In the 25 years since Jeff Bezos founded an online bookstore, the Amazon chairman and CEO has become one of the most powerful people on Earth. His company controls nearly 40 percent of all e-commerce in the United States. It owns 42 percent of the paper-book market and a third of the streaming-video market. By one estimate, Amazon Web Services commands almost half of the cloud-computing industry, with institutions as varied as General Electric and the CIA relying on its servers. A new headquarters will soon be erected near Washington, D.C., where Bezos already owns The Washington Post. As Franklin Foer writes for the cover of The Atlantic’s November issue, “Jeff Bezos has won capitalism. The question for democracy is, are we okay with that?”
For the cover, “Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan,” Foer spent months speaking with current and former Amazon executives, as well as the company’s rivals and scholarly observers, to understand Bezos’s beliefs, ambitions, and motivations, as well as the implications of allowing one man to have so much power over so many corners of American life.
Amazon is often included in conversations about breaking up Big Tech, but Foer writes that, unlike Facebook, Bezos’s company remains deeply trusted by the public. “In contrast to the dysfunction and cynicism that define the times, Amazon is the embodiment of competence, the rare institution that routinely works.” This is by design. When Bezos created Amazon in 1994, he set out to build “his own aristocracy of brains, a place where intelligence would rise to the top.” He molded the organization in his own image, and his attention to detail permeates the entire culture of the organization. “If you’re going in for a Bezos meeting, you’re preparing as if the world is going to end,” a former executive told Foer. “You’re like, I’ve been preparing for the last three weeks. I’ve asked every damn person that I know to think of questions that could be asked. Then Bezos will ask the one question you hadn’t considered.”
As committed as Bezos might seem to achieving dominance over an ever expanding number of sectors, his ultimate goal is grander still: colonizing space. Concerns that the planet’s energy demands could outstrip its supplies—thus compromising the continuation of the human race —led Bezos to found his own space-exploration company, Blue Origin; he calls the project “his most important work.” Foer reports that through Blue Origin, Bezos is developing detailed plans for colonies that would allow the human population to grow without earthly constraints. “We can have a trillion humans in the solar system, which means we’d have a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins,” Bezos has said of the colonies. “This would be an incredible civilization.”
But, Foer asks, who will govern this new world? Who will write its laws? Who will decide which earthlings are admitted into the colonies? He writes: “These questions aren’t explicitly answered, except with his fervent belief that entrepreneurs, those in his own image, will shape the future. And he will do his best to make it so. With his wealth, and the megaphone it permits him, Bezos is attempting to set the terms for the future of the species, so that his utopia can take root.”