By Mike Brothers, Executive Director of University Relations
“In weaving his personal passions for learning and technology into a winding career in epidemiology, journalism, and e-commerce, Rick Ayre ’71 often found himself at the forefront of change and innovation. He saw computers revolutionize the way data was used to study disease. He covered the tech industry as a writer during the heady 1980s and 1990s. He was recruited to a start-up website called Amazon.com when no one knew what “e-commerce” really was– or how it would disrupt the fundamentals of the worldwide economy.
Ayre never really sought to be on the vanguard of these changes. But in pursuing what he loved, he had the opportunity in his working life to help shape industries as they adapted to innovation and disruption. His deep-seated curiosity, ignited by a liberal arts education at Drury, helped him form insights about just how connected our world would become – and, now, why there are limits to the ways in which technology can improve our lives.
A Passion Discovered
Ayre came to Drury College in 1967 from Connecticut. His father, a respected pastor and church leader, had graduated from Drury and encouraged his son to look into the school.
Drury is a small college, a great community; it was easy for me to get involved in the things I was most interested in,” he recalls. “It truly is an amazing place.”
Upon graduating from Drury with a degree in sociology, Ayre’s thirst for education led him to pursuing graduate studies in sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, and eventually to the field of epidemiology in the Pittsburgh area. It was there in the early 1980s that Ayre followed another passion – his love of technology and new gadgets – and made a crucial pivot in his career. Though still in their infancy, computers were helping crunch huge sets of data and lend empirical evidence to the field of epidemiology, which is “the study of who gets sick and why,” as Ayre puts it. “Technology was the gateway to understanding the data.”
Ayre taught himself how to use the computer systems at his disposal and learned early programming languages for the platforms. He was fascinated by two things: the systems were interactive, and they were connected via an early version of the Internet – a gateway of an entirely new kind.
“There was something hugely compelling about being connected, being able to talk to people all over the world, and being able to share ideas, arguments, documents,” he recalls. “It was an incredibly compelling time.”
A Passion Discovered
Eventually, his curiosity about the technology began to outshine his interest in data. Around this same time, IBM, Apple, and others began putting computers in homes, schools and offices everywhere. The technology was new to many, but not Ayre: “Before long, everyone was coming to me, but their questions were not about scientific method, they were about programming methodology and interactive computing,” he says.
Understanding early on that this democratization of computing power would disrupt how we work and play, Ayre decided that he needed to “find a way to get paid to play with computers,” and before long he was putting his communication skills and writing chops to work as a journalist with PC Magazine.
“Being able to talk to people and communicate effectively, in plain English, and write about what I was doing allowed me to get a job teaching people how to use computers and then move on to writing about computers,” he says. “It was perfect.”
Within a few years, Ayre became the executive editor of PC Magazine. His suggestions for improving the user experience of Amazon.com – then primarily an online book seller – during a demo with its marketing staff led to a job offer from founder Jeff Bezos, where he served as a vice president in charge of Amazon’s editorial content from 1996 to 2000. Ayre helped build the inviting front-end customer experience users know today. His mantra: consumers should never have to settle for their second choice. Endless possibilities and powerful search and recommendation engines would help create an environment for “the perfect buying decision.”
“We never cared that people bought this book or that book,” he says. “We always wanted them to buy the book that they wanted to buy.”
After retiring from Amazon, Ayre continued to be an advocate of new technology. He’s watched as his insights and instincts about an always-connected world have largely proved correct. But he’s also become somewhat wary of the ways in which technology is disrupting how we live – how we interact with one another, how we understand one another, and how we work with one another.
He believes it’s more important than ever to lean on the enduring values of honesty, kindness, love and community – the kinds of values instilled by the best liberal arts education – in this era of rapid innovation and technological change. In other words, we must focus on what humans, not computers, do best. One thing that hasn’t changed – technology is merely a tool, a gateway. Where it leads is up to us.