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Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is going to space. What will the ‘overview effect’ inspire in him?

June 7, 2021, 5:54 PM UTC

As it hurtled out of the solar system on Valentine’s Day in 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft turned on its camera one last time to snap a photo of the world it left behind. The image came to be known as the Pale Blue Dot, a moniker bestowed by the astronomer Carl Sagan. If you have not seen the image, or listened to Sagan’s awe-inspiring, timeless description of our planet as “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” go ahead and do so.

Observing Earth from space can provoke intense emotions. Astronauts who see Earth from their high perches report mind-altering awakenings. Science writer Frank Wight coined the term “the overview effect” to describe the transcendental experience.

A year ago, Bob Behnken, a NASA astronaut that SpaceX sent to the heavens, described the feeling this way to CNBC: “[You] realize that there are no boundaries or borders really observable from space. You see that it’s a single planet with a shared atmosphere. It’s our shared place in this universe. So I think that perspective, as we go through things like the pandemic or we see the challenges across our nation or across the world, we recognize that we all face them together.”

Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon, is going to get a taste of that experience next month. He is planning to be aboard the first human-carrying mission of his rocketry company, Blue Origin, alongside his brother Mark. “Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space,” he wrote on Instagram.

What will the overview effect inspire in Bezos, a man whose company is coming under fire like never before for its world-conquering ambitions? The e-commerce giant has been facing criticism for tax-dodging, union-squashing, and possible antitrust violations, yet it is also responsible for immense innovation, enriching customers’ lives and upping the ante on the way businesses operate.

Will a post-spaceflight Bezos seek to undergo a rehabilitation of his personal image—and his company’s, by extension—similar to how Microsoft founder Bill Gates once remade himself into a beloved philanthropist? (Of course, the sheen has recently come off Gates’s halo after revelations about his associations with the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.)

Bezos is 57-years-old, and by all indications there’s plenty of life left in him yet. His space-faring trip comes soon after stepping down from his post as Amazon’s chief executive officer. He is beginning the next phase of his career. How will seeing that rocky speck we call home twirling through the twilight influence the rest of his life? Perhaps his future course will become clearer at that altitude.

I will leave you with some of Sagan’s words on which to ruminate: “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light,” he once said. “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

We are sun-drenched motes of dust all.

Robert Hackett
Twitter: @rhhackett
robert.hackett@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

French toast. Google has settled a probe initiated by France's antitrust regulator over the company's advertising sales dominance. The search giant agreed to pay $286 million and to make its ad products fairer for third parties. The settlement is the culmination of a dispute that started when newspaper publisher News Corp filed a complaint in 2019.

The taxman cometh. The G7 group of countries agreed to a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15% this weekend. The deal is designed to create a floor below which countries cannot drop taxes in an effort to lure businesses, like big tech companies. If the countries involved—the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Canada, Italy, Japan, and the E.U.—can push others to adopt the standard, it may prevent businesses from dodging tax obligations by funneling revenues between jurisdictions and into tax havens. 

Party in the city where the heat is on. The Bitcoin Miami conference concluded this weekend. El Salvador's President said he plans to introduce legislation that would recognize Bitcoin as legal tender. Meanwhile, mounting fears of a crackdown in China sent the prices of many cryptocurrencies down on Sunday. Prompting the sell-off: China's Twitter-like social network Weibo began suspending some accounts linked to the industry, like Binance and Tron.

Adding to the wishlist. The Indian e-commerce giant Flipkart is in talks to raise $3 billion in funding at a $40 billion valuation, Bloomberg reports. Rumored investors in the round include the sovereign wealth funds of Singapore and Abu Dahbi, Japan's Softbank, and a major Canadian pension fund. Walmart is another major investor in the company.

Developers, developers, developers! Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, or WWDC, is taking place today starting at 1 PM E.T., or 10 A.M. P.T. The digital-only event comes at an odd time for Apple, which just concluded a trial with Epic Games over the way Apple treats app developers. Last year, Apple revealed its plans to scrap Intel hardware for its own custom computer chips; this year it is expected to announce software updates, like iOS 15, including enhancements to privacy, health-tracking, and messaging. Apparently, another Apple event centering on "spatial audio" will follow WWDC.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The Verge's Dieter Bohn proposes a new metaphor for understanding the business of Apple. The iPhone-maker is not just a "walled garden," its conventional descriptor, he says. Apple is also like a cellular network carrier—a "Verizon or T-Mobile or (shudder) AT&T"—because it is obsessed with upping average revenue per user, a metric held above all others in telecom.

As we await the beginning of Apple’s latest WWDC keynote and all of the new software products it will unveil, let’s talk about metaphors. Specifically, the metaphors we use to talk about Apple’s ecosystem. The go-to for years has been that it’s a “walled garden”—here’s Joanna Stern at The Wall Street Journal making that case in a literal walled garden—but I’m not sure that’s the best one anymore.

It’s worth kicking around some different ways of describing Apple’s ecosystem in this moment because of the nature of keynotes—even online-only keynotes. Apple is the master of crafting narratives around its products that become an organizing principle for understanding what those products are. Those narratives aren’t intellectual exercises, they’re stories told to change how you feel about Apple and its products.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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‘Business as usual’ will only bring us more pandemics, this Oxford economist says by Vivienne Walt

Last year 55 Fortune 500 companies paid no U.S. income tax. How can they get away with that? by Geoff Colvin

Examining why the pandemic was no accelerator for U.S. education by Alan Murray and David Meyer

Introducing ‘Impact-as-a-Service’— software that helps companies make a social impact by Tom Davidson and Steve Ellis

How to write emails that don’t get ignored by Meena Thiruvengadam

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BEFORE YOU GO

Amazon is expanding its Sidewalk service by default to millions of Echo smart-speakers and Bluetooth-tracker Tile devices tomorrow. The service is creating a "mesh" network between these devices that will extend their connectivity, enabling them to stay online even when they would normally be out of range. The trick: Routing data through neighbor's devices. 

If that makes you uncomfortable, Vox's Recode explains how you can opt out of Sidewalk.

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