George Packer discovers a truth about corporate America, including the faux Libertarian strain in the tech industry: namely, they are extremely reluctant to talk to outsiders about anything, consequential, or not.
To some degree, secrecy prevails in all American corporations, and in large institutions generally. No one at these places wants to get caught saying the wrong thing. A gaffe (famously defined by Michael Kinsley as inadvertently telling the truth) is more likely to get you fired than dishonesty, deception, or any number of other ethical breaches. And this situation keeps getting worse, as any reporter who has had to negotiate ground rules with phrases like “on background with quote approval” knows all too well. It was a great relief to read Will Blythe’s Times Op-Ed about refusing to sign a termination agreement after being fired from the digital publisher Byliner because it would have prohibited him from saying anything disparaging about the company. The inexorable inflation of ground rules, non-disclosure agreements, and other impediments to speaking and writing can only be stopped when people refuse to go along with them.
I was naïve about tech companies until I started reporting on them. They turn out to be at least as closed as companies in other industries. This seems backwards—aren’t they filled with hardcore libertarians who want an end to privacy as we’ve known it, a more open and connected world? Apparently for everyone except themselves. And perhaps a sector that monetizes information is more likely to become obsessed with protecting it than if the product were oil or cars. But even in this atmosphere, Amazon is reflexively, absurdly secretive—only giving the absolute minimum information required by law or P.R. In response to a host of fact-checking questions, many of the company’s answers were along the lines of “We don’t break out that number externally,” “We do not share Kindle sales figures,” and “As a general practice, we don’t discuss our business practices with publishers or other suppliers.”
But I would argue that a culture of secrecy is bound to end up harming the institution itself, especially when it’s firmly under the control of one leader, as Amazon is under Jeff Bezos. Without some permeability to the outside world, groupthink takes over, bad habits become entrenched, and a company, like a government, is slow to recognize problems that are apparent to everyone else. I saw this happening with American officials in Iraq, holed up in the Embassy in the middle of the Green Zone and beguiled by their own data points while the country outside spiraled down in flames.
(click here to continue reading Amazon and the Perils of Non-Disclosure : The New Yorker.)
If you are interested in Amazon and the book publishing industry, you should also read Mr. Packer’s fascinating article, Cheap Words, with its byline, Amazon is good for customers, but is it good for books? which begins;
Amazon is a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, and a utility, like Con Edison, and a video distributor, like Netflix, and a book publisher, like Random House, and a production studio, like Paramount, and a literary magazine, like The Paris Review, and a grocery deliverer, like FreshDirect, and someday it might be a package service, like U.P.S. Its founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, also owns a major newspaper, the Washington Post. All these streams and tributaries make Amazon something radically new in the history of American business. Sam Walton wanted merely to be the world’s biggest retailer. After Apple launched the iPod, Steve Jobs didn’t sign up pop stars for recording contracts. A.T. & T. doesn’t build transmission towers and rent them to smaller phone companies, the way Amazon Web Services provides server infrastructure for startups (not to mention the C.I.A.). Amazon’s identity and goals are never clear and always fluid, which makes the company destabilizing and intimidating.
Bezos originally thought of calling his company Relentless.com—that U.R.L. still takes you to Amazon’s site—before adopting the name of the world’s largest river by volume. (If Bezos were a reader of classic American fiction, he might have hit upon Octopus.com.) Amazon’s shape-shifting, engulfing quality, its tentacles extending in all directions, makes it unusual even in the tech industry, where rapid growth, not profitability, is the measure of success. Amazon is not just the “Everything Store,” to quote the title of Brad Stone’s rich chronicle of Bezos and his company; it’s more like the Everything. What remains constant is ambition, and the search for new things to be ambitious about.
(click here to continue reading George Packer: Is Amazon Bad for Books? : The New Yorker.)
Blogger’s Note: I was working on this blog post, and had a few more sentences written than appear here. However, I typed relentless.com into my browser1, and my computer instantly crashed with a System Kernel Panic. So only Jeff Bezos knows what else I had written, I don’t time to recreate my blah-blah…Footnotes:
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