Amazon's Bezos has reminded us how broken our old normal was

We are more than Silicon Valley’s best efforts to reduce us to the sum total of our consumption habits

You might think that at a time when the young and healthy have put their lives on hold to spare those more vulnerable, “ruthless” would have lost its cachet. Photograph: Getty Images

The first thing that strikes you about the new Jeff Bezos, Andy Jassy, is how closely he resembles the old Jeff Bezos. The similarity is not purely in his physical features, so much as the expression on his face.

You recognise it instantly when you see it: it’s one of smug self-satisfaction, bloated with entitlement. It is the expression of hedge fund managers, dictators and titans of Silicon Valley.

The New York Times tells us that Jassy is not just a face double, he's also a "brain double" for Bezos. For 18 glorious months in 2002 his entire job was to follow the Amazon founder around and be his "shadow". The idea was that he would get to know the boss well enough to anticipate his questions. You have to wonder how hard that can really have been.

In his public – and thanks to the National Enquirer’s publication of his texts to his former lover we can confidently add his private – utterances Bezos is perplexingly vapid for such a clever man.

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If we've learned nothing else this year it's that we are more than Silicon Valley's best efforts to reduce us to the sum total of our consumption habits

“He repels curiosity. The mind skitters off the beige gleam of his surfaces,” writer Mark O’Connell noted in the Guardian.

What titan of techno-capitalism wouldn’t want their clone to succeed them? Jeff Bezos has the next best thing.

The announcement that he is to step down as Amazon CEO and become its executive chairman prompted a slew of gushing articles this week about how his personal wealth is now so unimaginably vast that it necessitated the creation of a whole new word, “centi-billionaire”.

They noted his inventiveness, his single-handedness, his ruthlessness, his “numbers-obsessed brain”, all the attributes of a Menlo Park Michelangelo.

Are these still values to be admired in a world eviscerated by illness, death, grief, job-losses, economic catastrophe, the want of human touch?

You might think that, at a time when the young and healthy have signed an open-ended contract to sacrifice their personal freedoms and put their lives on hold in order to spare those more vulnerable, “ruthless” would have lost its cachet.

GDP of Kazakhstan

Not much of the coverage of Bezos acknowledged, or merely noted in passing, that accumulating personal wealth equating to the GDP of Kazakhstan came at a price: the diminishing of his workforce to little more than robots with the annoying habit of needing to urinate; the obliteration of smaller retailers; the undercutting of the publishing industry.

But, look, the buccaneering pirate of the pandemic made €10.8 billion on a single day last July, and that has to count for something.

In any case it’s hard to stay mad at him when you might need a multipack of LED bulbs any moment.

If we've learned nothing else this year it's that we are more than Silicon Valley's best efforts to reduce us to the sum total of our consumption habits. Stuck here in what Dr Seuss appositely called The Waiting Place, what we miss most are not the impulse-buy eye creams or lunchtime sandwiches made by someone else. We miss one another– chats and hugs and beach walks and even standing on the sidelines of a rain-soaked pitch on a Tuesday night.

We're all so desperate to get back to normal we sometimes forget how broken our normal was

But while we’re stuck here every company whose business model is predicated on making you the product is cashing in. A captive, inert product, trapped at home with the remote control in one hand and a phone in the other, is basically the dream for guys like Bezos.

They don't tend to brag about it – they're not that crass -- but the numbers tell their own story. According to Oxfam, the world's 10 richest people, including Bezos, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, witnessed their wealth grow collectively by €451 billion during the pandemic. That would be more than enough to pay for a Covid-19 vaccine for everyone on earth if they were so inclined, the charity says. Which, of course, most of them are not.

Meanwhile Bezos muses that he’s dabbling in developing space colonies, creating a model of Florence in the cosmos, in order “to protect this planet” – and also, you know, because it’s tough trying to think of ways to spend €150 billion.

He has also invested €668 million in climate change, a gesture slightly negated by the fact that his empire was built on untrammelled consumption.

Super-rich

If it sticks in the craw that the super-rich got super-richer during a time when others got sick and died and lost their jobs, what can you do?

Stop shopping on Amazon for a start, and divert your money to the small, independent businesses struggling in the pandemic.

For a while it seemed Brexit might help with that, making shopping on UK sites prohibitively expensive. But now it’s reported that Amazon.ie may be on the way – so we’ll probably just go on shopping on Amazon, and try not to think about the €125,000 Bezos makes every minute.

Even if you resolve to avoid Amazon you're sucked back in whenever you use a site like Netflix or Twitter thanks to Amazon Web Services – the company's most profitable division, developed by Jassy.

If the pandemic has achieved nothing else it made once-outlandish ideas entirely plausible: the shift to remote working, bypassing bureaucracy in the health service, the establishment of a bigger state, even the notion of living wages and wealth taxes.

Argentina has introduced a millionaire tax to help the country recover from the pandemic, while the British Wealth Tax Commission has proposed a one-off levy on people with assets worth more than €571,000 – a mere 3 minutes 20 seconds in Bezos units.

We’re all so desperate to get back to normal we sometimes forget how broken our normal was. So thanks, Jeff Bezos, for the reminder.

Now is the time for a conversation about building a fairer society, one in which no individual gets to hog so much of the world’s precious resources for himself.