soul

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I understand Zappos selling out to Amazon (even the Amazon logo, which leads from A to Z, makes sense of it) but the news still depresses me. Zappos is a cause as well as a brand. That cause is relationship. As Wikipedia (currently) puts it,

Zappos uses a loyalty business model and relationship marketing. The primary sources of the company’s rapid growth have been repeat customers and numerous word of mouth recommendations.[4][5] In 2005, the chairman reported that 60% of customers were repeat buyers.[5]

Think about the word “company.” At Dictionary.com, the noun is said to mean these things:

  1. a number of individuals assembled or associated together; group of people.
  2. a guest or guests: We’re having company for dinner.
  3. an assemblage of persons for social purposes.
  4. companionship; fellowship; association: I always enjoy her company.
  5. one’s usual companions: I don’t like the company he keeps.
  6. society collectively.
  7. a number of persons united or incorporated for joint action, esp. for business: a publishing company; a dance company.
  8. (initial capital letter) the members of a firm not specifically named in the firm’s title: George Higgins and Company.

And that’s before we get down to military, governmental and other meanings.

Note that the business meanings start at #7. Note the convivial qualities of all the numbered meanings. Zappos has that convivial nature, more than any other big company retailing clothing online. You get the sense that you can relate to these people, because they seem to have a reason for being that goes beyond being the cheapest and most convenient means for choosing goods, paying for them, and having them shipped to you. That’s Amazon’s business. It’s different.

So I’m sure there is synergy there. But synergy alone does not a great acquisition make.

I wonder, now that (as the press release says) “Amazon will provide Zappos employees with $40 million in cash and restricted stock units” — in addition to whatever stockholding Zappos employees get in the form of Amazon stock (the sum of all shareholders and options is 10 million Amazon shares) — if Zappos’ soul and mission will survive the acquisition.

I also wonder what kind of hit the whole subject of relationship, which is so highly potentiated (read: absent, though it shouldn’t be), will take.

Tony Hsieh’s letter to employees (about 100 of them, it says) is reassuring, as is the Jeff Bezos video.

Hope it works out.

[Later...] Alexander Haislip has a financial angle on the deal.

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Tristan Louis asks, Is ownershp passe? Or, from his first paragraph, “…our ownership society seems to be started a slide towards a new mode of being: a rental society.” He uses the examples of Netflix, Apple, Kindle and build vs. buy vs. rent choices at the enterprise level, and suggests, “The change in our relationship to media forces us to reassess the value of the physical good.” Except for books, most media are either disposable or self-disposing.

Good points. Got me thinking…

The concept of ownership is embedded in human nature, for the simple reason that we are grabby animals. Our hands are built for grasping. Most languages have a possessive case. “Mine!” (in whatever language) is one of the first words a toddler learns. Possession is 9/10ths of the three-year-old — especially if you try to take something away from the kid.

Yet all possession is temporary, because life is temporary, and our conditions are temporary. Even the things we love change. The physical appeal of our mates changes. Our little sweet babies grow into big hairy adults.

Could it be that the evanescent nature of the Net is in greater alignment with the temporal nature of life than the physical world we also inhabit? Think about it. Do you really “own” your domain name? Or do you rent it? Do you really own your data, or any of the identities you use? You may be able to hide your data, or encrypt it so only you and trusted others can make sense of it. But how valuable is your data in a world that operates as one big copy machine? The words I write here are not mine alone. They are available to everybody with a Net connection. If they repeat what I’ve written, does that make my words theirs? Or is there something in the nature of words that is also beyond the scope of possession — even given that possession as a quality can have great value? (If, however, a temporary one.)

The older I get the less I wish to hold on to anything, other than what is truly worthwhile to hold. (If “holding” is even what I’m doing.) What matters most, it seems to me, is neither possession nor control, but responsibility. There are things only I can, and must, do. I have an unknown budget of time to do it in. Time is something we can only spend, even when we talk about “saving” it. We are born with an unknown sum of it, and we spend it at a uniform rate until it’s gone. We just don’t know what that rate is. We do know we have 100% of what remains.

Today, here on the Net, we have a new world of our own making that is very different than the one our inner three-year-olds know too well. The concept of possession inside a system that works by copying is an odd one to apply. The concept of distance-free connecting is another. At a functional level the Net puts us all at approximately zero distance from everybody else. More than a World of Ends, the Net is a World of Beginnings. Every word we say, every key we stroke, every gesture we commit, is the beginning of something — even as we do those things at the ends of a network comprised of countless other ends.

My grandfather, George W. Searls,  was a carpenter in Fort Lee, New Jersey in the early days of silent movies, when Fort Lee was the first Hollywood. (Lon Chaney was a good friend of his, and lived for awhile in one of the family’s upstairs apartments.) Among other things, Grandpa built movie sets. Here is a picture of one. It appears to be a ballroom with a stage at one end. This is how they did movies back then: on stages. They shot there because theater was what they knew. They did theater on film.

I think we’re still at that stage (no pun intended) with the Internet. We’re doing old media stuff in this new place that’s not really a medium at all. It’s a strange new disembodied environment that doesn’t make full sense to our embodied selves, because bodies aren’t there. I think the Net will only make sense, eventually, to our disembodied selves. These are the selves that require bodies but are not reducible to them. Possession gives us something to do with our bodies. But not with our souls.

The work of life is doing, not having. Even if having is what you’re doing, it’s the doing that matters. Life is process, not product. That process is one of contribution, I think. We want to leave the world with more than it had when we entered it. And with goods that are beyond measure or price. Goods which, like time, we can only give.

With the Net we have invented an excellent place to do that.

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