Remember when everybody said Amazon would fail because it was just too costly to maintain all those servers with all those books advertised for sale and it just couldn't pay for itself? Remember when it went for years without a profit? (And when people said the entire Internet would fail.) People just wouldn't send payments over the Internet or shop that way, and it will go broke, they said. Then there was the dot.com bubble birst.
Of course, thanks to Amazon (and e-Bay and a few of those other early Internet merchants), we have a normal Internet now instead of a giant collective farm herding us into communes guided by "thought leaders". Good! To be sure, with each passing year, Amazon seems to be grabbing a bigger and bigger cut in fees from your used book sales...I believe the plan is to make the value of the hard-cover book so low -- lower than paper back -- that it will cost more to ship it by the old USPS than its worth, and people will move to Kindles. Already, you can see many books available for one cent...
Even so, this is not an instant process nor one that can invade every aspect of life.
THE INTERNET IS A BIG TELEPHONE ATTACHED TO A BUNCH OF TRUCKS
While the Internet is properly described as a "series of tubes," I've always thought it was practical to explain that the Internet is really just a big telephone hooked up to a bunch of trucks.
Yes, there are pictures and movies and text on this big telephone, and that makes it "special,"and people will go on living in that "cyberspace" that Evgeny Morozov says doesn't exist, consuming content and chatting on the Internet that Morozov also says doesn't really exist as a human artifact -- so much so that he is as scared of it as a ghost, and keeps it locked up for a good portion of every day, with the screw driver he could use to open the safe thrown into the safe for good measure...
But when it comes time to explain "what is it that the Internet does," you have to concede that what it does is make it easier for you to browse books (or vacuum cleaners) online on Amazon.com, read some reviews, flip through some of the pages, then order it either new from one of the big box warehouses or from some people in another state who send it to you via the US Post Office.
Either way you slice it, it will come to you via a truck -- trucks move more than 2/3 of America's freight. Without those trucks, the Internet wouldn't mean anything to you. Most people don't get a date or a quick sexual encounter via the Internet, and the movies they watch or the games they play or the chat they have about their cats aren't terribly fulfilling. The Internet delivers when it delivers -- when you get some bargain -- like a peacock purse from Kings Way constantly thrust in your face by Facebook. No. I didn't mean that. Because I would never, ever buy that peacock purse thrust at me by Facebook. However, my daughter did find this cool canvas tote with a drawing of Medusa on it at etsy.com
If you have family members who drive trucks, or who drive around fixing server farms for big news companies, or even just printers of Catholic Church bulletins, you would understand this basic truth about the Internet and about how other things work and why they never seem to "go on" the Internet.
So when we're told that Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for its "delivery system," I might almost believe it, although I have to wonder if the system that involves 11 year old boys throwing the Washington Post on porches in suburbia, which hooks up to stay-at-home moms driving to get bundles of papers, and union trucks delivering those bundles can also handle vacuum-cleaners. Well, maybe books.
I think some church bulletin printers can stay in business because there are still pizza parlours, funeral parlours, lawyers, clothing stores and beauticians who find it profitable to place ads in them. Someone might invent an app to replace the church bulletin, but most people like the process of first getting the folded paper from their fellow parishioner and chatting after the service, then taking it home and affixing it to the refrigerator with a magnet where they might say one of the prayers, remember the holy days, and use the pizza coupon or call the lawyer.Have you ever tried to throw away a church bulletin? Your conscience will twinge, and you will read that homily you skipped and curse yourself for missing the deadline on the sub sandwich offer.
Now, I don't know what they really mean by "distribution" -- Fast Company is among those saying that's what this is about.
But it's about systems for storage and forwarding -- connection.
First, there's former Amazon employee and current Googler Steve Yegge's notion that Bezos has this fabulous far-reaching futurist top-down view of everything that makes him brilliant. (Yes, he was an early investor in Second Life.)
Here's the thing that Yegge says that's important in terms of the Wired State -- servers and data:
You wouldn't really think that an online bookstore needs to be an extensible, programmable platform. Would you?
Well, the first big thing Bezos realized is that the infrastructure they'd built for selling and shipping books and sundry could be transformed an excellent repurposable computing platform. So now they have the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, and the Amazon Elastic MapReduce, and the Amazon Relational Database Service, and a whole passel' o' other services browsable at aws.amazon.com. These services host the backends for some pretty successful companies, reddit being my personal favorite of the bunch.
Maybe when you buy the Washington Post you buy the center of all the relational data of lobbying and politics in people's heads who work there... You literally buy the connections to power...
Fast explains then that we're not talking about the newspapers rolled up going on the porch:
When you look at these as capital investments in the context Yegge offers, you can start to think of the newspaper as a computing infrastructure for distributing information. The Washington Post has one of the best APIs of any newspaper; it’s a distribution mechanism for short-form content. (Although reportedly the team that developed the API was not sold to Bezos as part of the deal.) Purpose-built distribution networks for different kinds of content are beginning to solidify into infrastructure, just as e-commerce did 10 years ago. And if we’ve learned anything about Bezos, it’s that he loves to own his own infrastructure and leverage it into new kinds of business we can’t even imagine right now
Well, watch this space.
I personally don't think Citizen Bezos bought this bauble (for one percent of his $25 billion personal net worth) for merely tinkering with "short form" (news apps) or "long form" (books) content and "delivery systems" in the sense Fast is describing it. Come now, there are better APIs in the world than the Washington Post's -- oh, Amazon has them lol.
I think it more about the quest for political power that Silicon Valley has long wanted -- they're not content to just make the gadgets that other people who are in power are using to get and stay in power, they're not content to just connect everybody else, they want to be integrated as part of the process. So it's not just the president's Blackberry (and maybe he, too, converted to a smart-phone by now), not just the president's dinner with the Valley tycoons, not just the help Obama enlisted from Google, Facebook and other engineers to win the election, but being in the institutions themselves.
THAT OTHER SILICON VALLEY BAUBLE HATES ON BEZOS
The New Republic -- itself an example of Silicon Valley gobbling up a venerable East Coast establishment -- to my enduring sorrow -- is hating on Bezos doing exactly the same thing they did.
Is this the technocommunist fighting the technolibertarian? I think so -- there has always been a struggle for the soul of Silicon Valley between those who want to steal from the middle-class and give to the poor (e-Bay) or make the middle and lower class work for free to provide content and feed a new oligarch class (Facebook and Twitter) and those who sell widgets and make money the old-fashioned way (Apple) and those trying to combine all of these things (Google).
The TNR piece by Mark Tracy on Bezos "murky politics" translates to the technocommunist's aversion for people who don't want excessive taxation of the rich and his lament that Bezos is "no George Soros or Sheldon Adelson". Even so, Tracy thinks that as corporate-oriented as he is, Bezos might take aim at the "conservative" (i.e. not cravenly "progressive") elements of Washpo:
Bezos has also announced there will be no layoffs from the Post’s staff of 2,000. If I were a Post employee who does not believe Bezos when he claims he will not meddle, I would probably be most scared if I were one of the editorial staffers who have fostered a distinctly conservative editorial page whose columnists include Obama administration “critic-in-chief” Charles Krauthammer; Bush administration staffers Michael Gerson and Marc Thiessen; false-balance-peddling hawk Fred Hiatt (also the page’s editor); former New Republic editor Charles Lane, who consistently (and I speak only for myself) takes vintage “even the liberal New Republic” contrarianism about three steps too far; racial profiling enthusiasts Richard Cohen and Kathleen Parker; and serial climate-change-denialist George F. Will. Them I imagine Bezos not jibing with.
If Bezos gets rid of these people -- then, see what I mean about how we need a new magazine. Tracy forgot to bas Jennifer Ruben, the in-house neo-con.
Bezos can be expected to hew to the line of the other Silicon Valley "thought influencers" who argue for net neutrality or more visas for engineers or good relations with China, where the manufacturing base of Silicon Valley is located.
But one very important thing that Bezos decided, which puts him in the company of those non-progs that Tracy and other TNR writers so loathe is that he removed WikiLeaks from his servers. Good! That was absolutely the right thing to do. When Sen. Lieberman asked publicly why Amazon was storing the stolen classified cables that Bradley Manning had hacked with Julian Assange's connivance, and invoked Amazon's own terms of service, which prohibit uploading content that is not your own and distributing it, Bezos to his credit instantly got it and blocked Wikileaks from his speedy server services -- a decision he has maintained to this day and which I hope he never goes back on.
Perhaps we might even make a pillar of the community out of one of these Internet moguls yet.
EVIL BOX WAREHOUSES AND BRAND
Alec MacGillis, TNR senior editor, who once tried to spin Obama's socialism away as merely a kind of liberalism, speaks of the "shock and dolor" involved in Bezos' purchase. Oh, there's those evil box warehouses without the AC where ambulances stand by at the door to carry away fainting employees and where robots can't quite do the low-paid jobs yet but might soon. Oh, there's all this evil capitalist stuff.
Chris Hughes, who did the same thing to TNR -- and made himself editor which at least Bezos isn't going to do -- tries to spin this as "buying a brand". Ugh. Can't these people think in terms of anything but brands? There's no more uglier form of capitalism than technocommunism, you know? Because for them, brand is partiynost', party discipline...
The purchase does not include Foreign Policy -- not to be confused with Foreign Affairs -- which is that edgy hipster IR lounge for neo Real Politickers (which I happened to stop reading for 6 weeks and didn't miss it, and even The Cable and Democracy Lab don't hold me as they once did -- we need a new magazine.) Does that mean it is going to die and Blake Hounsell will have to stop tweeting? (Oh, wait, I am SO out of date. Blake is now at Politico, not FP. But...why can't Bezos buy Politico, too?)
OUR VERY INTELLECTUAL INFRASTRUCTURE
James Fallow -- whose own magazine somehow got taken over by the Silicon Valley scientism virus even if a tycoon didn't buy it out I don't think is spouting nonsense.
For now I mean only to say: this is a moment that genuinely surprised me. I think I'll remember where I was when I first heard the news -- via Twitter! -- and I am sure it will be one of those episode-that-encapsulates-an-era occurrences. Newsweek's demise, a long time coming, was a minor temblor by comparison; this is a genuine earthquake.
* * *
So let us hope that this is what the sale signifies: the beginning of a phase in which this Gilded Age's major beneficiaries re-invest in the infrastructure of our public intelligence. We hope it marks a beginning, because we know it marks an end.
Yeesh. Yes, the Atlantic is now filled with open source loons like Alex Madrigal, and gaggles of young fangirlz gushing love for every single arrested hacker anarchist, as well as a stable of Realist and even pro-Kremlin authors on the foreign policy left over from FP.
If a denuded Washington Post now stuffed with "short content' online Amazon style is supposed to be our intellectual infrastructure, make me a new Internet please.
Pretty soon, like Roland LeGrande, my Second Life friend, they will be talking about Journalism-as-a-Service (JaaS, per Jeff Jarvis) just like Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).
I love this Washington Post article for the title alone -- Who is Jeff Bezos?
I'm glad Bob Woodward spoke up to say it was very sad -- the Post survived Nixon but it was killed by the Internet...
Jim Friedlich summed it up:
A possible downside, Friedlich said, is that “there is unquestionably some element here of a highly successful guy buying a seat at the table. Chris Hughes at The New Republic, John Henry in Boston, Jeff Bezos in Washington. Citizen Kane 2.0.”
And this is what I have been describing as the replay of The Two Cultures with the defeat of the humanities.
WILL THE WASHINGTON POST GET A SECOND LIFE?
Bezos provided a whopping $11 million to start the online virtual world of Second Life, where I still remain active with a small rentals business. I don't know if he saw it, as I do, as a kind of proving group for the whole web 2.0 movement, where many phenomena, good and bad, were tried first in this petri dish before expanding to the larger Internet. People think of Second Life as having failed years ago after its peak in 2007-2008 when a lot of marketing companies invaded it, but in fact it's going strong and I think represents the future of the Internet with payment systems and auction houses and oneline marketplaces for user-generated content in digital creations and services. I think most people have no idea that this world of some one million people with about 70,000 concurrency spread over even a smaller number of server clusters than it used to be (now 26,000 I believe, down from 30,000) actually turns a profit ($75 million a year) not only for its owners, but its users (who trade about $400 million every year).
That's incredible, on an Internet filled with technocommunism and "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us." Eventually, we will come out of this era of sterile collectivism, which is why Rod Humble has bought Desura.
Bezos also invested in another start-up of Second Life inventor Philip Rosedale, called Coffee & Power. It was sort of a job-space sharing and errands trading interface that eventually died when it couldn't get past the latte drinkers and coders in San Francisco to people who could really spend money on it -- and it was facing competition from similar jobs and errands boards. Rosedale has now moved on to make a better virtual world with another start-up called Hi Fidelity.
P.S. See below about how the cool kids are explaining to us that a) Amazon is not in Silicon Valley (snort) and that b) the Iceberg is buying the Titanic, yuck yuck.