Has the Everything Store become a dangerous monopoly threatening the U.S. economy?
Some time later this year, Amazon could become the first trillion-dollar company in American history. Its valuation has already doubled in the last 14 months to about $800 billion, and Jeff Bezos, its founder and CEO, is officially the richest man on the planet.
There are ways in which Amazon seems to be the greatest company in American history. It’s revolutionized the global shopping experience and expanded into media and hardware, while operating on razor-thin margins that have astonished critics. But some now consider it the modern incarnation of a railroad monopoly, a logistics behemoth using its scale to destroy competition.
So what is Amazon: brilliant, dangerous, or both? That’s the subject of the latest episode of Crazy/Genius, our new podcast on technology and culture.
To build the case for breaking up the Everything Store, I talk to Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU and an outspoken critic of big tech, and Lina Khan, a researcher at the Open Markets Institute and a leading expert on antitrust policy. Both of them encourage me to see how a company famous for low prices can still behave in an anticompetitive manner. Making the case against heavy regulation for Amazon are Rob Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech think tank, and Michael Mandel, an economist with the Progressive Policy Institute who researches technology and e-commerce. Both encourage me to focus not only on the hidden costs of Amazon’s largeness, but also on the hidden benefits.
My response to his post with some thoughts of my own follows:
This is an interesting, but very germane, review. As someone who’s both worked in the entertainment industry and followed the MOOC (massively open online courseware) revolution over the past decade, I very often consider the physical production value of TGCs offerings and have been generally pleased at their steady improvement over time. Not only do they offer some generally excellent content, but they’re entertaining and pleasing to watch. From a multimedia perspective, I’m always amazed at what they offer and that generally the difference between the video versus the audio only versions isn’t as drastic as one might otherwise expect. Though there are times that I think that TGC might include some additional graphics, maps, etc. either in the course itself or in the booklets, I’m impressed that they still function exceptionally well without them.
Within the MOOC revolution, Sue Alcott’s Coursera course Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets is still by far the best produced multi-media course I’ve come across. It’s going to take a lot of serious effort for other courses to come up to this level of production however. It’s one of the few courses which I think rivals that of The Teaching Company’s offerings thus far. Unfortunately, the increased competition in the MOOC space is going to eventually encroach on the business model of TGC, and I’m curious to see how that will evolve and how it will benefit students. Will TGC be forced to offer online fora for students to interact with each other the way most MOOCs do? Will MOOCs be forced to drastically increase their production quality to the level of TGC? Will certificates or diplomas be offered for courseware? Will the subsequent models be free (like most MOOCs now), paid like TGC, or some mixture of the two?
One area which neither platform seems to be doing very well at present is offering more advanced coursework. Naturally the primary difficulty is in having enough audience to justify the production effort. The audience for a graduate level topology class is simply far smaller than introductory courses in history or music appreciation, but those types of courses will eventually have to exist to make the enterprises sustainable – in addition to the fact that they add real value to society. Another difficulty is that advanced coursework usually requires some significant work outside of the lecture environment – readings, homework, etc. MOOCs seem to have a slight upper hand here while TGC has generally relied on all of the significant material being offered in a lecture with the suggestion of reading their accompanying booklets and possibly offering supplementary bibliographies. When are we going to start seeing course work at the upper-level undergraduate or graduate level?
The nice part is that with evolving technology and capabilities, there are potentially new pedagogic methods that will allow easier teaching of some material that may not have been possible previously. (For some brief examples, see this post I wrote last week on Latin and the digital humanities.) In particular, I’m sure many of us have been astounded and pleased at how Dr. Greenberg managed the supreme gymnastics of offering of “Understanding the Fundamentals of Music” without delving into traditional music theory and written notation, but will he be able to actually offer that in new and exciting ways to increase our levels of understanding of music and then spawn off another 618 lectures that take us all further and deeper into his exciting world? Perhaps it comes in the form of a multimedia mobile app? We’re all waiting with bated breath, because regardless of how he pulls it off, we know it’s going to be educational, entertaining and truly awe inspiring.
Following my commentary, Scott Ableman, the Chief Marketing Officer for TGC, responded with the following, which I find very interesting: