Credit photo by jurvetson final fi2ocw

Image: Jurvetson

Let’s cheat a little here.

In our quiz marking the 20th anniversary of Amazon, you’ll be asked to choose which description best characterizes founder and CEO Jeff Bezos’s laugh. With apologies to your esteemed test preparer, Seattle Met deputy editor Matthew Halverson, I can tell you that Bezos’s laugh is a thing of legend.

“It’s a startling, pulse-pounding bray that he leans into while craning his neck back, closing his eyes, and letting loose with a guttural roar,” is how author Brad Stone put it in his 2013 exposé, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. “Often it comes when nothing is obviously funny to anyone else.”

Stone also defines the enigmatic noise as “honking” and “a gunfire burst.” As grating as the guffaw may be, the flip side is Bezos’s volcanic ire, a wrath that has allegedly bubbled over into verbal abuse of underlings. Some of the boss’s choice words of encouragement, according to Stone: “[You’re] a complete fucking idiot” and “If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself.” 

It’s an unflattering, troubling portrait of a man who has changed the way we live, shop, regard a certain South American rain forest. 

Let’s be fair. This is also the guy who bequeathed $2.5 million to help pass the 2012 referendum that legalized same-sex marriage here. And his purchase of the Washington Post kept an important, otherwise moribund watchdog alive.

Yet it’s hard to overlook that in his 20 years in Seattle, Bezos has also transformed—some would say deformed—the city, particularly in South Lake Union, which, thanks to Amazon’s gazillion-acre campus, opines musician and city council candidate John Roderick, “looks like a suburban biotech campus.”

And what of your psyche? All the times you face a moral impasse—local independent bookstore or convenient, cheaper online grab?—and click the mouse anyway. The drones bearing Bezos-knows-what soon to loom overhead. The feeling that everything available all the time has left us less fulfilled.

The company’s first 10 years were consumed with changing the way books are bought and sold; its second spent seizing every other industry, plus the city that birthed it. As the Everything Store slips into its third decade, it’s hard to believe the next phase won’t be some yet unimagined advance toward complete world domination. 

Many of us, as the last recourse of the conquered, will no doubt keep deriding the man’s laugh. But there’s little mystery about who will get the last one.

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