March 7, 2021

Walter Isaacson likens Bezos to Einstein and Jobs, calls out Trump for ‘corrupt’ treatment of Amazon

A new book collects the writings of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, with an extended biographical intro by Walter Isaacson. (Harvard Business Review Press image and GeekWire File Photo)

Much of the content in the new book, “Invent & Wander,” will be familiar to those who follow Jeff Bezos and Amazon closely. It’s mostly a collection of the Amazon CEO’s letters to shareholders, public talks and other writings. But the introduction by celebrated biographer Walter Isaacson is new and notable in a few ways.

First, it’s an understatement to call it an introduction. It’s actually a 25-page biography, informed by original research and new insights from Bezos about his life and work. It almost reads like the beginnings of full biographical book about the Amazon founder, and Isaacson makes it clear at the outset that he considers Bezos more than worthy of one.

“I am often asked who, of the people living today, I would consider to be in the same league as those I have written about as a biographer: Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Ada Lovelace, Steve Jobs, and Albert Einstein,” Isaacson writes. “All were very smart. But that’s not what made them special. Smart people are a dime a dozen and often don’t amount to much. What counts is being creative and imaginative. That’s what makes someone a true innovator. And that’s why my answer to the question is Jeff Bezos. ”

Isaacson goes on to detail the key traits that are common among them, including passionate curiosity, the ability to connect the arts and sciences, and the ability to retain a “childlike sense of wonder.” Like Jobs, Bezos “has transformed multiple industries,” Isaacson writes.

Journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson in 2012. (Photo by David Shankbone – Own work, CC BY 3.0)

It’s a glowing portrait of the world’s richest person, in sharp contrast to the portrayal of Bezos by Amazon’s critics. The piece comes at a time of intense scrutiny of Bezos and Amazon, as regulators, lawmakers and others in the US and elsewhere raise questions about the company’s market power, competitive tactics, and economic influence.

Isaacson goes on to tell the story of Bezos’ life so far, covering some of the same ground as Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store,” but with additional details and anecdotes that benefit from direct access to the subject. For example, Bezos recalls the early experiences that planted the seeds of Amazon and his commercial space venture Blue Origin: watching the Apollo 11 moon landing as a 5-year-old, and discovering as a 10-year-old that he could use the computer terminal at his elementary school to access a Star Trek video game on a remote mainframe.

“I was constantly booby-trapping the house with various kinds of alarms,” Bezos says in the piece, describing his early love of electronics, and perhaps foreshadowing his interest in smart-home technologies. He called his mom, Jackie, “a saint” for not just accommodating but enabling his childhood hobby by driving him to RadioShack multiple times a day.

Isaacson notes that he was the editor at Time in 1999, the year that the magazine named Bezos its “Person of the Year,” amid early signs of what would become the dot-com bust. Isaacson recalls asking then-Time Inc. CEO Don Logan if the pick would be considered a mistake or “look silly in years to come if the Internet economy deflated.”

Logan, presciently, told Isaacson not to worry: “Jeff Bezos is not in the internet business. He’s in the customer service business. He will be around for decades to come, well after people have forgotten all the dot.coms that are going to go bust. ”

As part of a detailed recounting of Amazon’s history, the piece calls the creation of Amazon Web Services “the greatest and most serendipitous innovation” by Bezos so far, fueled by his recognition of the broader value of the computing and storage infrastructure and APIs that Amazon had created for its own teams. Amazon went on to essentially invent the modern cloud computing market, giving itself a huge lead over subsequent entrants such as fellow tech giants Microsoft and Google.

In the piece, Bezos calls AWS “the greatest piece of business luck in the history of business.”

Isaacson also addresses the conflicts between Bezos and President Trump, which he writes were intensified by Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post.

“Donald Trump neither understood nor cared that Bezos exercised no editorial control and that the paper was completely separate from Amazon,” Isaacson writes. “So the president, in ways that seem to me to be corrupt, has abused the power of the federal government to try to punish Amazon and deny contracts to Amazon Web Services that were merited.”

That was an apparent reference to the Pentagon’s $ 10 billion JEDI contract, which was awarded to Microsoft last year in a surprise move. Amazon is still disputing the contract award, calling it “politically corrupted,” and accusing Trump of interfering the process “to pursue his own personal and political ends.”

However, a report by the Defense Department’s inspector general in April found that DoD officials “were not pressured regarding their decision on the award of the contract by any DoD leaders more senior to them, who may have communicated with the White House.”

And finally, the piece offers new clarity on Bezos’ political and philosophical leanings, describing them as a mix of “social liberalism” (reflected in areas such as his support of gay marriage and his philanthropic focus on climate, education and homelessness) and “ economic views that stress individual liberty. ”

An extended quote from Bezos offers a window into his mind.

“Imagine a world where some incredibly artificially intelligent computer could actually do a better job than the invisible hand of allocating resources, and were to say, ‘There shouldn’t be this many chickens, there should be this many chickens,” just a few more or a few less, ”he says. “Well, that might even lead to more aggregate wealth. So, it might be a society that if you give up liberty, everybody could be a little wealthier. Now, the question that I would pose is, if that turned out to be the world, ‘Is that a good trade?’

“Personally, I don’t think so,” Bezos concludes. “Personally, I think it would be a terrible trade. I think the American Dream is about liberty. ”

“Invent & Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos” is published by Harvard Business Review Press and Hachette imprint PublicAffairs. This earlier story by Alan Murray in Fortune explains how the book came together. Bezos is pledging all proceeds from its sale to charity.