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Manifest Jeffstiny

The future of crash-and-burn business

By Annalee Newitz

EVER SINCE the culture jamming group Billboard Liberation Front creatively altered this billboard ad for Fortune magazine in downtown San Francisco, I've been contemplating the meaning of Jeff Bezos. Before its alteration, this particular billboard had a giant image of Bezos--CEO of the beleaguered Amazon.com--beaming his dorky trademark grin. Floating next to him were the words, "Rule #2: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." I could never figure out what the hell that meant, or why Fortune would want to advertise itself with such a lackluster slogan.

But once the Billboard Liberation Front (BLF) got its hands on the sign, it became simply stupefying and irrelevant. They put two shiny pennies over Bezos' eyes and changed the slogan to read, "In the land of the dead, the one-eyed man is king." (See www.billboardliberation.com/actions/e-Vision.html) Apparently this was some kind of scathing commentary about the death of dotcoms, but as political intervention it was about as limp as the Fortune ad it was intended to undermine. I mean, it's not as if the business magazines themselves haven't been trumpeting the death of dotcoms for the past several months anyway. Saying the economy is dead and blaming Jeff Bezos for it doesn't exactly put you outside what good ole Noam Chomsky once called "the bounds of the expressible."

Which brings me back to the myriad cultural meanings of Jeff Bezos, the cherubic CEO whose online bookstore helped make "E-commerce" part of everyday vocabulary, and whose business practices are so problematic that everyone from his on-the-verge-of-striking employees to his Big Deal Investors are now very, very pissed off at him.

There are lots of reasons why Amazon.com is in financial trouble. The company diversified its products too quickly, attempting to sell consumer electronics and household goods before they got close to breaking even with books, music and movies. (Amazon is currently about 2 billion bucks in debt.) They also treated their employees, particularly their customer service folks, quite poorly when said employees attempted to unionize. Investors may not give a shit about worker rights, but seeing dozens of articles about how Bezos was trying to crush his company's fledgling unions probably didn't inspire much confidence.

But the reason why Bezos' face got splashed across the covers of so many biz magazines in the past few weeks had to do with the total crash and burn of his major hope for revenue, which consisted in "strategic partnerships" with companies like Drugstore.com and Living.com. In return for hyping Drugstore.com on Amazon.com, Bezos was supposed to get paid. But unfortunately, as it turned out, he was taking lots of "pay" in stock. And when all the shiny little Living.coms died, he was left with a whole lotta nothing. In this story, we find Jeff Bezos the Ponzi schemer, a veritable stock character in American business morality tales.

And yet Jeff Bezos' iconic face seems to say so much more--he's nothing less than a member of the walking dead in the altered Fortune ad, and gets cast as a veritable corporate corpse on the cover of a recent issue of Industry Standard. Is he a martyr who has perished for believing too strongly, too purely, in the glory of capitalism? Or is he a zombie who ate the living in order to feed his destructive hunger for profit?

This undead Jeff Bezos is like the ghost of industry past, or industry present. He's anything but industry future, because the future belongs to another potential monster o' death: FTAA, or Free Trade Area of the Americas, which is basically a bigger and badder version of NAFTA that would include 34 nations in the Western Hemisphere.

FTAA, if it ever goes into effect, will be nothing less than an economic realization of the Monroe Doctrine--it's manifest destiny, kids, multinational capitalist-style! All the nations of the Western Hemisphere will become the yummy dinners for (let's face it) North American companies. Companies like, come to think of it, Amazon. Maybe I was wrong, and Bezos is the ghost of industry future after all. His business model is indeed global, and if Amazon doesn't sink, it'll be swimming in FTAA waters soon enough. Maybe that's the final meaning of undead Jeff Bezos. He's the vampire who lives forever; he cheats death by sucking.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who eats cannibals. It's incredible. She's at [email protected].

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From the April 26-May 2, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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