly critical – documentary, put out last year by the US non-profit public broadcaster PBS, which itself relies on Amazon’s cloud platform. In 2013, Amazon signed a $600m deal with the US government to host the top-secret workloads of its various intelligence agencies, including the CIA and NSA, via AWS’s Thomas Pynchon-ishly named Secret Region.”
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