1995: The year the future began
Twenty years after it opened for business online, Amazon.com is showing a meaner side that has become pretty obvious.
The world’s largest online retailer delivers an enormous variety of products and services with impressive speed and reliability, and often at an inviting discount. It’s a conglomerate consumers say they admire.
In other ways, though, Amazon has grown into a not especially friendly company that projects an air of arrogance and distance.
“Even as Amazon pushes deeper into our lives, it’s getting more opaque,” Brad Stone, the country’s leading Amazon-watcher, wrote today at Bloomberg Businessweek.
Amazon, to be sure, has been a remarkable success. It was an obscure, mid-1990s startup that seized on the potential and versatility of the early Web and, as Siva Vaidhyanathan noted a few years ago, demonstrated that the online world could be safe for commerce.
Even determined critics are impressed by its accomplishments. “Before we speak ill of Amazon,” Franklin Foer wrote last year in an essay for the New Republic, “let us kneel down before it.”
In taking stock of Amazon at 20, it certainly is not churlish to point to the defects and haughtiness of a multibillion dollar multinational that can seem ubiquitous and ceaselessly ambitious, if not always profitable or immune to setback.
Amid the kudos flowing to Amazon this week, amid the hoopla expected tomorrow during Amazon’s celebratory “Prime Day,” it surely isn’t unfair to consider the counter-narratives — that, for example, a company begun by selling books online also may be bad for books, as the New Yorker suggested last year. (Update: Social media users roundly criticized Amazon for the selection and quality of merchandise offered during its “Prime Day” sales event. The widely negative response marked a rare occasion in its 20 years when Amazon was so exposed to popular ridicule and derision.)
Amazon certainly has shown that it isn’t above bullying publishers and authors. The New York Times reported today that “groups representing thousands of authors, agents and independent booksellers” have asked the U.S. Justice Department “to examine Amazon for antitrust violations.” The groups, the newspaper said, accuse Amazon of a variety of improper practices, including pricing books so low as to reduce competition even further.
Amazon has been called bad for small businesses and even, as Foer wrote, bad for the economy.
But there’s more to the meaner side of Amazon than unflattering allegations and epithets: The company is known to have treated warehouse employees badly. In a memorable series of articles in 2011, the Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania, reported :
“Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse [at Breinigsville in southeastern Pennsylvania] and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.”
Reports from Europe also have told of high-stress working conditions at Amazon warehouses.
Amazon hasn’t been the most philanthropic of corporate neighbors, either. The Seattle Times in 2012 characterized the company as “a virtual no-show in the civic life of Seattle,” the city of its founding and home to its headquarters.
Amazon is run by its founder, Jeff Bezos, who in 1994 left a well-paying job at a New York investment firm and moved west with his wife to start the company.
The often-recounted tale that Amazon, like Apple, had its beginnings in a garage is more myth than reality: It was, as Bezos has said, a converted work room in a rental house in suburban Seattle. But the tale of humble birth served to nourish a sense of Amazon’s grit and independence.
In any case, Amazon had moved on from the rental property months before opening its online store, where it offered decidedly analog products — books.
Amazon went live on July 16, 1995, and almost no one took note.
As I point out in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, such indifference somehow seems incongruous these days, “given the pervasiveness of Amazon in American life and culture.” By 1997, Amazon had gone public in an initial public offering of shares that made fortunes for Bezos, his wife, his parents, and others.
At the end of 1999, just as the dot.com boom was beginning to recede, Bezos made the cover of Time magazine as its “person of the year.”
In the cover article, Time extolled Bezos’ foresight, saying he “has done more than construct an online mall. He’s helped build the foundation of our future.”
Over the years, gushing has been more common than not in media reports about the company and its founder. Wired magazine, for example, said a few years ago that Bezos “may well be the premier technologist in America” and described him as “a figure who casts as big a shadow as legends like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs.”
Brad Stone injected some perspective into all that in 2013, in his fine book, The Everything Stone. Stone wrote that Bezos can be a harsh and intimidating boss known to explode in “melodramatic temper tantrums that some Amazon employees called, privately, nutters. A colleague failing to meet Bezos’s exacting standards would predictably set off a nutter.
“If an employee does not have the right answers or tries to bluff, or takes credit for someone else’s work, or exhibits a whiff of internal politics, uncertainty, or frailty in the heat of battle — a blood vessel in Bezos’s forehead bulges and his filter falls away.”
(A reviewer said Stone’s book “will make anyone who reads it, regardless of how much they love being an Amazon customer, feel icky about themselves for just how much they enjoy buying things at Amazon. … The portrait that Stone paints of Amazon’s founder and his company is of a ruthless, disingenuous, slave-driving mentality, where pretty much any kind of legal behavior is tolerated in the name offering customers lower prices.”)
The news media’s broad tendency to lavish praise on Bezos and the company dates to 1996 and a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal which called Amazon “a singular case in which the frequently hyped Web is actually changing consumers’ lives.”
The article appeared just ten months after Amazon opened for business and gave Bezos and his company unprecedented attention. As I note in 1995, it also had “the ironic effect of old media spurring the rise of a new media entity.”
The glowing coverage — which has been on display again in the runup to the 20th anniversary — is fairly remarkable given the standoffishness of Bezos and Amazon.
Holding journalists in disdain and at a distance will not lose many likability contests. But Amazon has demonstrated it can be exceptionally dismissive of the news media — even after Bezos spent $250 million of his own money a couple of years ago to buy the declining Washington Post.
“Extending the big buzz-off to the press and the public is a tradition that Jeff Bezos has restored to the commonweal,” Jack Shafer, one of the country’s leading media critics, wrote after the Post acquisition. “The company’s disdain for the press seems to know no limits.”
The no-comment brush-off, Shafer wrote, has become “the default response by Bezos and the company.” (Bezos, by the way, declined through Amazon spokeswomen several invitations to speak with me about 1995 as I was researching the book.)
On its 20th anniversary, Stone reports, “the company is doing and saying little to reporters.
“As far as I can tell, Bezos has granted no special interviews.”
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