PBS takes on Amazon's Jeff Bezos
Taylor are you pro human composting? I this is a very black mayor segment. We're coming to you from Geekwire. Seattle where we report each day on. What's happening around us in science and Innovation? What happens here matters everywhere and every week on this show we talk about some of the biggest and most interesting stories. We've been covering coming up this week. Pbs's frontline takes a look at the rise of Jeff bezos Amazon Empire and it wasn't always flattering Bernie Sanders slams tech billionaires basis and gates in their own backyard. Scientists look at the coming mega earthquake in the Pacific northwest. And also ponder what happens to your remains earthly and digital after you die. I'm geekwire civic editor. Monica Nicklesberg filling in for todd. Bishop this week I'm geekwire. Managing Editor Taylor soper. I'm Alan Boyle Gig. Wires Aerospace and science editor. Welcome to kick where. We've got a lot to talk about today but I want to start with this. Pbs documentary that we've been buzzing about around the office frontline profiled the Amazon Empire and painted a complicated picture of unrelenting ambition. Taylor you recapped the documentary for us. What was your takeaway? Yeah it was a two hour episode a year long investigation went into this by PBS. And it's really a must watch for anyone that wants to know more about Amazon whether you're close follower or just a prime member and you love getting packages sent to your door. It's kind of a wakeup call. For how pervasive and how powerful this company has really become the last twenty five years under the leadership of Jeff Bezos who has described in the documentary as a small nondescript sandy haired man sitting at his desk back then when it was first starting Seattle to now a figure of folklore and the world's richest person so it Kinda uses Jeff Bezos to tell the larger story of Amazon how powerful they are And it really questions that impact that they're having on society whether they really need to be regulated. Did you walk away from it feeling? Like wow this is a monopoly and regulators need to step in. I don't know it definitely is. It was creepy was kind of scary. Just know and realize how much Amazon is doing. I think we write about it every day. We know about it but just in terms especially the data that they're collecting. You Know Amazon has always been data company in from day one when they launched their bookstore. And figured out what you were clicking on what you put in your shopping cart in which you didn't use Alexa and the ECHO. We don't even think about that as data but that is really data that Amazon's collecting so it's not to me to say whether they should be regulated. But I do think at some point. The government should step in whether the trump administration. Who would do that? That's their story. But these seem to be getting so big that even their first employee who is quoted. He's one of nine former insiders that are interviewed in the documentary Even he was saying that he was getting a little worried that his babies now turn into this monster it's not unfathomable that the trump administration would step in on the one hand. You have this government that is famous for being very friendly business but on the other hand. Amazon is kind of not in that category because of the personal animosity between Jeff Bezos and trump. Yeah I mean we'll see what happens in you know the big Djeddai cloud computing contract with the Pentagon's going on there's some push and pull between the government and Amazon Microsoft. We'll see what happens there but yeah it's it's definitely a must watch. I think it'll make you realize and learn a lot about Amazon's rise to power and I thought it was really well produced. They Sandwich Day which was really interesting. They started with the blue origin. Referencing the ended it with the blue origin reference. I think the US bases quote of big ideas style starts small or something like that. So it's interesting that the US Bazo his blue origin space venture to tell the story of Amazon and show. Jeff Bezos has kind of ambitions and goals It's been said and Jeff has discussed this that. The reason he started Amazon was to make enough money to fund his blue origin. Space Venture eventually contribute to getting millions of people living and working in space and so I guess that shows how big his ambitions have been. Do you think Alan covering blue origin so closely. Do you think that his attention has focused? And that's the top priority. Now I don't think so. I think that he's got so many irons in the fire. He does have a schedule. For example I believe Wednesdays are his blue origin days. He's got so many other things going on that. I think that he's actually shifted because now blue origin has a CEO. A gentleman named Bob Smith who is doing more and more of the public work and so I if anything I think. Jeff is step back a little bit to kind of let the organization grow because it has grown quite a bit. It was four years ago or so. It was at six hundred employees and now it's near three thousand employees interesting. What's really struck me about? This documentary was not only how many people Amazon has made angry over the years. But how many of them front-line got to speak on the record because we know covering this company? It's hard to get people to say anything bad about Amazon. Who Do business with them or might have done business with them in the past or perhaps had a nondisclosure agreement with them but kind of in every sector that they're in there was somebody to complain whether it was booksellers who felt like they had been ripped off former employees mayor. Bill de Blasio in New York. Who was furious with Amazon for pulling out of their Amazon? Hq to agreement to build a big headquarters there his quote. Actually I wrote it down because it just really struck me Amazon. Pulled out of this deal because there was a lot of criticism particularly from local officials in New York and to Blasio said in. What world are there? No critics? Well Yeah in an autocratic totalitarian world. Maybe they're not allowed. And maybe that's the world. Jeff bezos somewhere in his mind thinks he's entitled to still angry about the whole issue thing. A seems a bit salty about it for sure from. I did a really good job of getting insiders reporters and I thought the questions that they're producers asked the Amazon's exper- particularly good and it. Actually you know the Amazon execs are very good at kind of repeating the same things over and over and they tripped up a couple of the exacts a few times for example Dave Limp. Who'S THE AMAZON DEVICES CHIEF? They asked him about Alexa. And you know if the echo devices are always listening and and he started his response saying I disagree with that they're not listening and then literally a few seconds later. He said they were listening. And he had to backtrack on that so it was interesting to see kind of the test a little bit right. And Jeff Bezos did not sit for an interview in this documentary a bunch of executives did though and that's a big gap because it's hard to have Amazon actually put those executives forward for interviews but I thought it was really clever. What frontline did they pulled from old speeches and other interviews that were captured on video of Jeff Bezos and edited them very carefully to show kind of his inner mind thinking and in some cases it was a little bit damning because it went against what the more evolved Amazon is now saying about some of its practices Yup and circling back to your first question antitrust for a long time? Amazon's maybe live behind this thing. Where their whole thing is keeping prices low for consumers and that's. I think how they've maybe skirted away from the antitrust discussion because the current US laws. Are you know antitrust is put in place to protect the consumer and Seimas on says? Hey we are what we're doing but I think at some point in the documentary. They said we'll consumers may maybe getting lower prices everyone else in the ecosystem may be getting hurt and that can include third party sellers or competitors delivery drivers warehouse workers exactly so maybe low prices is not the only thing that the antitrust regulators should be looking at well. That's the big question of antitrust. Scrutiny of big tech right now because like you said traditionally at least for the past. Few decades antitrust law has been enforced by looking at like whether prices have been inflated whether a company is abusing its market dominance to inflate prices. But in the case of the technology industry whether it's Amazon who they love to say that their customer obsessed and they do everything they can't keep prices low or facebook and Google which offer quote unquote free services that metric for determining the harm of market dominance is just not as valuable as it once was so now antitrust regulators are looking at okay. Well what are the other kinds of externalities or or potential harms of these companies and the power? That they wield it's really interesting. Time was there any groundbreaking revelation any big news. That came out of this as you. Were watching it Taylor. You know it wasn't any breaking news or new revelations but just a really good recap at the Washington Post speaking of the posts. They had a great up about the documentary and they said it's not chock full of new information but it's smartly ineffectively builds torture disturbing conclusion. That Amazon is in sore. Need of some corrective regulation from a government that seems at best indifferent to intervening and at worst submissively technocratic. So thousand great recap of what? The message really is from the show but I recommend everyone whether again you're a die hard Amazon fan or just like to get packages to your door quickly. It's a good good watch and a good glimpse and rundown of the impact of Amazon Great. And we'll link to that in the show notes so you can watch it online for free and speaking of Jeff Bezos. He made a big splash this week when he announced plans to donate ten billion dollars to nonprofits fighting climate change. We'll dig into that after the break. Welcome back to Geekwire Alan. You covered the bases Earth Fund this week. What is this announcement? Why did does make it. And what kind of impact are expecting it to have. Well came out of the blue really and Instagram Post where Jeff has done a variety of philanthropic activities. There's the Bezos Family Foundation and the day one fund and so this is ten billion dollar basis Earth Fund that is supposed to provide grants to support research and development in the climate science field. And this comes. After as you know Amazon employees spoke out even when there was some trouble about that about Amazon's commitment to doing better on climate policy and perhaps not being as supportive of fossil fuel companies. And so. It's interesting that this is getting started and it is just getting started. We don't have a whole lot of details about what's going on here but it's important to remember that this is something that Jeff bezos is personally doing with his own ten billion dollars. There was quite a debate over whether ten billion is enough whether he should be doing more. But it's a start. I think that there is nothing in there. That doesn't say that there could be more money devoted to this as jeff goes on. It's not as if He's pledged to give away half or more of his fortune as others such as Warren Buffett or Bill Gates have done so. There's more to do but it was an interesting bolt from the blue this week. It was about seven point. Seven percent of his personal net worth. I think which is estimated to be one hundred and thirty billion so just for context there we had a reader who pointed out that for a household with an average network of ninety seven thousand it would be like setting aside seven thousand four hundred sixty one dollars to combat climate change that sparked a whole nother debate over. Is that a lot or is that all that much and the whole idea of well. Okay for seven thousand dollars if you have a net worth of ninety thousand dollars. That's a big deal but if you have a net worth of one hundred thirty billion dollars then you're still going to be okay if you put aside seven percent of that so that gets you down Rabbit Hole. Pretty quickly right. It's interesting when you're a figure. Like Jeff bezos. The richest person in the world. It's kind of like you can't really do anything without inviting criticism and the folks in the philanthropy world who I talked to said. This is a huge huge Sam. I think it's the third largest second or third largest single gift in the past twenty years by some accounts. It's the second largest of the twenty first century. If you go back to the days of Andrew Carnegie How do you compare that but if you compare what's been pledged recently the biggest one is Warren Buffett's pledge to support basically the Gates Foundation? And that so far has amounted to more than Twenty Billion Dollars and Warren isn't done yet. So right and the gates is of course have invested a immense amount of their personal fortune and the gates foundation but that's overtime versus a single game. Which is what we're talking about here in the philanthropy world people are saying this is huge and it is but in the kind of environmental activism world. What I've been hearing is this may not be the most effective lever. He can pull that. It's a lot of money but we don't really know how it's going to be spent over. What period of time and it would be more effective to overhaul Amazon's business practices beyond the climate pledge that they launched last fall there's an election coming up and climate change should be an important issue during that election. And do you really want to have private people deciding what they think? Should be the top priorities in addressing climate change as opposed to government policy that perhaps could get more traction so we'll see how that figures into the whole political debate over climate change policy. There are still a lot of unknowns about this Bazo served fund but one thing we definitely know is you have to have billions of dollars to give billions of dollars away and those giant fortunes that have largely come out of the technology industry have become a target of presidential candidates. Like Bernie Sanders. Who went after Bezos and Bill Gates at a rally near Seattle this week? Although he didn't mention either by name lets us into what he had to say. There are fundamental problems in this country. That must be addressed. We will not accept the mass silt levels of income and wealth inequality that exists. Today we will not accept an economy in which three people own more wealth the bottom half of our society where the top one percent on more wealth than the bottom ninety two percent out of those three people are products of the Seattle Technology Industry Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos and I actually had the opportunity to go down to this rally and hear him speak and tear this very populist anti billionaire message and I'm just curious what you guys think. I mean all of this criticism of billionaires fair because even talking about gates and bezos spending billions of their personal fortunes on philanthropy. I watched the debate this week and Michael. Bloomberg was asked that exact question. The question like do you deserve to exist or something like that. And he's a guy worked hard and now I'm giving away and so tough to argue against I you know in today's society if you work your way up and earn your money and you have the money and give it away. I I don't know I don't. It's hard to argue against. I would say it's true and this is what Bill Gates always says. You know when asked whether he should exist which is such a big question you know he says I like to think that by adding value to the economy and adding jobs and generating all this wealth. I'm kind of entitled to decide what Philanthropic issues deserve that money that attention but critics would say sure. These guys worked very hard. But did they work hundred billion times harder than the average person or did they generate these fortunes as a result of unfairness in our economic system? I think wealth in equity is one of the biggest ills afflicting our society now and so. I think that there's going to have to be something done about that And so Bernie Sanders and it was worn. Have been talking about this and and the possibility for a wealth tax. I think that Bill Gates's actually said he sees the point there. I mean it's not as if you're suddenly going to give away all of your fortune or pay Seventy five percent tax. Even though people did pay as seventy-five percent tax in the olden days when when we were in the middle of the twentieth century and it's just so interesting to be reporting on this topic here in Seattle where these two richest people in the world live and to experience the sanders rally in their backyard with folks like Seattle City Council member. Sean going up there and talking about her tax Amazon campaign. It just feels like we're kind of at the epicenter of a lot of these issues. All right that is the basis in Sanders News of the Week. Coming up after the break will the big one destroyed the north west coast. And what happens to your remains earthly digital after you die Welcome back to Geekwire Allan this week. You circled back on a big Two Thousand Fifteen New Yorker story about the big. One reminded what that story was about and tells where things stand now. Seattle is prone to earthquakes on the geological time scale. And so it's not as if we're in southern California and be able to judge just on the basis of J. Goal that we feel what the magnitude was but there have been some big quakes. The most memorable was back in two thousand one. The nisqually earthquake but there have been super bigger ones in the past for example in the year. Seventeen hundred. There was mega earthquake magnitude. Nine plus that created such big Su- Nami that it hit the shorts of Japan. Scientists have been studying more about the origins of that quake and about the area. That generated called the cascadia subduction zone. It's off the coast of Washington state and they found that Quake as big as the one seventeen hundred probably could happen every five hundred years or so and so we're coming do. There's something like a fourteen percent chance of a quake that big occurring in the next fifty years and this was a big topic of discussion. It's been a topic of discussion for years. And so in two thousand fifteen the New Yorker wrote this article called the really big one that talks about the potential for a Cascadia earthquake and whether the Seattle area would be toast. Seattle was reading. That's right uh-huh and so. The American Association for the Advancement of Science had its annual meeting in Seattle. And one of the sessions was is the coast toast and looking back not so much at that article but just at the state of research into Cascadia earthquakes and other types of earthquakes. Actually the Seattle area is prone to three types of earthquakes Deep earthquake like the one that happened in two thousand one a shallow earthquake on the Seattle fault. Which would be very significant. And the CASCADIA mega earthquake. The focus of the discussion has been on the CASCADIA EARTHQUAKE IN THE SEATTLE QUAKE. And what might happen to the Seattle area and bed doomsday scenario? What's the possible effects? Well if you have tall buildings falling that that would be bad. I have an eight foot wall of water sweeping over the coast. That would be bad and so those are two of the big concerns and so the question is has all these factors behind those types of earthquakes been taken into account in building codes. And the answer is that they have not. There's a project called the M. Nine project that researchers at the University of Washington elsewhere have been conducting for years and they found that there are a couple of things about the Seattle Area. That could make things worse than they expected for example. There is a sedimentary basin on which Seattle rests and it's been compared to a bowl of Jello if you shake a plate with a bowl of Jell O on it the Jello shakes more than the plate would and that's what people say would happen in the event of a serious quake that came through the Seattle area and also the soil in Seattle is relatively soft and so they found that the potential for having tall buildings fall down is greater than was anticipated with existing building codes. There's a new set of construction standards that have been proposed and they're being considered by different localities. They're supposed to be probably fully phased in over the next few years but the question is will maybe in Seattle. They should be phased in more quickly. One of the questions that came up during the presentation at the science meaning was well. Where should we be the big quake hits and so one of the researchers said well? The buildings that are three stories are lower. Are probably going to be okay. And if you're in a tall building try to be in building that was built since the mid nineteen eighties because that's when they upgraded the standards and made a major change the last time and so. Your chances are better in a newer building obviously than an older building because the earthquake standards have been tightening up over the years. So that's something to remember a bit of advice in your back pocket although if you work in an old pistol Seattle building. I'm not sure what you can do about that. But how worried about this shit? Our listeners be not that worried. I mean it was pointed out that you have a better chance of being in a fatal car accident on I five than you do of dying from an earthquake. It's just something that you should keep in mind. And policy makers should keep in mind and if you own a property if you own a significant building you know like a house you should have earthquake insurance for sure. Well it sounds like we're relatively safe here in the Seattle area but just in case we're going to talk about what happens to your physical and digital remains after you die after the break Welcome back to Geekwire Alan while we have you here. We're going over all of the weird an interesting science stories that we've had this week including something that probably not. A lot of people have thought about what happens to your online self Andrew Physical South after you die. Tell us about your story this week. This is another thing that came out of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Meeting. The whole idea of new technologies. And what these new technologies due to considerations that you have to make when you're planning for your own demise for example. I don't know how many people have written into their. Well what is supposed to happen to their facebook page after they die but facebook and other social media companies do have policy on what to do and in our story. I provide links to a page that in turn links to all the places on social media where you can arrange to have your facebook page memorialized or basically deleted after you die. What happens to the what I'm guessing is majority of people who don't make those arrangements. That's the issue. It varies from state to state in Washington state. There is actually a law on this. That was passed back in Twenty Sixteen. That talks about how you should appoint. If the do -ciary that would take care of your digital assets after your death and so it's this fiduciary rather than your next of kin or your friends who should be dealing with those issues of how to dispose of your digital assets. That can be a problem. Because who's going to let the social media companies know that you've passed on. Let's say that you have a friend who has your password for some reason. Maybe maybe it's a loved one or a family member and there's a possibility that someone like that could get onto your facebook page and keep your virtual digital self alive and doing things that maybe you didn't mean to do or if the person who's passed off this mortal coil happens to pop up on social media again. Even if it's meant in goodwill it could be distressing to friends and acquaintances. Who are reminded of. That's person's passing in so it does raise all sorts of interesting issues. I guess the thing to do is to write that along with everything else into a well. If you have a will and a lot of people don't it seems like it's also a big opportunity for fraud. I mean hopefully. I'm not giving anyone any ideas here. But it reminds me of when I was younger. I was really into spy movies. And I fixated on this idea of what I would need to do if I had to go on the Lam and create a false identity and all the resources say the first step is to find birth certificate of someone who's passed away but could this replace it kind of a digital birth certificate if you created a link Dan Account and a facebook account from someone who passed away or we're able to obtain their credentials and take over those accounts. It seems like you could impersonate. That person could create a home digital self from scratch. You could just say. Oh I'm Alan Boyle. I'm setting up a new account. I I lost the password to my old account. The supposedly there are measures for example. If you were going to try to do something with the loved ones account After they passed away supposedly you would be required to upload a copy of the death certificate and these credentials to show that yes see. You are in charge of person's digital assets but I think that there are a lot of gaps in those sorts of practices for example. It might be possible to fake death certificate and upload that I'm one would hope that that facebook or or whoever's involved with catch up with that but there are a lot of questions about that sort of thing there are questions about the security of your digital identity even when you're alive and so when you're dead you're not going to be able to do much about it. Let speaking of the intersection of innovation. In mortality. You wrote about another subject. This week. That I think is really fascinating. Human composting right. What is it and would you do it? That's really good question that this is talking about the technology of handling your physical remains after death and there are a couple of new methods that have been approved in Washington state and Washington. State is the first in the country to approve of method. Called Natural. Organic reduction or human composting. And so what they'll do is that they will put your body in among wood chips and Hay and other things and introduce national microbes that break down the body over the course of one or two months and so it ends up. That you've got all this compost that includes your body. What's left of it as well as these wood chips and can be used as a normal compost? That's what you get back. And if you want you can put grandma out in the garden or let the company called recompose take care of disposing of the compost in a nice environmentally friendly and respectful way perhaps in a forest someplace in a conservation area where we'll be nourishing the soil and you can go visit grandma in this grove of trees that she helped to sustain so there you go what do you think about it. I think it's good. There's another method called acclimation which involves putting your body into a tank with a water solution and an alkaline chemical that Basically speeds up the decomposition process and so there's You you turn into a liquid over the course of a few hours you know. That's fine System to that will become legal in Washington state. It's already legal in Oregon. Taylor are you pro human composting? I this is a very black mirror. Ask Segment I have not thought deeply about whether I would be decomposed or use recompose or any of these services. I keep thinking during this conversation about Ai and robots and how that's all going to factor into this you have your brain uploaded just in case something like that and without look like so freaky time ahead for me. It's liberating to think about this in to talk about it. It makes you realize that you can spend decades trying to avoid thinking about it but maybe technology helps you to wrap your arms around this huge cosmic question. This is one of the technological innovations I hoped would happen and then it was created. I did wish that there was a legal option. If you wanted to participate in the natural ecosystem of the world decompose become nourishment for other life. It's actually strangely difficult to do that. And now Washington has become a pioneer in. This and I think it's great. Well this episode has been a journey from Bernie Sanders to human compost to Jeff bezos. We've covered it all so thank you both for being here with me filling in for todd. Bishop I'm Monica. I'm Taylor soper. I'm Alan well. Thanks for listening to Geekwire. Our show is edited and produced by Kurt Milton. Our music is by Daniel Caldwell to see all of declares coverage of Science Tech Business and more go to DOT COM and be sure to sign up for our daily email newsletter to catch oliver headlines. I'm geekwire civic editor Monica Nicklesberg. We'll talk to you next time on declare.