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Wed January 8, 2014
Can Amazon's Jeff Bezos Save Planet Earth?
Originally published on Wed January 8, 2014 11:07 am
Look. Up in the sky — and in that little package with the A-to-Z logo. It's a bird. It's a plane. It's the man who recently convinced Ecuador's navy to rescue him from a kidney stone attack in the Galapagos Islands.
It's Jeff Bezos, superfounder and superCEO of Amazon superstore — celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2014.
In some ways, there are parallels between Bezos and some of the better-known comic book champions.
"Every superhero has an origin that comes before the declaration of vision," explains William Kuskin of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who teaches the online course Comic Books and Graphic Novels.
By vision, Kuskin is not just talking about Amazon's grandiose mission statement: "to be Earth's most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavors to offer its customers the lowest possible prices."
The professor is also referring to Bezos' ideas for fixing The Future.
The Amazon founder definitely has the mythic back story. Bezos' parents split up when Jeff was very young; his mother remarried. Little Jeff was inventive at an early age. So the story goes: As a toddler, he set out to take his crib apart with a screwdriver. Later, his mother would drive him to Radio Shack several times a day.
"Think of Batman's or Spider-Man's loss of a parent that motivates them," Kuskin says. "Batman: 'I shall become something dark.' Spider-Man: 'Uncle Ben was right! With Great Power comes great responsibility.' "
Still Jeff Bezos continues to try to save Planet Earth. One superproblem at a time. For instance:
Fear Of Online Shopping? ZAP!
It was 1996, and America Online lorded over Dial-up Land. Citizens were terrified about posting credit card numbers on the wild and wicked Internet. The Washington Post ran a story about consumer reluctance to give e-tailers financial information.
In swooped Bezos. "This is strictly a perception issue," Bezos told the newspaper, which identified him as the founder of 15-month-old Amazon, "an Internet-based bookstore."
The Encryption Crusader reassured the restless populace: "It's so much easier to go through a trash can or dumpster and get credit card numbers than it is to break the encryption schemes that are used on the Internet."
Never fear, Bezos told The Post. The world was getting safer for computer-using consumers. "When Amazon.Com opened for business 15 months ago," the newspaper noted, "about half of its customers opted to provide their credit card numbers over the phone instead of over the Internet. Now, 85 percent complete the transactions on-line, Bezos said."
E-Book Antipathy? KAPOW!
In the spring of 2007, Mike Elgan of Computerworld wrote a column titled "Why e-books are bound to fail." He argued that folks didn't want to buy more expensive hardware, that readers could read books on already available laptops or tablets or mobile devices, and that in the end, "People love paper books. In other words, e-books are not, and cannot be, superior to what they are designed to replace."
In the fall of 2007, Mike Elgan of Computerworld wrote in another column: "I was wrong." The Kindle — conceived by Bezos and his supersavvy Amazon team — changed the mind of Elgan and, eventually, tons of readers. "Kindle is revolutionary," Elgan wrote, "and will succeed in the market. Some percentage of book lovers, including me, will buy one to replace their beloved paper books, magazines and newspapers."
By the spring of 2011, Amazon — which sells a lot of books — was reporting that Kindle sales were outpacing bound-paper books, according to the New York Times. "E-book reading is a big deal, and it's going to continue to be even bigger," James L. McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester, said.
The Postal Service? KABLAM! Journalism? POW!
Recently, Amazon announced a bigtime partnership deal with the floundering U.S. Postal Service to deliver packages to Amazon customers on Sunday. "The race to dominate the world of package delivery reflects larger shipping trends," notes Evan Puschak on the MSNBC website. "Letter-sending has rapidly declined — a fact the Postal Service knows only too well — but parcel deliveries are increasing as more and more people do their shopping online."
Using his own funds, and not Amazon's, Bezos bought the Washington Post in 2013. In these "uncertain times," according to essayist Viviana Hurtado in the Huffington Post, "Mr. Bezos' embrace of invention, his almost neurotic attention to detail, his patience and investment in the long view, give the Washington Post and the industry the best shot at relevancy and survival.
The Future Of The Species And Beyond ...
But wait, there's more. Unsatisfied with trying to solve earthbound botherations, Bezos is also tackling extraterrestrial and intangible problems.
Via his aerospace firm, Blue Origin, Bezos is battling the high costs of orbital and suborbital space exploration. Through the Long Now Foundation, he is at war against short-term thinking. According to the Guardian, "His long-term plan has always been something even grander: to establish a permanent human colony in space. His mother still has a copy of a speech he made at school declaring his ambition to build a fleet of habitable orbiting space stations and turn the planet into a vast nature reserve."
What other struggling entities could Bezos swoop in and salvage?
Kuskin says a case can be made that Bezos shares other traits with traditional comic book supercharacters. "Every superhero has an archenemy," Kuskin says. "You might sum up all the challenges facing Bezos into a common denominator and give it a name: The 19th Century Capitalist, who, with his bowler hat and hobnail shoes and imperial investment portfolio, seeks to enslave the Common Man to a life of Earthbound ignorance and apathy ... 'Bwah-ha-ha-ha.' "
Superheroes, Kuskin says, "are just plain smart and like to hang around with other smart guys."
He adds that Bezos seems to be moving from a sort of "superhero of capitalism to a superhero of the globe, and in that is realizing that the true beauty and promise of all that Internet wealth lies not in trading things for money but in a vision of a better world. As Uncle Ben said: With great power comes responsibility!"
(Full disclosure: I worked at The Washington Post for a while. A long while.)
The Protojournalist: A sandbox for reportorial innovation. @NPRtpj