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Bezos Buys Post, Tech Discovers DC


As the dust settles on yesterday’s bombshell news that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has bought the Washington Post, and as all the Twitter speculation and analysis begins to die down, one angle we still haven’t seen explored much is one we’ve been pointing to for the past year or so: Tech has discovered the state.

This may be the most important trend of the past few years. Though Silicon Valley was always home to massive firms with huge government contracts like Fairchild Semiconductor and Lockheed, the personal computing revolution ushered in a more innocent era of entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, who didn’t care much about government one way or another. That trend became even more pronounced as web companies rose to prominence and tech enthusiasts talked about how cyberspace was going to make old fashioned entities like states irrelevant.

But today, whether you look at the NSA story, or at the vastly stepped-up government lobbying presence of firms like Google and Facebook, or at people like Chris Hughes and now Jeff Bezos buying Washington media properties, it’s clear that something new is emerging. The state has always needed tech. But now, tech is increasingly finding that it needs the state.

The problems we are wrestling with over the proper rules for NSA surveillance are just one part of a much larger question we’ll be coping with as the marriage of tech and state proceeds. The compulsory power of the state and the huge potential of increasingly sophisticated big data crunching, plus various forms of electronic eavesdropping, have created the potential for the most powerful tyrannies the world has ever known. Think 1984 with an upgrade.

This is of course a new form of an age-old problem: how to have a state strong enough to protect you but not so strong that it crushes you. Since 1789, the US has done a pretty good job managing this balance, and for us the task will be to see how these old principles and institutions can be used to achieve the same kinds of results in a new environment. For other countries, where there is no long tradition of a strong but limited state, this is going to be harder.

One of the responsibilities of the new Washington Post (or whatever takes its place) will be to continue to report on the fight to defend public liberty in the age of Big Brother. Let’s hope its new owner gives it freedom to report honestly and openly on this crucial question. And let’s make sure that alternative voices exist, in the blogosphere and in the more formal media, as a check on this new form of power.

[Jeff Bezos image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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  • wigwag

    Revolutions produce counterrevolutions; it happens all the time. Really smart people understand this and Bezos the disrupter is really smart.

    My guess is that all the speculation about Bezos using his expertise to bring the Washington Post into the 21st Century by marrying old fashion news reporting with technology gets it exactly backwards. I bet that Bezos understands that new media is often even more vacuous than old media. New media almost never actually reports anything new. Mostly it’s about bloviating or merely condensing or aggregating news generated elsewhere.

    Perhaps Bezos understands that the counterrevolution in journalism is coming and he suspects that Americans will come to appreciate once again old fashioned reporting. After all, first Barnes and Noble and Borders put mom and pop bookstores out of business than Bezos’s company Amazon killed the few remaining bookstores and then ruined Borders. Barnes and Noble is in extremis, but guess what? Mom and pop bookstores are coming back with a vengeance. I suspect Bezos thinks the same thing will happen with journalism.

    Bloggers and other bloviators have their role, but maybe Bezos believes that they are no replacement for real journalists. Perhaps he believes that reporters are the “value added intermediators” of the 21st century and that the Washington Post is too valuable a brand to give up on.

    Even if he’s wrong, Bezos is worth $25 billion; the $250 million he paid for the post is about half as much (or less) than most NFL franchises go for. You know the old saying,

    “The only difference between the men and the boys is the price of their toys.”

    • Andrew Allison

      “real journalists” at WaPo? When was the last time this mouthpiece for the current Adminstration produced any real journalism? Where for, example, are the hard-hitting investigations of Benghazi, the IRA, NSA’s gross abuse of our civil rights, etc?

      • Corlyss

        Never, IMO. Even Watergate, the scandal that put WaPo on the map when it had always been #2 to the older and more prestigious Evening Star, was a political assassination in collusion with Congressional Democrats.

    • gwvanderleun

      “Americans will come to once again appreciate old fashioned reporting.”

      In a word, “No.” In four words, “Not. Going. To. Happen.”

      • Corlyss

        I agree. Texting is destroying a language only imperfectly mastered by today’s high school grad. They don’t know how to think, they don’t know how to talk, and they can’t write, largely because they don’t read, IMO. They are condemned to consume toxic mimics in movies, tv. video games, and their phones. These Sesame-Street warped creatures like their “information” in 10 sec. bites with glitzy colors. They’re easily bored, and famously avoid news programming. I don’t know the demo on hardcopy journalism, but I bet the 18-34 demo is conspicuously missing.

        • David Leifer

          Great post…LOL..

        • Andrew Allison

          Texting may be destroying a language, but what’s preventing Americans from appreciating good journalism is the lack of an education in critical thinking.

          • Corlyss

            I think we are in violent agreement.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Mom and Pop bookstores are coming back? Do you have a cite for this?

      • rheddles
      • Corlyss

        I’ve heard rumors to this effect for the last 9 months or so. Smart ones managed to stay alive by offering more personalized services. I buy a lot from Amazon’s 3rd party vendors, some of them brick-and-mortar, some just home businesses. You have only to check out to see that thousands of used bookstores are alive and well. Here we have 2 mom-n-pop and a Hastings, which feels like a mom-n-pop shop, with overstuffed chairs and a coffee bar. Book-TV features readings at many of them on the weekends.

        • wigwag

          I love ABEBooks!

          • Corlyss

            When I discovered it, I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven. Never again would I have to shoot want lists into the Vast Void and wait years for a nibble. It was magical.

      • wigwag

        Actually, the resurgence of independent bookstores is a well established phenomenon. You may want to check out this article from the “Christian Science Monitor” from this past spring to see what I mean,

        We see the same thing in other parts of the economy. One example is in the grocery business. For years, grocers controlled the distribution of food. These grocers began to push out butchers, vegetable vendors, milk and egg deliverers, etc. in the 1950s.
        In the past decade or so, the 10-20 large grocery chains that control most of the supermarkets in the United States have experienced unrelenting competition from the likes of Walmart and Costco.
        But at the same time that we see Walmart and Costco cleaning the clocks of the large supermarket chains, there is another fascinating phenomenon happening concurrently; the rise of the farmers market.
        Farmers markets are becoming ubiquitous in cities and suburban communities throughout the United States and the number of these markets has grown every year for the past 20 years.
        Farmers markets charge more than supermarkets do, but they are thriving because it seems that a lot of people are willing to pay more because they prefer the shopping experience.
        At the same time that farmers markets are changing the retail experience for food, they are also changing the economic environment that small farms find themselves in. There are now many small farms that rely entirely or almost entirely on farmers markets (or similar enterprises like community supported agriculture) as their distribution channel. With the intermediary removed, farmers can charge a high enough price to consumers to make small farms viable again.
        My point is that is that increasing efficiency and cost reduction takes you only so far. At some point consumers frequently return to experiences that fulfill their nostalgic impulses and provide a superior experience.
        It remains to be seen whether this happens in the world of journalism or whether the Washington Post is able to take advantage of this phenomenon under its new owner.
        But smart entrepreneurs understand that revolutions always produce counterrevolutions. It happens in politics and it happens in commerce.
        Whether Jeff Bezos can successfully takes advantage of this is anybody’s guess.

        • f1b0nacc1

          I wonder if this is more a question of niches opening up as opposed to counterrevolution.
          What you point out is that as the top end vendors (Borders or Barnes and Nobles, for instance) are driven out of business by Amazon, smaller Mom&Pop (M&P?) stores move in. I rather doubt that these stores are competing with Amazon selling mass-market paperbacks, but rather in very narrow niche markets where it is simply not profitable for Amazon to compete. This may in fact be more a result of the previous competitors (Borders and Barnes and Nobles, etc) who were too big to be nimble, but not big enough to fight Aamazon being wiped out, leaving a new (or old?) niche for the M&Ps to fill.
          Clearly this dovertails with your description of grocery stores. You can buy food at WallMart, for instance

          • f1b0nacc1

            (continued…dratted Disqus!)
            Farmer’s markets and specialty stores fill niches that a Walmart simply wouldn’t bother with (yet), and can address the needs of boutique audiences that are capable of supporting them, but are not worth the effort for a larger chain to serve. This is a healthy phenomenon, but still, I am not sure that it rises to the level of a revolution.
            Ah well, perhaps I am just being pedantic….

          • gracepmc

            And Amazon is now branching out with fresh grocery delivery services.

          • wigwag

            I think you are right that boutique markets produce interesting possibilities for entrepreneurs in a variety of different fields. But I disagree with you about Amazon. One of the umpteenth reasons that publishers absolutely despise Amazon is that Amazon built its business model around deeply discounting best sellers and other very popular books.
            These are precisely the books that publishers made most of their money on and it was the publishers fury at Amazon that enticed them to collude with Apple to raise the price of best sellers by going to an “agency model” for the sale of books.
            As you may know, just within the past month, Apple lost an antitrust suit brought by the Justice Department against Apple and most of the major publishers (the publishers settled but Apple contested the suit and lost).
            The Amazon business model (which because of Apple’s loss it is now relentlessly pursuing again) is to lure consumers in by charging very low prices for best sellers. It then recoups its losses by making large profits on all the rest of the books that they sell.
            Those mass market paperbacks and all the other less than famous books that Amazon sells are where they make the bulk of their money in the world of books.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I am not sure that we really disagree here…do we?

    • Corlyss

      There seemed to be some puzzlement at NPR yesterday because the move surprised them and because Bezos is not known for political activism like his younger tech geniuses, like Zuckerberg, are. I was intrigued by the complete lack of hysteria that marks any reporting on the Koch Bros. and Murdoch media acquisitions.

      • Andrew Allison

        Irony, I assume.

      • wigwag

        This article provides some insight into the political views of Bezos,

      • FrankArden

        Be patient. The hysteria you’re waiting for will come to you when the Sulzbergers sell out the New York Times to the Koch Brothers.

        From Ghostbusters:

        Mayor: What do you mean, “biblical”?

        Ray Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath-of-God type stuff!

        Venkman: Exactly.Stanz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the sky! Rivers and seas boiling!

        Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes!Winston Zeddmore: The dead rising from the grave!Venkman: Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!

  • rheddles

    One of the reasons Silicon Valley has been so innovative is that it has been so lightly regulated. If Bezos uses the purchase of the Post to bring greater involvement of government in dishing out preferences from government by way of regulation, the rate of innovation will rapidly decline. Look at telephony.

    The problem with the NSA, DEA, FBI and surveillance is not the result of a marriage of tech and state, it is a result of the misuse of tech by the leviathan.

    • Kavanna

      That’s why the growing alliance of Silicon Valley and DC is insane. Unless Silicon Valley is trying to prevent any such from emerging in the future ….

    • bpuharic

      Having been in the semiconductor industry for over 30 years, I’m not sure what ‘lightly regulated’ means. I used to work for ATT, the world’s first semiconductor company. It was busted up and Bell Labs, winner of 8 Nobel Prizes is now a shadow of itself.

      The industry received subsidies and tax breaks to compete against ‘Japan Inc.’ in the 80’s. Fast write off depreciation rules, etc. all created an industrial policy on the part of the govt that aided Silicon Valley

      So let’s not pretend the industry was ‘lightly regulated’. The right has a No True Scotsman fallacy view of economics which is part of our lunatic fringe.

      • wigwag

        You are right and not only is the high tech industry subject to regulation, it is also massively subsidized by the United States government. Whether we are taking about the semiconductor business, the software business or especially pharmaceuticals and biotech, these businesses benefit tremendously from federal investments in R&D.

        Federally funded R&D can be found right across the budget from DOD to CIA to NSA to NASA to NSF and NIH to the Departments of Energy, Agriculture and even the VA. There are scores more that I haven’t even mentioned.

        The reason that the United States leads the world in high tech and the reason that Silicon Valley rocks is because, at least in part, the U.S. government funds more research than the governments of the rest of the world combined.

        I work in the area of biomedical research and I can say without equivocating that almost every major drug discovery (and many surgical innovations) were facilitated by federal research funding. In fact, I can name numerous new medical treatments that have saved countless lives that have been funded exclusively by the Federal government.

        Federal R&D is “blue” on steroids. It works fabulously well. Don’t tell Professor Mead though. We wouldn’t want to freak him out.

      • rheddles

        If you worked for AT&T and don’t know what regulation is you have really had your eyes shut. AT&T was as regulated as you can get with a cozy relationship with the federal government and state PUCs. You weren’t even allowed to own your own phone! It was called Ma Bell for a reason.

        And the world’s first semiconductor company? The company where the semiconductor was invented, but never sold. One of their wacko scientists went to Palo Alto and put the Silicon in the Valley of Heart’s Delight. And his mental problems created lots of companies that could exploit silicon because they weren’t regulated or infested with the management culture of a regulated industry.

        Sure the government bought lots of silicon products and the companies benefited from accelerated depreciation just like every other company that made capital investments anywhere in the US. But let’s not pretend that’s regulation.

        Nobody told Apple what connectors had to be on the motherboard. Nobody told Microsoft what features had to be in the OS. Nothing was regulated beyond RF interference. If Silicon Valley now goes for regulation to set “standards” and erect barriers to entry, it will kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

        • bpuharic

          And alot of companies had tax breaks they lobbied the govt to give them. The right thinks regulations come from lefties but they actually come from companies with large lobbying budgets to protect their markets. The right believes in 1 dollar, 1 vote.

          Once Apple got big enough it certainly hired lobbyists and paid for campaign contributions to benefit the company

          0.01% of all contributors gave 28% of all campaign contributions. Do you REALLY think those rich folks want NOTHING for their contributions that the right has enabled?

  • qet

    “Continue” reporting on the fight to defend liberty???? How about, “start.” WaPo is supremely statist and practically an organ of the liberals within the Federal Government–either of a Dem administration or, when we have a GOP administration, of the career bureaucrats staffing FedGov departments and agencies and who are statists out of self-interest if not ideology. I don’t know Bezos’ plans but firing the entire staff and then re-hiring reporters who want to (and know how to) report rather than editorialize, and editors and opinion writers who have the basic intelligence lacking in Dionne, Robinson and nearly every other, would be a good start.

    • bpuharic

      And the drum beat of the tin foil hat crowd begins. Anything not from Fox news MUST be liberal!

      Tiresome. Paranoid. Downright delusional

      • Matthew Schultz

        That’s not at all what he said. It’s fallacious to infer that because someone objects to the WaPo’s obvious liberal bias that, therefore, they must believe anything outside of Fox News is liberal.

  • Jim__L

    Silicon Valley companies, at last report, were sitting on huge piles of unspent money. They’re not innovators anymore.

    This move to Washington is a BAD thing. It gives them the option (which might be the whole idea) of seeking rents through regulatory capture rather than making profits through products people want to buy.

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