Amazon, a Broken System and Finding Vehicles for Innovation

With Jeff Bezos stepping down this week, there's been a lot more coverage of the man and Amazon as a whole than usual. I particularly enjoyed this piece by The Guardian, which makes some excellent points on how the company has made itself a fundamental part of society by pandering to base human instincts:

"Amazon thrusts my identity as a consumer into open conflict with my other identities – writer of books, holder of vaguely socialist ideals – in such a way that my consumer identity too often prevails.

We live in a world where the satisfaction of quotidian desires is the work of mere moments. Whatever you want (and can afford) can be brought to you, cheaply and with vanishingly minimal effort on your part. We know that this form of satisfaction doesn’t make us any happier, and in fact only damages the world we live in, but even so we continue pursuing it – perhaps because it’s in our nature, or perhaps because almost every element of the culture we exist in is calibrated to make us do so.

And so the problem, as such, is one of desire. It’s not that Amazon gives me what I want; it’s that it gives me what I don’t want to want. I want the convenience and speed and efficiency that Amazon offers, but I’d rather not want it if it entails all the bad things that go with it. To put it in Freudian terms, we are talking about the triumph of the consumerist id over the ethical superego. Bezos is a kind of managerial Mephistopheles for our time, who will guarantee you a life of worldly customer ecstasy as long as you avert your eyes from the iniquities being carried out in your name."

I've tried for a couple of years not to shop on Amazon wherever I can, but I often wonder if there's any point – my purchases are a drop in the ocean. Maybe I feel very slightly better about myself, but is the added personal inconvenience achieving anything at all? Most friends I speak to about it mention the extreme convenience of the platform, happy to put aside any misgivings they may have about the company's practices in order to acquire things more easily and quickly than ever before. The damage is hidden behind a curtain – unless you seek it out it's easy to forget about the problems of the platform, by design.

Fixing a broken system

How do you go about improving/fixing something as massive as Amazon? Legislation and anti-trust seem promising, but I have little faith that they have the teeth these days to meaningfully enact change. Boycotts have little effect on something so tied into the structure of modern society. Amazon's power as a platform means individuals have little power to avoid it – it serves not only as 'the everything store', but a delivery platform for thousands of businesses, and through AWS, hosting and cloud compute for thousands more, including many big names that are equally hard to avoid. Much-hyped network effects, revered by startup culture for their ability to help companies scale, secure those companies a near monopoly, concentrating power in the hands of the men at the wheel.

Amazon is also interesting in that it is effective at pushing the boundaries of acceptability in what it does as far as possible, whilst never actually breaking the law. It's a case study in 'Well, you never said I couldn't do that...'. It constantly skirts the edge of what is allowed, pushing pricing rules, labour laws, and much more in the relentless pursuit of growth and customer satisfaction.

I spend far more time thinking about this stuff than I probably should – how do you build ethical, sustainable alternatives to platforms that are so willing to bend the rules? Those who bound themselves with ethics and morality find themselves at a fundamental disadvantage versus those who are willing to play the system like a fiddle. I've seen it play out in the climate change debate, with oil companies prepared to fund all sorts of suspect misinformation campaigns, secure in the knowledge that those on the other side won't stoop to such levels and so are unable to properly fight back.

Enacting change

I also muse a great deal on how to be useful and do good in the world. Not because I feel I have some oversize ability to change things, but because I increasingly can't allow myself to do otherwise. I'm no saint, but the more I become aware of my place and privilege in the world, and the many others who lack such autonomy, the more I feel compelled to do something, anything to push the needle in a positive direction. This mostly started with climate change, but given the systemic nature of that problem, it's inevitably led me to wealth inequality, racism and other such societal patterns. One of the questions I ponder often is – how do you change such a system?

As an ex-techie, I'm conditioned to think of disrupting systems through startups and similar ventures, particularly in technical domains. But those themselves also are a part of the wider system that helps perpetuate inequality and maintain the status quo. See stories of how aggressive the working culture at places like Tesla is reported to be – it echoes that of Amazon, even if the end result (increased EV adoption) is arguably more beneficial to society. Elon Musk may have become immensely wealthy from an environmentally positive cause, but that doesn't make that concentration of wealth and power any less troubling. The fact that he wants to tackle climate change doesn't change the fact he's an egotistical jerk with too much power.

Do the ends justify the means? Is it OK to create a startup that perpetuates the same problems we see throughout society, if it helps tackle a problem such as climate change? If the answer is no, then how else do we approach these big, thorny problems that governments are currently not tackling?

This is something I've gone back and forth on a lot over the past couple of years. I understand startups, but whilst I'm good at diving into thorny problems and building things from scratch, I'm not the typical founder personality (strong social anxiety and well-honed self doubt and self criticism are not exactly top of a VC's founder bingo card). Moreover, having spent a bunch of time both in early stage startups and at venture-builders, I have serious doubts about the cult of founder promoted by the entire system – investors, incubators, accelerators. People who don't fit the profile are immediately sidelined, and otherwise good people who are thrust into the leading light can often be warped by the atmosphere of constant self-promotion. If you have to pitch to investors multiple times a day that you are the bee's knees, the one and only person on the planet who can fix an entire industry and disrupt the world, either you'll go mad or you'll start to believe your own hype. It's scary to watch.

On the other hand, how else do you tackle big, complex problems that need solving fast, that are currently under-prioritised? My focus for the past 8 months or so has been trying to figure out routes towards clean aviation, an immensely complex and daunting problem that often threatens to overwhelm me. However, I've been on this route largely alone (bar much appreciated weekly check-ins with a close friend), partly because I can't figure out the route forward.

Should this be a startup? That route is well understood, and reasonably well trodden. It's not an easy path, particularly for aviation, which requires enormous funds, has long timelines and extremely low chance of success. As mentioned previously, I'm not exactly typical founder material, so if it were to be a startup, it would likely make sense to hand it off to someone else more well suited to that role. However, I also find myself pondering other options – a co-operative, an open-source project, or another such vehicle. That feels like a better fit for a sustainability and climate-centric project, not to mention fitting more closely to my own ideals, but is an unknown path – figuring out how to proceed would likely take up valuable time and energy needed for the project itself, and attracting investment and funding is trickier for a novel company model. What to do?

Imperfect solutions

I don't have an elegant conclusion or lesson to end with, only that this stuff is hard. The world seems dominated by some pretty unpleasant forces right now – climate change, nationalism and extremism, disinformation, huge wealth inequality and racism, sexism and other similar bigotries. Some are new, others just more in the public eye than previously. As individuals, our power to tackle these issues is limited, but we should try nevertheless, though doing so is itself tricky – do we focus on an individual element, ignoring everything else, or aim for broader solutions? Maybe even worrying about such meta problems is just procrastinating from actually tackling my immediate issues, who knows? Life is messy.