How I became an Amazon

One of the challenges of being a working mother is the questions they ask you. My least favourite is: "How do you do it?" For a decade now I have evaded it and the types who pose it.

This week, however, I found a response I could live with. My epiphany came as I was working on today's column. The plan was to write on the 19th-century British campaign to suppress the slave trade on the high seas and its similarities to the current Middle East challenge. The research began on Amazon.com with a hunt for material about William Wilberforce, an abolitionist leader. But before I bagged Wilberforce, I came across an announcement by Jeff Bezos, chief executive, about Amazon's new feature, "Search Inside the Book".

Here was my answer to the Big Question. Neither feminist nor sociological, but economic. The answer was Amazon. Because of technological innovations by Amazon and other firms such as Google, information sector people become more efficient. The effect does not exclude the employed female.

This may sound like so much bubble hype, but I have evidence.

My life with Amazon began in the 1990s when I was working, writing a book and having my third child. One day, on a dedicated "internet" terminal shared by 10 staffers, I came upon Amazon. Buying online saved trips to the speciality bookstore for tracts on unit labour costs. It took me to corners of the economics world I had found in no shop. It also enabled me to skip trips around town for the right Playmobil knight figurine.

Overall, I was not such a tech maniac. I dozed off at the phrase "broadband". But in the case of Amazon, I became a veritable George Gilder. I even corralled Mr Bezos into a private lunch with me and my paper's books editor so we could grill him on his views about inventory theory. This was a bit cruel, as Mr Bezos, who was taking his company public around then, was arguably more time-challenged than I was.

Next came the crash, and September 11 2001. The received wisdom was now that high-tech was a bubble event. Amazon stock dropped below $15. I had less disposable income, and so did my employers. Still, I found myself spending more on Amazon. Soon, my heaviest outlays had to do with research projects. It was cheaper to buy books than to photocopy them - not to mention more respectful of copyright law. Buying a book could also spare business travel. My outlays increased, but my output was increasing faster. The little shopping habit suggested that productivity gains can offset time shortages, and that Amazon might be a recession-resistant product. It also suggested that the usual argument against Amazon - that it was vulnerable because anyone could replicate it - might be weak.

At that point a sane person would have gone long on Amazon. Alas for me, the ethics culture of financial journalism prohibits such wealth-maximising behaviour. So all I did was order books appropriate to the sort of column I had to produce during that period. (That meant acquiring several editions of Sir Norman Angell's The Great Illusion.) Amazon stock moved up in 2002 and has jumped dramatically this year. Meanwhile, I discovered that Amazon also sells out-of-print books, and began to pour embarrassing amounts of cash into purchases for my next project, a history of the Great Depression.

The Depression is a vast topic. I started in January 2003 buying 1933 Was a Bad Year and by March had moved on to thrillers such as The American Catholic Experience and Takings: Private Property and Eminent Domain. I am currently awaiting delivery of The Story of the Hoover Dam, which I ordered in September.

Last Friday, I asked Amazon to violate its own privacy rules and tot up the total number of purchases I have made for myself and on behalf of my family in the past seven years. That figure was 482. A high number, but still just about equivalent to the number of business lunches I have skipped in the same period.

A wiser journalist would have something nasty to say about Amazon round about now, just to demonstrate independence. OK, I relent: I hate its sentimental "share the love" campaign. But I also have to mention that new search feature. The news is that the engine now indexes not only books' titles and authors but also their content. Some 33m pages from 120,000 books that, heretofore, languished in library stacks are now accessible to all via the e-world. On Friday I found not only books about or by the saintly Wilberforce but also ones in which he is merely mentioned (with page numbers). Thus large productivity gains for scholars, stock analysts and so on. This may seem a small change, LexisNexis for books, but the truth is that it widens access to knowledge from an elite to an entire country. Amazon is moving beyond supplanting a book shop to supplanting a library.

You do not have to suffer from Amazon fever to take the point. The same experience has given Google the confidence to plot an initial public offering without investment bankers. I shall leave it to my colleagues on the Lex column to tell us whether we have to choose between Amazon and Google, or eschew tech altogether. The reality, however, is that though we may have doubted her lately, innovation is a goddess who outlasts boom and bust. She endured her Enrons in the 1990s but also generated genuine growth. And technological progress, ladies and gents, is how she did it.

© Copyright 2003 Financial Times

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To book Amity Shlaes for a speaking engagement, contact Jamie Brickhouse at the Red Brick Agency, 646.281.9041.
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