This is a really important question because the answers – and there is more than one – point either to a a brilliant, forward-thinking business brain that has created a real force for betterment or a highly manipulative, cynical exploitation that is a threat to our understanding of society.

Actually that sentence is probably wrong – in the sense that it poses a false opposition, as I have come to learn that it is probably both. Amazon is a phenomenon, and not an evil empire – but the effects of Amazon’s growth may actually be malign.

I know that there are many articles that do examine why Amazon is successful, but for me that is only half of the equation. I point to some of the reasons in this answer, but understanding the effects of Amazon’s success is really the pressing question. Exploring those effects is really important – and I was so bemused by it that I commissioned a book to focus on them – and the author, Stuart Haining, has produced a highly readable, unsensational but at the same time deeply disturbing account.

Some of the reasons for Amazon’s success that Stuart identified include: the obsessive focus on customer service – particularly correcting mistakes, refunding customers, going the extra mile with few questions asked; the efficiency and effectiveness of fulfillment – orders being processed and delivered within hours (and even in non-urban England that was astonishingly true); the careful analysis of new market sectors before market entry, followed by incomparable investment; the willingness to rethink the approach if and when the initial approach to the market proves unsuccessful; the relentless focus on pricing, which may actually be predatory but is carefully calculated. In addition, there is the long term planning – so different from the usual corporation approach these days tied into quarterly reporting – and the ability to invest for the future in initially loss-making but visionary businesses is also amazing. (The fuller list can be seen in his book, Planet Amazon: the Day the Earth was Renamed?And as a thoroughly satisfied customer and observer – not without a touch of envy as Stuart was an early entrant in the field of e-commerce – Stuart really gets to the heart of why Amazon is successful.

But he also sees how, following on the growth projections which see Amazon as responsible for 25% of global GDP by 2055, hence the title of his book, that this concentration of wealth and revenue in one company – and a small number of shareholders – means that there are real dangers. Amazon pays hardly any corporation tax – but uses all the infrastructure of the countries where it is present – so this undermines the cohesiveness of society and is an unfair exploitation of countries. The destruction of high street shopping is not all at Amazon’s feet but it is a rather significant force. While Amazon does create jobs, it’s not clear whether it is actually destroying more jobs than it replaces – well, it probably is clear but not recognised. The concentration of wealth in fewer hands which the high tech revolution, of which Amazon is one of the prime exemplars, is going to cause enormous social problems.

What we need is a serious, non-alarmist but clear-eyed understanding of some of these outcomes – and a realisation that the potential for one company to have such a hold on global commerce is real, if not realisable in practice, but serious for all of us.