Letter from the editor: Amazon and the new Gilded Age

Jeremy Gould/Frontline (PBS)

About an hour into the new Frontline documentary Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos, reporter James Jacoby asks Jeff Wilke, the CEO of Amazon’s global consumer business, if he thinks the company is comparable to the railroads at the turn of the last century in how it controls the flow of commerce across the United States. 

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“I don’t think of it that way,” Wilke responds. “We’re one per cent of the retail sales in the world … The idea that there’s an online distinct for brands to sell their stuff and distinct from physical just doesn’t make sense to me.”

The exchange highlights the stark question viewers will wrestle with while watching the documentary: is Amazon this generation’s encapsulation of the American dream, or a predator that’s become a menace to the global economy? Can it be both?

The tentacles of Amazon—and specifically of its founder and CEO—are remarkable to behold when unfurled over the course of two hours. Starting with the 25-year-old company’s first foray into book publishing and e-commerce, then charting its moves into shipping, cloud computing, media, food, health care and finally outer space, we watch as the company transforms from a bookseller run by a nerd with a boisterous laugh to a trillion-dollar behemoth helmed by a superhero—or villain, depending on your perspective—who has become the wealthiest man in the world.

I’ve written before that there are those who believe technology can solve humanity’s problems, and those who believe humanity can solve tech’s problems. The film makes it clear that Amazon believes the former. When its fulfillment-centre workers complain about conditions, the company adds more robots to its factories. After a montage of clips showing hackers using Amazon Ring security-camera systems to taunt customers—including children—inside their own homes, Amazon’s senior vice-president of devices Dave Limp tells a reporter, “It’s an industry problem … we want to detect them and build tools that make it harder for those kinds of attacks to happen.” 

While there are many examples of the Ring system acting as a deterrent to criminals, the segment is a reminder that the worst aspects of human behaviour will find a way to overcome technological safeguards. If Facebook left unchecked is a danger to democracy, then Amazon left unchecked—with its Ring security camera, Echo smart speaker and detailed information on your shopping, viewing and listening habits—is a danger in your home.

The film, which airs on PBS and online this Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET, also includes an interview with Amazon’s very first employee, Shel Kaphan, who says a breakup of the company “could potentially make sense.”

Since last June, the U.S. House of Representatives’ antitrust subcommittee, led by Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline, has been looking into the digital marketplace behaviour of Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon. The panel’s investigation is expected to wrap up by early April, but the testimony from some of Amazon’s competitors has already made headlines. Among them was Sonos CEO Patrick Spence, who said last month that Amazon has used its power “to subsidize the conquest” of the smart-speaker market. 

And what of Jeff Bezos, the bookseller turned global power player? Despite interviews with six top Amazon executives and nine former insiders, the documentary fails to answer the question, what does Bezos want? The most insight we gain into a man who named his company after the longest river in the world and who is building a clock that will last for 10,000 years is that he is relentlessly focused on the customer.

Perhaps that’s all we really need to know. A subscriber of The Logic once told me that Amazon is the world’s greatest venture capitalist. Offering startups the ability to build businesses on Amazon Web Services at minimal cost gave the company a front-row seat to the latest advances on the web, and provided a treasure trove of data with which to launch its own businesses. AWS helped make Netflix the world’s streaming entertainment leader; Amazon Prime Video is now one of its fiercest competitors.

Perhaps the most resonant quote from the film comes not from anyone in Bezos’ circle, but from Franklin Foer, staff writer at The Atlantic and Big Tech skeptic: 

“Everything that is admirable about Amazon is also something that we should fear about it.”

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