25 January 2020

The Atlantic: “Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan”

Bezos is unabashed in his fanaticism for Star Trek and its many spin-offs. He has a holding company called Zefram, which honors the character who invented warp drive. He persuaded the makers of the film Star Trek Beyond to give him a cameo as a Starfleet official. He named his dog Kamala, after a woman who appears in an episode as Picard’s “perfect” but unattainable mate. As time has passed, Bezos and Picard have physically converged. Like the interstellar explorer, portrayed by Patrick Stewart, Bezos shaved the remnant strands on his high-gloss pate and acquired a cast-iron physique. A friend once said that Bezos adopted his strenuous fitness regimen in anticipation of the day that he, too, would journey to the heavens.

When reporters tracked down Bezos’s high-school girlfriend, she said, The reason he’s earning so much money is to get to outer space. This assessment hardly required a leap of imagination. As the valedictorian of Miami Palmetto Senior High School’s class of 1982, Bezos used his graduation speech to unfurl his vision for humanity. He dreamed aloud of the day when millions of his fellow earthlings would relocate to colonies in space. A local newspaper reported that his intention was to get all people off the Earth and see it turned into a huge national park.

Franklin Foer

Speaking of Jeff Bezos, I’ve read this fascinating profile on him a while back, covering many of his passions and projects, from the early start with book selling to the juggernaut e-commerce business of Amazon, from the Clock of the Long Now to his ultimate plan, conquering the final frontier. While there are many concerns about his business practices, I cannot help but admire him for his ultimate goals and long-term vision. At the same time I wonder, as a man with foresight, has he ever considered who will replace him at the top of Amazon – or, more importantly, who will carry out his vision of space exploration after his passing?

by the way, that story about his phone being hacked by the Saudi crown prince hasn’t aged well, as other news sources claim it was Bezos’ girlfriend Lauren Sanchez who shared his text messages with her brother, who then leaked their contents to the National Enquirer.

Ben Thompson, the founder of Stratechery, a website that vivisects Silicon Valley companies, has incisively described Amazon’s master plan. He argues that the company wants to provide logistics “for basically everyone and everything”, because if everything flows through Amazon, the company will be positioned to collect a “tax” on a stunning array of transactions. When Amazon sells subscriptions to premium cable channels such as Showtime and Starz, it reportedly takes anywhere from a 15 to 50 percent cut. While an item sits in an Amazon warehouse waiting to be purchased, the seller pays a rental fee. Amazon allows vendors to buy superior placement in its search results (it then marks those results as sponsored), and it has carved up the space on its own pages so that they can be leased as advertising. If a business hopes to gain access to Amazon’s economies of scale, it has to pay the tolls. The man who styles himself as the heroic Jean-Luc Picard has thus built a business that better resembles Picard’s archenemy, the Borg, a society-swallowing entity that informs victims, You will be assimilated and Resistance is futile.

Jeff Bezos Master Plan
Rendering by Patrick White; Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / Getty

That Donald Trump has picked Jeff Bezos as a foil is fitting. They represent dueling reactions to the dysfunction of so much of American life. In the face of the manipulative emotionalism of this presidency, it’s hard not to pine for a technocratic alternative, to yearn for a utopia of competence and rules. As Trump runs down the country, Bezos builds things that function as promised.

Yet the erosion of democracy comes in different forms. Untrammeled private power might not seem the biggest threat when public power takes such abusive form. But the country needs to think like Bezos and consider the longer sweep of history before permitting so much responsibility to pool in one man, who, without ever receiving a vote, assumes roles once reserved for the state. His company has become the shared national infrastructure; it shapes the future of the workplace with its robots; it will populate the skies with its drones; its website determines which industries thrive and which fall to the side. His investments in space travel may remake the heavens. The incapacity of the political system to ponder the problem of his power, let alone check it, guarantees his Long Now. He is fixated on the distance because he knows it belongs to him.

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