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“The clouds surrounding are thickening,” began the Washington Post article by David Streitfeld on February 21, 2001. In the previous year, stockholders had suddenly learned that the internet was not immune to the boom-and-bust cycles of more earthbound forms of economic endeavor, and it seemed the Seattle-based bookseller was going to go the way of, the most infamous example of late 1990s cyberhubris. Streitfeld noted that one detractor of Amazon “expects the Internet retailer to run out of money to adequately fund its operations later this year.”

Amazon did not run out of money—nor was it subsumed into a bigger competitor like Wal-Mart—but it wasn’t until 2003 that it ended a year with a profit. That milestone led The Wall Street Journal to call it “one of the most powerful survivors on the Internet.”

Today, the question is not whether Amazon can survive but whether we can survive without Amazon. It is in the pantheon of corporations we need more than we need most federal agencies. Just as you can search for updates on Drake’s romantic life on Bing instead of Google or post updates about your own romantic life on Ello instead of Facebook, you can buy beef jerky in bulk on Overstock instead of Amazon. But why would you? Entirely credible reasons exist to dislike Amazon: its treatment of workers, its alleged evasion of taxes, a tendency toward monopoly. But you can’t escape it. The company is lodged deep into our culture, a complex creature that engenders equally complex emotions, much like turkey bacon and the Kardashians.

About 12 years after The Washington Post reported on his presumed misfortunes, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought that newspaper from the Graham family for $250 million. Some, including many at the Post, believe the purchase was evidence of his affection for the institution, evidence too of an affection for the free press he’d long held in abeyance. Critics think Bezos intends to use the newspaper as a public relations firm on Capitol Hill. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, for one, is convinced that Bezos will deploy the Post in the service of Amazon’s tax-evasion schemes. Some people much smarter than Trump believe this too.

In buying a newspaper instead of just building a palace on Mercer Island, Bezos has made a move rare for a tech titan. These demigods tend to stay away from the public square, where they fear they will be maligned and mocked, their only sins being their supreme intelligence and crystalline vision. How much derision has Elon Musk endured for his Hyperloop? Or Peter Thiel for his floating libertarian nation scheme? Dare to dream, and you will end up a caricature on HBO’s Silicon Valley.

It’s hard to call any financial decision bold when it is made by someone worth some $60 billion, yet Bezos clearly entered a terra nova by taking over the Post. Even if we don’t read newspapers anymore, we nevertheless value them, vaguely aware that a free press is necessary for democracy. That’s why newspaper owners often come under greater scrutiny than the owners of supermarket chains. We know they matter, even if they don’t matter as much as they used to.

Kara Swisher, the Recode co-founder many regard as Silicon Valley’s premier journalist, has watched Bezos from the start. “He’s kind of on this kick to be a better person,” she tells me. “He realizes his power—that hehas power.” Though she is critical of some Amazon practices, she admires Bezos for his recent defense of free speech and journalism. “He’s enjoying the limelight a little bit more.”

The question is what that limelight will reveal, other than the obvious, laudatory stuff. In recent years, Bezos has moved well beyond selling books and backscratchers. Amazon Web Services provides cloud computing services to the CIA, while his Blue Origin company is working on spaceflight with NASA. Meanwhile, he is turning Amazon into a movie and television powerhouse that, in time, could do to Universal what it did to Borders. (Remember Borders?) Comparisons to William Randolph Hearst are almost too obvious. “Citizen Bezos,” The New York Review of Books once called him.

Bezos is a rich person in a country that despises rich people nearly as much as it worships them. Now 52, he is no longer the ambitious quant who thought he could roll Barnes & Noble. But what is he, exactly? Certainly not a public philanthropist like Bill Gates, who becomes an ambassador for causes he believes in, like fixing public education in the United States or improving sanitation in developing nations. Bezos is too shy for such campaigns. Yet some sense of civic responsibility seems to be tugging at him, perhaps a yearning for a legacy beyond that of the world’s greatest retailer. – READ MORE

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