Friday, April 17, 2009

Amazon is Taking Over the World

I'm sick of even seeing the word "Amazon," aren't you? Enough already.

Having said that...

First I want to point out an interesting post on BoingBoing, a blog I can't read with any regularity because there's simply too much content, much of it of little interest to me. But Cory Doctorow's recent post about the Kindle was troubling:

Ian bought a Kindle and some Kindle ebooks from Amazon. He also bought some real-world stuff from them, some of which he returned. Amazon decided that he'd returned too many things, so they suspended his Amazon account, which meant that he could no longer buy any Kindle books, and any Kindle subscriptions he's paid for stop working.

After some phone calls, Amazon granted him a one-time exception and lit his account up again.

Leaving aside losing your subscriptions, this would not be such a big deal if the Kindle had graceful ways of putting competitors' ebooks on your device.

Pretty f'ed up, right? This is where the monopoly that is Amazon shows its true colors. They have this level of control. As ever, I do not want to sound like some kind of luddite, but I also refuse to blindly chase technology that may erode my control in the interest of convenience. Christopher wrote his compelling post on why he does not want a Kindle, but he didn't quite address this point. Others of course have. You are paying for a device over which the seller maintains control. It's a crap deal! Says one anonymous commenter on the BoingBoing post:

The Kindle is a DRM device for books.
Never, ever buy one.

And then of course, we have the big gay Amazon debacle. Oy vey. What still fascinates me about this whole situation is that it offers a remarkable example of the internet perhaps organizing people too fast.

Internet guru (I use this in place of another title - I hardly know the guy) Clay Shirky has posted a much-referenced take on the experience, in which he actively participated. This post is useful as Shirky has been involved with the web for many years in a significant way, and he has a background in creative undertakings - a degree in art and theatre work. This isn't some wonk.

In his post, Shirky admits that the outrage he saw in others over Amazon's supposed homophobic delisting of LGBT books appealed to him emotionally:

When trying to explain one’s actions, hindsight is always 20/400. With that caveat, I will say that the emotional pleasure of using the #amazonfail hashtag was intoxicating. There is no civil rights struggle in the US that matters more to me than the extension of equal rights without regard for sexual orientation. Here was a chance to strike a public blow for that cause, and I didn’t even have to write a check or get up from my chair to do it! I went so far as to publicly suggest a link between the Amazon de-listing and the anti-gay backlash following the legalization of gay marriage in Iowa and Vermont.

It's fascinating to get this information from someone so clearly well-versed in network systems. He knows about "the problems of categorization systems," and yet he jumped to the conclusion that anti-gay bias was the root of the problem, even if from a single employee rather than the corporation itself:
This isn’t because I am a generally stupid person; it was because I was, on Sunday, a specifically stupid person. When a lifetime of intellectual labor and study came up against a moment of emotional engagement, emotion won, in a rout.

And it's amazing to see he was not alone, that he joined a mass of people who all had their own reasons to jump on this idea. (And in their defense, let us not forget the witch hunt led by the Republicans over the last eight years, where they systematically passed constitutional amendments state by state, some of which were so extreme as to bar any two people of the same sex to sign contracts together. I lost at least one friend to this era, who overlooked my own concerns about Texas, where I grew up but realized I could never go back to with a partner, if I wanted to have any legal partnership with him.)

Shirky explains the real case one could have made against Amazon:
it was stupid to have a categorization system that would allow LGBT-themed books to be de-ranked en masse; it was stupid to have a technological system that would allow that to happen easily and globally; it was stupid to remove sales rank from sexually explicit works, rather than adding “Safe Search” options; it was stupid to speak in PR-ese to the public about something that really matters; it was stupid to take as long as they did to dribble an explanation out.

But then explains how this is now how the movement played out:
If it had been a critique of those stupidities that circulated over the weekend, without the intentional mass de-listing, it would have kicked off a long, thoughtful conversation about metadata, system design, and public relations. Those are good conversations to have, we need to have them, but they are not conversations that would enrage thousands of people in the space of a few hours and kick off calls for boycotts and worse.

This is where technological convenience does us in. We can move this fast, so we do move this fast, and then we regret it. It gives us a way to play out our anxieties en masse, with little forethought. It lets the loudest lead and lets others follow, often anonymously so they do not have to worry about repurcussions.

Once again, I want to move forward with technologies if we can find a way to maintain the public interest over corporate interests, and we have to admit our mistakes (as Shirky does quite eloquently) when they happen using this technology.

Allowing Amazon such a massive role in public discourse is a mistake - a fail, in modern parlance. We have given it so much significance that it controls discussions and media. It has simply become too big. The convenience it offers has holes, and they need to be addressed. In that sense, the LGBT debacle offers a useful lesson - yes, it cautions against the mass action that technology allows that is not based on thoughtful interpretations of political actions, but it also points to Amazon's control of our books. And this new realization that the information can be held back from your Kindle as punishment - no more books or papers for you! - does the same. We must choose wisely as we consumers come back to the surface and start purchasing again. Can't we find a better alternative to Amazon?

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