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Translation by AB – April 16, 2020
Jeff Bezos, American and relentless
Many books and articles have been devoted to Jeff Bezos, this “normal” American who became the richest man in the world ahead of Bill Gates in 2017, with an estimated fortune of $ 130 billion. To the point that he himself declared:
The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my amazon winnings into space travel. That is basically it.
Obviously, these words did not fail to cause more philanthropic counter-proposals, especially in Seattle, his “Cape Canaveral”:
Homo Amazonus is not characterized by its humanity which, as we will see, is absent from the logical diagrams of the boss of Amazon.com, to the point that the term “Homo” only holds by the flesh that remains1. But Jeff Bezos has an exceptional combination of traits typical of great American entrepreneurs. First, he sincerely believes he can change the world, the famous “think big” that any foreigner in the United States feels intensely. In France, and more generally in Europe, we deplore being a digital colony, lacking in hyper-enterprises and sovereignty, but there is this yawning cultural hiatus that Eun Y. Kim reminded us in 2001 in his book “The Yin and Yang of American Culture: A Paradox”:
We Europeans like to remember that Americans lack irony, an adult sense of limits, that is, they lack wisdom. But on the other hand, with their adolescent verve, they have an unrestrained sense of possibility, energy and optimism which brings them to the heights of creativity and the production of wealth which we, Europeans weary of the world, do not even imagine longing.
This inclination was that of the young Jeff Bezos and it aimed at the stars:
“Jeff always wanted to make a lot of money,” recalls Ursula Werner, his high school girlfriend. […] She’s still joking but she always thought that the real objective of Amazon.com was to raise a fortune sufficient to build a private space station2.
Jeff Bezos, like Ray Dalio (Dalio’s machine), also has this singular frame of mind consisting in considering the world as a system to be understood and above all to be transformed for the benefit of his project. This more personal anecdote is well known3 :
His systematic approach to the quest for a permanent relationship was to develop what he labeled “women flow,” a play on the “deal flow” Wall Streeters try to generate to locate worthwhile investments.
Jeff Bezos is hard-working and relentless. The success will be built over time, by sampling in a powerful “deal flow“, a little like the plastic ducks sailing in the current at a funfair. But Bezos owns the fair and the attractions, animates the current and fishes the ducks. Chip Bayers writes also:
It wasn’t that Bezos was first out of the box with an idea for shopping, or that he had discovered some magic elixir unknown to other merchants. But he had made a series of small, smart choices that added up.
Homo Amazonus is certainly the product of the dream and of the obstinacy of this American but he is also a “solution” coming from the Technological System. Indeed, the excessive rationality of Jeff Bezos highlights the “necessity” of this new consumer: Homo Amazonus was somehow already coded in the DNA of the digital world.
July 5, 1994 – Discovery of Homo Amazonus
In 1993, Bezos worked for a recent investment fund created by David Shaw, a computer scientist like him. Both were techies and “business oriented”, and as such on the lookout. And this is how:
Shaw put Bezos in charge of exploring new business opportunities in the burgeoning world of the Internet4.
Jeff Bezos, in “MBA mode”, that is to say thinking the world as a system, comes quickly enough to a simple and somewhat “disappointing” conclusion:
The most logical thing to sell over the Internet was books, largely because two of the country’s largest book distributors [ Ingram et Baker & Taylor ] already had exhaustive electronic lists.
This is obviously an excellent choice: without moving from Seattle, it is possible to quickly and inexpensively set up a virtual bookstore by relying on these existing digital lists5. The first competitors will therefore be the real bookstores, and the aim is to divert their “readers flow”. But Shaw was not entirely convinced that selling books was a priority for his business. Jeff Bezos, applying his “regret minimization framework“, left D. E. Shaw & Co. and on July 5, 1994, in his garage in Seattle, launched Amazon.com, Inc.
Homo Amazonus was born. Business quickly took off. Each time a customer placed an order on the Amazon.com site, a bell rang in the garage, a simple but brilliantly physical idea to “feel” the business flow that was raising day by day and diverting the flow of real bookstores. Bezos and Kaphan, his first developer, may have stayed long with this simple image of Homo Amazonus in mind: that of a ringing bell.
The consumer must absolutely go through Amazon.com rather than through any other competitor, in particular physical. And yet, Bezos is truly convinced of the irreplaceable attraction of a well-designed physical environment (we must recognize that this consideration is a real and profound advantage that we did not finish measuring in 2018). Chip Bayers, who accompanies him for a shopping spree in a shopping center, recounts:
Back out in the street, the shopping throng envelopes us. Bezos waves an arm across the scene. “You see, none of this is going away,” he says. “The Net can’t replace this experience”.
Therefore, Bezos strives to minimize any disadvantage and maximize any advantage offered by the internet, while controlling, if necessary, the physical part which remains essential for a fully successful experience. Let’s naively break down the typical online shopping experience:
- A Desire (or need) arises, possibly reinforced by a clue (Our second natures).
- You must use an electronic device, at the time a computer, to Search for the item in a virtual store (this step can precede step 1).
- Purchase impulse: the order is placed.
- Delivery of the goods.
Step “3. Purchase” should be triggered as often as possible on Amazon.com, that is, worldwide, and not just for books. That is basically it.
Reaching Homo Amazonus instantly worldwide is precisely the essence of the internet, and it’s done. But it lacks a condition for relentlessly triggering the purchase: the famous “customer loyalty“:
They’re after customer loyalty. They want to lock up the market. They want customers to make Amazon their destination for all of their shopping. So, he’s had this long-term view of that’s the way to conduct his business, and profits are very low down on the list of his priorities.6.
For the moment, in fact, there is a world to transform and it is impossible to achieve it by being subject to the constraint of making profits. The first thing to do is to settle this still fussy and little known “cash machine”, still “artificial” as would have said the philosopher Georges Simondon. Made available to Homo Amazonus, the Machine must be perfect and offer a “customer experience”, which is certainly distinct from the inimitable physical experience, but at least as addictive. Two essential quantitative parameters of this machine are of course the price and the speed. The price is not really a problem, but the speed, which indexes the machine’s throughput, is very complicated to increase. This will be the stake of most of the innovations of Amazon.com.
This beautiful mechanism is missing a dimension: a little bit of humanity. But it does not seem necessary; it is therefore quite possible that Jeff Bezos comes to this conclusion: man is superfluous (partly because we cannot significantly increase his speed). But let’s not anticipate…
Jeff Bezos recalled in 1999 which was still a delightful surprise:
Online is so much cheaper.
The compulsive support of this advantage, which largely inspired low-cost models, leads to rational choices such as the location of the warehouses. Thus, the first Amazon warehouses were located on the American territory obviously considering the proximity to the population to be served, but also the tax system (not mentioning other “rational” choices such as wages and working conditions, the crushing of competition at the cost of profitability, etc.). Chip Bayers again:
It’s no accident that the company’s second warehouse is in Delaware, which not only has no sales tax but is also an ideal base for serving East Coast customers; its third and latest warehouse is near Reno, Nevada – which lets Amazon.com originate deliveries close to the huge California population, but just outside that state’s tax-collection borders.
We now observe with dismay that the big internet players are champions of tax optimization but, as Homo Amazonus, we have been conditioned from the outset around an “optimized” digital price (made variable by the yield management), even a zero price, of which we apprehend only the relative value in the big game of supply and demand. Homo Amazonus does not make the direct link between the digital price and its distant “cost of acquisition”, so to speak, in fiscal, social or environmental terms.
One of the major drawbacks of the Machine is that there are waiting times during which the client is free to ramble, unlike a simple machine which would go into “idle” mode. It is therefore a question of reducing and occupying these uncontrolled spaces where doubt can creep.
In 1999, there were no smartphones or tablets, and Jeff Bezos, who was asked which technical object was most lacking in his project, replied:
“Windows instant on” – meaning a personal computer that boots up as quickly as a TV or a PalmPilot. “At home it’s a real pain,” he says, “because in the 90 seconds or two minutes that it takes, I’ve forgotten what I was going to do!”
Homo Amazonus must not have time to forget its desire. He got into the habit of never being let alone (streamlining of commands, notifications, etc.) and, caught up in the game, never gives up on anything.
Now, Homo Amazonus never gives up, indeed. Thanks to his “instant on” smartphone, he goes on “1. Desire”, “2. Search”, “3. Purchase”, from almost anywhere. But he still has to go through “4. Waiting” and “5. Delivery”.
Most of Amazon’s latest innovations focus on these last two steps: how to further reduce waiting time and how to deliver Homo Amazonus from the effort of being delivered, this effort consisting essentially in just being there, at the place of delivery? Here are some solutions: Amazon Prime Air drone delivery service, tested since 2013; Amazon Key, the connected lock that allows Amazon delivery people to enter your home while you are away; or the possibility of being delivered to the trunk of his car; Amazon Hub or Amazon Locker for group point delivery, etc.
There are still some very physical obstacles to immediate, personalized and everywhere delivery: the configuration of places not allowed for that. Homo Amazonus’ living spaces (apartments, cars, professional places) are therefore gradually adapted to “5. Delivery”. Thus7 :
The Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon has signed contracts with building owners and managers representing over 850,000 apartments in the U.S. to install Amazon lockers.
Bezos’ logic relentlessly deploys its conclusions, including in matters of town planning. If Amazon does not develop these delivery services faster in France, it may be that the configuration of our places does not yet lend itself sufficiently to the requirements in terms of “fulfillment”. How long will it take for them or their competitors to dictate certain building standards? In any case, this will be a strong requirement of the urban Homo Amazonus.
After the “everything’s virtual”, which has become a convenience offered by machines that we now know how to “tune”, it is a question of (re) conquering new sensations, the old ones in fact: the urban Homo Amazonus likes, like Jeff Bezos, physical stores and the combined sensory effects they provide (sight, touch, movement, etc.). Amazon is therefore launching Amazon Go, stores which aim in a way to “sensorialize” the online experience8.
Amazon stores are the physical equivalent of an App. The second you’re inside, Amazon begins tracking your movements. Every kombucha drink or bag of taro chips you take off a shelf is added to a virtual shopping cart […] The store knows when you are leaving, scans the items you have taken, and charges your account directly (“just walk out”).
The journalist who lived the Amazon Go experience felt like leaving like a thief, but Homo Amazonus will quickly find it natural enough to no longer consciously go through phase “3. Purchase” which is the priceless moment, which requires still a desire, to release the “money flow”.
Further with AI
It is now a matter of optimizing the steps “1. Desire/Need”, “2. Search”, “3. Purchase”, which are still tuned in the old way (marketing, design…) and which remain largely “under control” of Homo Amazonus because still dependent on his cognitive skills. This is obviously where Artificial Intelligence comes in. Bezos quickly understood that AI would revolutionize its machine and give new impetus to its businessIt is now a matter of optimizing the steps “1. Desire/Need”, “2. Search”, “3. Purchase”, which are still tuned in the old way (marketing, design…) and which remain largely “under control” of Homo Amazonus because still dependent on his cognitive skills. This is obviously where Artificial Intelligence comes in. Bezos quickly understood that AI would revolutionize its machine and give new impetus to its business9. This is an opportunity for Jeff Bezos, after 20 years of optimization, to return to basics and remind some shareholders and employees of some truths.
Customers are always wonderfully unsatisfied, even when they pretend they are happy and all is well. Even if they don’t know it, customers want better, and your desire to satisfy them must lead you to invent for them.
Reminder of the starting point: Homo Amazonus is a creation, a ringing bell. But behind, there is still a man who moves and with whom it is essential to establish a direct link, avoid what Bezos calls “proxies”, intermediaries, those who explain to you what a client is in a market study:
Good inventors and designers understand their customers in depth. They devote considerable energy to developing this intuition. […] An excellent customer experience starts with the heart, intuition, curiosity, play, guts, taste …
Homo Amazonus must be completely transparent but even for Jeff Bezos it is no longer obvious as the parameters become countless. The AI therefore comes here to see more clearly without proxies, to zoom in, to fine-tune the machine. Jeff Bezos adds as well:
In recent decades, computers have largely automated tasks that programmers could describe with clear rules and algorithms. Modern learning techniques now allow us to do the same for tasks where the precise description of the rules is much more difficult.
But AI promises much more.
Homo Amazonus places its orders or rather, satisfies its needs “by voice”, thanks to Alexa which equips its connected speakers (no need for the constraint of the smartphone). The shopping experience is fully integrated into the usual places: home, car, office, stores … Homo Amazonus no longer searches by himself: it just expresses its desire.
Amazon Rekognition, the cloud service for recognizing individuals, their emotions, but also objects and more generally whole scenes, has made great strides. And thanks to the ideas developed in 2016 in the patent “Movement recognition as input mechanism”, Homo Amazonus home becomes an extension to Amazon Go: intentions are expressed not only by our voice but also by our movement.
The mesh of connected objects (refrigerator, front door, cupboards, etc.) produces the rest of the information: Homo Amazonus’ environment breathes intelligence and envelops him like a benevolent cocoon, on the lookout for his every wish, his every lack, fulfilled by the incomparable delivery services of Amazon.com.
Since it has become transparent everywhere, all the time, Homo Amazonus is now pre-delivered even before ordering. Amazon filed a patent to this effect in 2014, for what Jeff Bezos calls “anticipatory shipping“.
Homo Amazonus feels known and valued, since his desires are anticipated, but as he becomes more predictable, he thinks less and less: the opening of the portfolio (“3. Purchase”) becomes as fluid as getting out an Amazon Go.
Homo Amazonus wants to do even less and only order products that meet exceptional needs, even if they are chosen from a list and at a time perfectly targeted for him. He no longer searches for anything but proceeds (more and more rarely) with the last choice. He has taken out a subscription for all everyday products, and constantly adjusts it to the voice and attitude in his connected environment.
Homo Amazonus’ financial services are also automated: his consumption is adjusted to his tastes and habits, but also to its means and their evolution.
He is almost no longer involved in the purchase / delivery process.
Homo Amazonus no longer has to worry about adapting his buying flow to its means. His purchases are configured on a minimal flow, of which he is barely aware, financed by his right to universal income, which has become an automatically spent income, a “universal subscription”, for the greatest benefit of organizations which have succeeded in plugging to this universal subscription.
Everything is technically ready to achieve this Homo Amazonus that we have just sketched. Amazon, but also Google & Co., their Chinese counterparts, are today capable of much more than we live and know in terms of monitoring, anticipating and modeling our behavior. Digital technology is too far ahead of social acceptability, in the West at least.
At the moment, the stake is therefore a very subtle and risky “change management” campaign, and we will have to be attentive to the way in which an essential phase of this campaign which is being played out will be managed, in France today in particular: the influence of connected speakers and the continued presence of a digital giant in the air of the house. There will perhaps be mockery, indignation, admiration and then gradually settle the calm of the habit until the next press on the accelerator.
Homo Amazonus has yet an uncertain profile. It could be more or less as we have just described it: indifferent to its own humanity, accustomed to worthless prices, adhering to its desires, delivered from the effort they involve to be satisfied, too slow and therefore ejected by the centripetal force of the Bezos machine, transmuted from subject to object, from “user” to “used”, ultimately transparent, predictable and… totally happy!
It is also possible that Homo Amazonus takes other directions, fulfills the dream of other entrepreneurs … Unless it is no one’s dream but simply the duly executed program of the Technological System which is achieved by intelligent and happy agents, optimistic and relentless like Jeff Bezos; agents who are flow makers, machine tuners. We must acknowledge that everything seems to prove them right! Fortunes amass as expected, we behave as anticipated by algorithms and we want their machines since they control our desires.
Even if these disruptions were a “progress”, there would still remain the immense trouble induced by the “multimodal” control of the European Homo Amazonus by a single machine, that of Jeff Bezos (or two with that of Google).
1. ↑ Isabelle Lesniak / Les Echos – May 30, 2014 – Les débuts de Jeff Bezos et d’Amazon
2. ↑ Jeff Bezos founded his own space business, Blue Origin, in 2000.
3. ↑ Chip Bayers / Wired – January 3, 1999 – The inner Bezos
4. ↑ Remember that the internet was barely known to the general public. In France, the first ISP, Worldnet, was launched in February 1994 by a few enthusiasts, including Xavier Niel (a very well-know and successful French entrepreneur).
5. ↑ Let’s add that books are perfect articles to start a shipping business: they take up little space, don’t expire, are easy to pack …
6. ↑ Fresh Air – October 14, 2013 – One-Stop Shop: Jeff Bezos Wants You To Buy ‘Everything’ On Amazon
7. ↑ Eric Feinberg / Forbes – January 4, 2018 – How Amazon Is Investing In Customer Experience By Reimagining Retail Delivery
8. ↑ Heather Kelly / CNN Tech – January 26, 2018 – Inside Amazon Go: the store of the future
9. ↑ Alex Heath / Business Insider – April 12, 2017 – Amazon’s Jeff Bezos constantly reminds his workers about the biggest enemy: ‘Irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline.’