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Written by Alex Massie
4 February 2021
On 5 February 1994, Carl Bildt, then the prime minister of Sweden, wrote to President Bill Clinton to congratulate him on his decision to end the United States’ trade embargo on Vietnam. The true significance of this otherwise commonplace missive was, as Bildt recognised, that it was the first message between global leaders sent by email. It was, as Bildt wrote, a way of “testing this connection on the global Internet system”.
In response Clinton thanked Bildt for his support and suggested, albeit in the pro forma style favoured by official communications, that “this demonstration of electronic communications is an important step toward building a global information superhighway”.
From which, consider this: anyone searching for consolation has been compelled to make do with thin pickings these past 12 months but, provided sufficient diligence is shown, some may still be discovered. And perhaps the most significant will be that this pandemic broke out now and not a generation ago.
The Bildt-Clinton exchange is a reminder of how so much of what we now take for granted – so much of what we now depend upon – was only invented the day before yesterday. Sometimes, indeed, only yesterday. It is bracing to be reminded that Google was only founded in 1998 (and Facebook in 2004).
However grim or brutal the past year has been – for businesses deprived of customers, for the elderly incarcerated in their homes, for children kept out of school, for everyone – imagine how much worse, how much more devastating the pandemic’s impact would have been had it washed-up on these shores in 1994?
Vanishingly few people had email addresses then and many of those who did were university students. The worldwide web had only been invented five years previously. Ecommerce did not exist. The world was a much less connected place; more mysterious in many ways but much, much slower.
In such circumstances, political leaders would have been forced to choose between two terrible options: shut down the economy and face a depression or keep much of the economy as open as possible and accept that the virus could not be controlled. Ghastly as the death toll has been in 2020-21, it would have been much, much worse had Covid-19 arrived in 1994-95.
Granted, the virus would not have spread as rapidly a generation ago as it has now, but nor could there have been anything like the global competition – and co-operation – to discover and manufacture vaccines in record-breaking time. Nor, quite evidently, could business have continued on a ‘working from home’ basis. To use the technical term, we’d have been utterly stuffed. Most probably, we’d have endured mass unemployment and bankruptcy as well as a death toll several times greater than that which we have experienced.
As a species, and as a planet, then, we are perhaps lucky that, bad as it has been, it has not been worse. Lucky that the pandemic arrived now, not then.
And it was also in 1994 that a 30-year-old hedge fund manager named Jeff Bezos quit his job, moved to Seattle, and founded an online bookshop he named Amazon. This seemed a quixotic venture at the time – Bezos relied on funding from his parents – and like most such enterprises, doomed to failure. Who, after all, needed to buy books on the internet (what’s that, anyway?) when there were entirely serviceable bookshops available on the high street?
Well, we know differently now. Amazon has been both a destroyer of worlds and a builder of new ones. It is, for sure, possible to live without buying from it, but its dominance of cloud computing (via Amazon Web Services) means even Amazon refuseniks are to some extent likely to depend on Bezos’s company even if they do not know they do. We may not live in Jeff Bezos’s world – Bill Gates might have something to say about that – but few people, or few companies, have changed our lives quite so thoroughly.
Amazon could have failed on many occasions and frequently very nearly did. What now seems inevitable was never so – a truth easily forgotten but always important to remember. Bezos, who this week announced his departure from front-line operations, has always argued Amazon must treat every day as though it is the company’s first. That culture may help explain some of the company’s success.
Naturally, that success is sometimes equivocal. Amazon’s approach to its workforce – especially at the lower end of the pay scale – and taxation are legitimate grounds for concern. Yet, even while noting these debits, the company’s contribution to the greater good remains staggering. Capitalism is in large part the quest to make more efficient use of resources for the greater convenience of humanity. For every business destroyed by Amazon – or Google, or Facebook, or Apple, or Microsoft – countless more have grown on the platforms and in the marketplaces created by these behemoths. Their valuations now often seem extraordinarily high and their dominance is such that they now, not unreasonably, face competition concerns. The possibility of wings-clipping is both real and a testament to their success.
At some point, since nothing lasts forever, something or someone will challenge and then reinvent or supersede the world created by Bezos and Gates and Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, but for the time being it is difficult to see what that might be or how that might happen. Here, as so often, we are constrained by the limits of our imagination. There are downsides to this concentration of corporate influence but, perhaps especially during these lockdowns, we have also been reminded of the extent to which we depend upon them.
For, again, imagine a world without these connections. A slower place, certainly, but also one that would have tested ties of kinship and friendship to breaking point these past 12 months. Hard as it has been, it would have been very much harder without the world built by Big Tech. Little of the past year has been ‘normal’, but to the extent any of it has been, it has been because the pandemic arrived at a moment when, despite everything, it could do less damage to the world than perhaps at any previous time in human history. Whether we like our dependence on Big Tech or not, their world has saved jobs and saved lives.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
We hope you enjoy his work – and do feel free to forward this email on to colleagues and friends you think might be interested. They can subscribe to Beyond the Street and our other regular briefings here.