The Amazon founder’s relentless quest for ‘customer ecstasy’ made him one of the world’s richest people – now he’s looking to the unlimited resources of space. Is he the genius our age of consumerism deserves?
The first thing I ever bought on Amazon was an edutainment DVD for babies. I don’t recall making the purchase, but the data is unequivocal on this point: on 14 November 2004, I bought Baby Einstein: Baby Noah – Animal Expedition for the sum of £7.85. My nearest guess is that I got it as a Christmas present for my nephew, who would at that point have been one year old, and at the very peak of his interest in finger-puppet animals who cavort to xylophone arrangements of Beethoven. This was swiftly followed by three more DVD purchases I have no memory of making. Strangely, I bought nothing at all from Amazon the following year, and then, in 2006, I embarked on a PhD and started ramping up my acquisition of the sort of books that were not easily to be found in brick-and-mortar establishments. Dry treatises on psychoanalysis. Obscure narrative theory texts. The occasional poetry collection. Everything ever published by the American novelist Nicholson Baker.
I know these things because I recently spent a desultory morning clicking through all 16 years of my Amazon purchase history. Seeing all those hundreds of items bought and delivered, many of them long since forgotten, was a vaguely melancholy experience. I experienced an estranged recognition, as if reading an avant-garde biography of myself, ghost-written by an algorithm. From the bare facts of the things I once bought, I began to reconstruct where I was in life, and what I was doing at the time, and what I was (or wanted to be) interested in. And yet an essential mystery endured. What kind of person purchases within the space of a few days, as I did in August of 2012, a Le Creuset non-stick crepe pan, three blue and white herringbone tea-towels, and a 700-odd page biography of the Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno? (The tea-towels are still in use, and so is the crepe pan, while the 700-plus page Adorno biography remains, inevitably, unread.) Perhaps the answer is as simple as: a person with an Amazon account.