I used to think that Walmart was the model for the corporate leviathan in Pixar’s Wall-e. Just like Buy N Large, the Walmart brand is such an entrenched part of our culture, it’s logo seems always to be hovering just on the edge of consciousness. And just like Buy N Large, Walmart has built an empire out of catering to our basest appetites, fattening us up on an endless supply of Big Gulps so that it can then sell us our very own personal scooters. But after reading George Packer’s sobering article about Amazon in this week’s New Yorker, I understand just how naive I was. It won’t be Walmart checkers who march us on to the giant space-going cruise ships if the earth finally ejects us, it will be an army of Jeff Bezos’ minions. As Packer writes:
Amazon is a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, and a utility, like Con Edison, and a video distributor, like Netflix, and a book publisher, like Random House, and a production studio, like Paramount, and a literary magazine, like The Paris Review, and a grocery deliverer, like FreshDirect, and someday it might be a package service, like U.P.S. Its founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, also owns a major newspaper, the Washington Post. All these streams and tributaries make Amazon something radically new in the history of American business. Sam Walton wanted merely to be the world’s biggest retailer. After Apple launched the iPod, Steve Jobs didn’t sign up pop stars for recording contracts. A.T. & T. doesn’t build transmission towers and rent them to smaller phone companies, the way Amazon Web Services provides server infrastructure for startups (not to mention the C.I.A.). Amazon’s identity and goals are never clear and always fluid, which makes the company destabilizing and intimidating.
Bezos originally thought of calling his company Relentless.com—that U.R.L. still takes you to Amazon’s site—before adopting the name of the world’s largest river by volume. (If Bezos were a reader of classic American fiction, he might have hit upon Octopus.com.) Amazon’s shape-shifting, engulfing quality, its tentacles extending in all directions, makes it unusual even in the tech industry, where rapid growth, not profitability, is the measure of success. Amazon is not just the “Everything Store,” to quote the title of Brad Stone’s rich chronicle of Bezos and his company; it’s more like the Everything.
In his now famous article for The Guardian, Jonathan Franzen said, “Jeff Bezos may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen.” After reading Packer’s article, I’m not so sure he’s not the antichrist.