COVER STORY

Visionary or villain?

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In July 2020, Amazon will be celebrating 26 years since its founding. From a small warehouse of books and a basic online domain, a kingdom has been born. But what are we to make of its leaders concomitant sense of social duty? He believes it to be a duty to reach for the stars and support the poor.

Jeffrey Bezos—born 12 January 1964 in New Mexico, raised in Texas—had a promising career ahead of him in 1994. He had graduated with degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from Princeton in 1986, and was working a lucrative Wall Street hedge fund job.

But he had spotted something: a statistic he wanted to leverage, namely growing Internet accessibility. As he would recount later: “Only 0.447% of the world had access. But that figure was growing exponentially. A year before, it had been 0.252%; by 1995, it would be 0.777%. Web usage was therefore growing at 2 300% a year.”

He rejected his boss’s advice to stay, drove cross-country to Seattle with then-wife MacKenzie Tuttle, formulated a business plan on the drive and, as startup cliché would now have it, launched Amazon from a garage. He would sell books—simply because of all products, books constantly have the most items in circulation.

This online bookstore is now a global tech behemoth: dominating retail markets, entertainment, cloud computing, AI development and, like some of his contemporaries, beginning to look at the possibility of colonising our solar system.

And Bezos is now probably the wealthiest man of all time, the first dollar centi-billionaire (minus the $38-billion settlement in his divorce from MacKenzie, of course). He also happens to own one of the world’s most influential, and newly profitable, newspapers: The Washington Post.

It’s worth remembering the type of world in which Amazon was launched, the specific conditions under which Bezos took his lottery-winning gamble. In 1994, domain names were free. But you couldn’t pay for anything online. You had to mail Amazon a cheque, or give your credit card details over the phone, or by fax.

Whatever other criticism one may have about Bezos and Amazon, these words taken from 1997 can only have come from a place of genius: “What’s really incredible about this is that this is day one. This is the very beginning. This is the Kitty Hawk stage of electronic commerce,” he said.

One thing he did get wrong (and this is where perhaps he didn’t yet realise the full extent of either his future success or his subsequent further ambitions): “We are not really competing with physical bookstores. The key is that people like to get out of their houses. I still go to physical bookstores, and I’m not going to stop. I even buy books there. I like the tactile experience.”

That tactile experience, the sense of local stores, small-scale business, is not something that would really survive Amazon in a meaningful way. Amazon controls now close to 50% of the physical book market, 90% of the e-book market, half of all online sales in the United States (where it’s also the fifth largest seller of groceries), and 40% of the global cloud market.

Surpassing the dot-com bubble

Early success allowed Amazon to make its initial public offering in 1997. If you had bought stock then, you would now be seeing close to a 100 000% return. Bezos retains 16% of this stock—the primary source of his $150-billion fortune.

Before Bezos ascended to these heights, there were many doubters along the way. The Wall Street Journal in 1999 described the site as “Amazon.bomb” after its stock declined. Slate magazine’s own moniker was “Amazon.con”, suggesting online purchasing would never be as easy and simple as a visit to the local bookstore.

Some of the most innovative technology in the Internet explosion would destroy the naysayers. One-click buying, same-day delivery, e-books instantly downloaded to the Amazon Kindle (its use of E-Ink ensuring its ease on the eye would capture the market), the virtual assistant Alexa, and now elastic cloud storage for multinational corporations, meant that not only was Amazon not a transitory dot-com fad but that it would become, like Google or Facebook, a game-changer for how we do business and connect with one another in a globalised society.

As Werner Vogels, Amazon’s chief technology officer, noted at a public forum recently: “I see Amazon as a technology company that just happened to do retail.” He believes the next shift in Amazon’s focus will be toward machine-learning, space and the big-data capabilities now being used by the likes of the CIA and various police forces.

The global push has already reached South Africa. While product delivery remains a concern in this country for Amazon’s retail wing (which does operate meaningfully, without yet launching a www.Amazon.co.za, Amazon Web Services has launched a number of data centres for corporate clients locally. Pick n Pay and Absa are two South African behemoths already on the client list.

Pushing boundaries

For Bezos personally, the real dream now—like his rival Elon Musk—lies beyond the atmosphere. He is on record saying, “I am going to use my financial lottery winnings from Amazon to fund that.” That venture is Blue Origin, his rocket company. “Humanity’s very survival relies on colonising space, starting with the moon.”

His motto in this mission is the Latin phrase gradatim ferociter: take step by step, ferociously. But it’s this ferocity that also seems to be at the heart of the increased criticism levelled against him. The New York Times has previously described the Bezos persona to be one of “a brilliant but mysterious and cold-blooded corporate titan.”

In Amazon’s early years, the Honda Accord-driving, slightly dishevelled and balding founder was regarded as something of a tech geek. A few decades later, Bezos appeared to the world in tailored clothing, with weights-trained muscles and a physique that demonstrated a regimented diet.

Did this change symbolise the journey of Amazon, from quirky bookseller to global giant—visionary to villain?

Bezos’s ferocity

It must take a special person to bring together socialist US Senator Bernie Sanders and right-wing President Trump. Bezos has pulled this off.

Trump decries Bezos’s criticism of him and accuses him of tax dodging. He calls him “Jeff Bozo” and has tweeted: “Amazon is doing great damage to tax-paying retailers. Towns, cities and states throughout the US are being hurt—many jobs being lost!” It’s a matter of public record that Amazon paid zero corporate taxes to the US Treasury in 2018.

In response, Senator Sanders introduced the Stop Bad Employers By Zeroing Out Subsidies (Stop BEZOS) Act aimed at Amazon: accusing the mogul of avoiding taxes while underpaying staff and creating a terrible workplace environment.

Sanders has repeated claims from a study that one-third of Amazon fulfilment centre workers in Arizona was on government food stamps; while across the globe, workers struggled with timed toilet breaks, rigorous performance points systems, and apparently an abnormal rate of suicides for their workforce.

Amazon initially released a statement that called statistics such as these “inaccurate and misleading”, but it did announce later that its minimum wage for all employees would be raised to $15 per hour. “We pay every penny we owe in corporate taxes including $2.6 billion over the past three years,” Amazon has also stated in response. “We’ve invested $270 billion in the US since 2010 and created more than 275 000 jobs.”

Then there are the darker accusations:

Amazon is developing a facial recognition system for policing agencies while contracting with the CIA, when its founder owns The Washington Post. Does this not represent an ominous nexus of power?

And, unlike other billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, who look to donate the majority of their fortunes to charity, Bezos has not engaged in philanthropy to the same extent at all. Admittedly, he has given approximately $2 billion of his fortune to shelters and early childhood education centres, but this came with his somewhat eerie announcement on Twitter that his charitable ventures would “use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon. Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.” Critics suggest that such efforts are tokens of charity by a corporation that itself causes inequality and poverty in the midst of the world’s wealthiest economy.

There’s no doubt that Bezos’s “customer obsession” has benefited many of the world’s consumers—just as Google’s founders provided a way to find information among the mega-data of the Internet. These digital pioneers have shown themselves to be genii: visionaries with massive amounts of wealth and influence. Men like Bezos have always sought to demonstrate a concomitant sense of social duty. He believes it to be a duty to reach for the stars and support the poor.

But, ultimately, within his genius, the inner drives and ambitions of Jeff Bezos remain as mysterious as the corporate tax practices of his own personal creation, the tech power known as Amazon. 

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