The Internet Way

Posted by Nishant Shah at Feb 14, 2014 06:59 AM |
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Dr. Nishant Shah's review of the book “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” by Bantam Press/Random House Group, London was published in Biblio Vol. 19 No.8 (1&2), January – February 2014.

Click to download the file (PDF, 2436 Kb). Dr. Nishant Shah's review can be found on page 16.

The Age of Amazon’ is not just the title of a book, it is a retrospective on the history of e-commerce as well as a prophecy for the shape of things to come. In his meticulously reported book, Brad Stone takes us through the roller coaster ride of the ‘Everything Store’ that Amazon has become, building a gripping tale of an idea that has become synonymous to the world of online shopping in just over two decades.

The book reads well as a biopic on the visionary lunacy of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, as well as a gripping tale of how ideas grow and develop in the digital information age. Stone is an expert storyteller, not only because of his eye for the whimsical, the curious and the enchantment of the seemingly banal, but also because of his ability to question his own craft.

At the very outset, Stone warns us that the book has been compiled through workers at employee, but not Bezos himself. This helps Stone separate the maker from the brand — unlike Steve Jobs who became the cult icon for Apple, Bezos himself has never become the poster child of his brand, allowing

Amazon to become not only an everything store but everybody store. But it means that Stone’s task was to weave together the personal biography of Bezos, his dramatic journey through life with the tumultuous and adventurous inception and growth of Amazon, and his skill lies in the meeting of the twines, which he does with style, ease and charm.

One of the easiest accusations to throw at a book like this is to state that it reduces the murky, blurred, messy and incoherent set of events into a narrative that establishes causes and attributes design and intention where none existed. However, Stone was confronted with the idea of ‘Narrative Fallacy’ — a concept coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his Black Swan, referring to the tendency of human beings to reduce complex phenomenon to “soothing but oversimplified stories”. In fact, the challenge to not reduce the book to a series of connected anecdotes was posed by Bezos when Stone pitched the book to him. And what has emerged is a book about accidents, serendipity, risk, redundancy, failure charting the ineffable, inscrutable and inexplicable ways in which digital technologies are shaping the worlds we live in.

With the rigour and journalistic inquiry that Stone has displayed in his regular writings in The Businessweek, The Everything Store has stories which are as memorable as they are unexpected. Stone does a fantastic job of charting Bezos’ life — from tracking down the lost father who had no idea what his son, who he had abandoned at age three, has become, to the chuckleworthy compilation of Bezos’ favourite quotes (Stone calls it his ‘greatest hits’), the book is filled with pointed and poignant observations and stories that give us an idea of the extraordinary life of Jeff Bezos. But unlike the expected character creation of a mad genius, what you get is the image of a man who lived in contradictions: wedded to his internal idea of truth but also ruthless in his business policies which were predatory and competitive to say the least; a businessman who once wrote a memo titled ‘’ about how he wanted a company to be “loved not feared” but also used the metaphor of a “cheetah preying on the gazelles” in its acquisition of smaller businesses; a man who thought of himself as a “missionary rather than a mercenary” and yet built a business empire that embodies some of the most discriminatory, exploitative and stark conditions of adjunct, adhoc, underpaid and contract-based labour of our precariously mobile worlds.

Stone is masterful as he segues from Bezos’ personal life and ambitions into the monomaniacal and turbulent trajectory of Amazon. Amazon is not a simple success story. It tried and failed at many things, but what remains important is how, it failed at the traditional way of doing things and succeeded at the internet way of thinking. So when Amazon failed, it was not a failure to succeed, but a failure that resulted because the infrastructure needed to make it succeed was not yet in place. Stone’s narrative that effortlessly takes us through the economics, trade, policies, regulation, administration and struggles of Amazon, shows how it was a company that had to invent the world it wanted to succeed in, in order to succeed. In many ways, the book becomes not only about Amazon and its ambitions to sell everything from A-Z, but about how it built prototypes for the rest of the world so that it could become relevant and rule.

But the book is not a Martin-Scorsese-type homage to the scoundrel or the villain. While it is imbued up and spit you out. And if you are good, he will jump on your back and ride you into the ground.” Or as Stone himself suggests, that is the way the company is going to grow “until either Jeff Bezos exits the scene or no one is left to stand in his way”. This policy of taking everything from its employees and channelling it to the relentless growth of the company accounts for not only the high attrition rate of top executives but also the growing controversies about work and labour conditions in Amazon warehouses and on-the-ground delivery services.

Stone’s book does not go into great detail about the new work force that companies like Amazon produce — a work force that is reduced to being a cog in a system, performing mechanical tasks, working at minimal wage, and without the protections that are offered to the white collar high-level technology executives that are the popup children of the digital trade. Stone reminds us that behind the incredible platform that Amazon is, is a massive physical infrastructure which almost reminds us of the early industrial days where the labourer was in a state of exploitation and precariousness. And even as we celebrate the rise of these global behemoths, we might forget that behind the seductive interfaces and big data applications, that under the excitement of drone-based delivery systems and artificial intelligence that will start delivering things even before you place the order, is a system that pushes more and more workers in unprotected and exploitative work conditions.

All in all, The Everything Store is a little bit like Amazon itself. It is a love story of a man with his ideas, and how the rest of the world has shifted, tectonically, to accommodate these eruptions. In its historical retrospective, it shows us the full scope of the ideas and possibilities that inform Amazon, and thus the future that it is going to build for us. And with masterful craftsmanship, Brad Stone writes that it is as much about the one man and his company, as it is about the physical and affective infrastructure of our rapidly transforming digital worlds.

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