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Amazon: Threat or Menace?

"The Everything Store" leaves a big unanswered question. What happens when an entire economy is "amazoned"?
 
 
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On one thing, both friends and enemies of Jeff Bezos can agree: He is a long-term thinker. This has been true, we learn from Brad Stone’s illuminating new book on Amazon,  “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon,” since at least as far back as high school. In his valedictorian speech the young Bezos discussed “his dream of saving humanity by creating permanent human colonies in orbiting space stations while turning the planet into an enormous nature preserve.”

More recently, while explaining his support for the “Clock of the Long Now” — an epic, gargantuan timepiece expected to last 10,000 years into the future — he told an audience “time horizons matter, they matter a lot… we humans are getting awfully sophisticated in technological ways and have a lot of potential to be very dangerous to ourselves. It seems to me that we, as a species, have to start thinking longer term.”

And then of course there is Amazon, the company Stone describes as “relentlessly innovative and disruptive as well as calculating and ruthless.” A crucial element in Amazon’s success has been Bezos’ willingness to ignore short-term profit-and-loss gyrations while keeping his eye on the big picture. That’s how you build a retail colossus that ends up crushing its competitors while marching to world domination in a bewildering profusion of markets. That’s how you become the 12th richest man in America.

In a country where so many economic and political problems can be traced to short-term thinking, to self-defeating obsessions with quarterly earnings reports and 24-hour news cycles, Jeff Bezos’ willingness to think big and remain steadfast is refreshing and worth applauding (especially if you are a Washington Post employee.) But it invites a huge question, one that is not sufficiently addressed in “The Everything Store.” What is the long-term impact of Amazon on us? Where does the monomaniacal focus on delivering low-priced goods to consumers as quickly and easily as possible lead society in the long run?Because Bezos is absolutely right: Our technological sophistication has given us “a lot of potential to be very dangerous to ourselves.” What he fails to mention is the possibility that Amazon itself is part of that threat.

Amazon is the perfect narrative vehicle for exploring how the revolutionary changes ushered in by the Internet have remade our world. As Stone reminds us, from the very first moment any of us pointed and clicked our way to an online book purchase in the 1990s, Amazon embodied the utopian, irresistibly seductive promise of the new digital world more adroitly than any other Internet pioneer. We could get any book we wanted, without ever leaving our couch! Science-fiction nirvana!

Stone makes an excellent case that no single person got the essential promise of the Internet earlier and was able to turn it into a commercial proposition more effectively than Bezos. He is, without a doubt, one hell of a smart guy. He’s also bold and ruthless and impatient: all qualities that have served Amazon well.

But the Internet sci-fi transformation doesn’t just stop with the FedEx or UPS package miraculously arriving at the front door. Like Walmart, a company that Stone constantly compares Amazon with, “the everything store” is so big and so successful that it has changed the contours of our economy, remade entire industries, hammered the “mom-and-pop store” ecology into smithereens, and replaced, in countless cases, actual personal connection with the crafty persuasiveness of an all-knowing algorithm.

What does that mean for local economies, for the “creative class” or the middle class? The answers to these questions are totally unclear, which is all the more reason why a book about Amazon should plunge into them.

 
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