Our Kafkaesque world

This morning’s Observer column.

When searching for an adjective to describe our comprehensively surveilled networked world – the one bookmarked by the NSA at one end and by Google, Facebook, Yahoo and co at the other – “Orwellian” is the word that people generally reach for.

But “Kafkaesque” seems more appropriate. The term is conventionally defined as “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality”, but Frederick Karl, Franz Kafka’s most assiduous biographer, regarded that as missing the point. “What’s Kafkaesque,” he once told the New York Times, “is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behaviour, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world.”

A vivid description of this was provided recently by Janet Vertesi, a sociologist at Princeton University. She gave a talk at a conference describing her experience of trying to keep her pregnancy secret from marketers…

Read on

On being a partly-boiled frog

I’m an Amazon Prime customer, because it looked like a no-brainer for a household that buys quite a lot of stuff online. But now the cost of Prime has suddenly gone up from £49/year to £79.

That’s a huge hike. To conceal it, Amazon tells me that my Prime subscription will now include a subscription to Lovefilm. Big deal! I watch very few movies and have never contemplated subscribing either to Lovefilm or Netflix. A subscription to Lovefilm is completely useless to me.

So the question is: will I stick with Prime at £79?

Answer: maybe — for now. But it’s clear that this is part of a bigger strategy: capture->lock-in->exploit. Or, as the always-perceptive Jason Calcanis puts it:

Does anyone know the actually number of @amazon prime subscribers? Can anyone with Prime imagine life without it? Would you cancel Prime over the $20 a year increase?

Note: Amazon is starting to boil us frogs. Prime goes up 25% and none of us notice. Up another $25 in two years–no one will notice. Eventually it will be $20 a month and have 100m subscribers.

Amazon says it has at least 20M prime subscribers as of Jan ’14, according to [Macquarie] (http://launch.co/story/amazon-prime-has-20m-subs-macquarie-analyst-ben-schachter-reportedly-confirme)

Internet giants: capitalism red in tooth and claw

This morning’s Observer column.

Like the other titans of the online world – Google, Facebook, Yahoo and to a lesser extent, Microsoft – Amazon is driven by data and algorithms. But not entirely. What many of its customers may not realise is that the results generated by Amazon’s search engine are partly determined by promotional fees extracted from publishers. In his book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, Brad Stone describes one campaign to exert pressure for better terms on the more vulnerable publishers. It was known internally as the gazelle project, after Bezos suggested “that Amazon should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle”. (With a nice Orwellian touch, company lawyers later changed the name to the “small publisher negotiation programme”.)

That’s a revealing metaphor: capitalism red in tooth and claw. And it’s a useful antidote to the soothing PR of the corporations that now dominate our networked world…

Read on

LATER: Ram Reddy emails to point out Jeff Bezos’s wife’s very critical review of Brad Stone’s book — published on the book’s Amazon.com site. Excerpt:

Everywhere I can fact check from personal knowledge, I find way too many inaccuracies, and unfortunately that casts doubt over every episode in the book. Like two other reviewers here, Jonathan Leblang and Rick Dalzell, I have firsthand knowledge of many of the events. I worked for Jeff at D. E. Shaw, I was there when he wrote the business plan, and I worked with him and many others represented in the converted garage, the basement warehouse closet, the barbecue-scented offices, the Christmas-rush distribution centers, and the door-desk filled conference rooms in the early years of Amazon’s history. Jeff and I have been married for 20 years.

While numerous factual inaccuracies are certainly troubling in a book being promoted to readers as a meticulously researched definitive history, they are not the biggest problem here. The book is also full of techniques which stretch the boundaries of non-fiction, and the result is a lopsided and misleading portrait of the people and culture at Amazon. An author writing about any large organization will encounter people who recall moments of tension out of tens of thousands of hours of meetings and characterize them in their own way, and including those is legitimate. But I would caution readers to take note of the weak rhetorical devices used to make it sound like these quotes reflect daily life at Amazon or the majority viewpoint about working there.

Interestingly, when she came to look for a publisher for her own novel, she took it to an old-fashioned bricks ‘n mortar publisher: Knopf.

Finished that ebook yet? Hang on…

This morning’s Observer column.

A few weeks ago I bought a copy of The Second Machine Age by two MIT researchers, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who are two of the most insightful commentators currently writing about the likely impact on employment of advanced robotics, machine learning and big-data analytics. Since I already own more physical books than my house and office can hold, I tend now to buy the Kindle version of texts that are relevant to my work, and so it was with the Brynjolfsson and McAfee volume.

Yesterday, I received a cheery email from Amazon. “Hello John Naughton,” it read. “An updated version of your past Kindle purchase of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson is now available. The updated version contains the following changes: Improved formatting for readability. Significant editorial changes have been made. You can receive the improved versions of all your books by opting in to receive book updates automatically.”

Note the phrase, “significant editorial changes have been made”…

Read on

If Big Data is “the new oil” then we’re the wells

This morning’s Observer column.

Should you be looking for an example of hucksterish cynicism, then the mantra that “data is the new oil” is as good as they come. Although its first recorded utterance goes as far back as 2006, in recent times it has achieved the status of an approved corporate cliche, though nowadays “data” is generally qualified by the adjective “big”. And if you want a measure of how deeply the cliche has penetrated the collective unconscious, ponder this: a Google search for “big data” turns up more than 1.5bn results. And a search for “data mining” turns up 167m results.

The idea of big data as a metaphor for oil is seductive. It’s also revealing in interesting ways. Given that the oil business is one of the biggest industries in the history of the world, for example, the metaphor hints at untold future riches. But it conveniently skates over the fact that oil wealth overwhelmingly benefits either ruling elites in corrupt and/or authoritarian countries, or huge corporations in democratic states.

But at least oil is a physical, non-renewable resource that is extracted from the earth. Big data, on the other hand, is extracted from the activities of people and machines…

Sic transit gloria mundi

This morning’s Observer column.

Some years ago, when the Google Books project, which aims to digitise all of the world’s printed books, was getting under way, the two co-founders of Google were having a meeting with the librarian of one of the universities that had signed up for the plan. At one point in the conversation, the Google boys noticed that their collaborator had suddenly gone rather quiet. One of them asked him what was the matter. “Well”, he replied, “I’m wondering what happens to all this stuff when Google no longer exists.” Recounting the conversation to me later, he said: “I’ve never seen two young people looking so stunned: the idea that Google might not exist one day had never crossed their minds.”

And yet, of course, the librarian was right. He had to think about the next 400 years. But the number of commercial companies that are more than a century old is vanishingly small. Entrusting the world’s literary heritage to such transient organisations might not be entirely wise.

Compared with my librarian friend, we have the attention span of newts. We are constantly overawed by the size, wealth and dominance of whatever happens to be the current corporate giant.

To which, of course, the best riposte is probably Keynes’s: In the long run, we’re all dead.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

This morning’s Observer column.

The first thought to strike anyone stumbling upon the now-infamous Innocence of Muslims video on YouTube without knowing anything about it would probably be that it makes Monty Python’s The Life of Brian look like the work of Merchant Ivory. It’s daft, amateurish beyond belief and, well, totally weird. So the notion that such a fatuous production might provoke carnage in distant parts of the world seems preposterous.

And yet it did. In the process, the video created numerous headaches for a US administration struggling to deal with the most turbulent part of the world. But it also raised some tricky questions about the role that commercial companies play in regulating free speech in a networked world – questions that will remain long after Innocence of Muslims has been forgotten…

A renaissance of reading?

Hmmm… I’m not entirely surprised by this Guardian report. I’ve noticed that teenagers of my acquaintance who have Kindles are definitely reading more. An interesting way-point on the journey to a new ecosystem.

Underlining the speed of change in the publishing industry, Amazon said that two years after introducing the Kindle, customers are now buying more ebooks than all hardcovers and paperbacks combined. According to unaudited figures released by the company on Monday, since the start of 2012, for every 100 hardback and paperback book sold on its site, customers downloaded 114 ebooks. Amazon said the figures included sales of printed books which did not have Kindle editions, but excluded free ebooks.

In a surprise move in May, the company went into partnership with the UK’s largest bricks-and-mortar books retailer, Waterstones.

Much to the consternation of the publishing industry, Amazon has refused to release audited figures for its digital book sales, something it does for printed books. It told the Guardian that the company would not discuss future policy on the matter.

The company said its figures also showed that British Kindle users were buying four times as many books as they were prior to owning a Kindle, a trend it described as a renaissance of reading.

“As soon as we started selling Kindles it became our bestselling product on Amazon.co.uk so there was a very quick adoption … [And they] are buying four times more books prior to owning a Kindle,” an Amazon spokeswoman said. “Generally there seems to be … a love of a reading and a renaissance as a result of Kindle being launched.”

So much for “the end of the book” complaint.

The gatekeepers’ demise

We went to a lovely lunch yesterday given by a friend who is a very successful writer. Inevitably, the conversation turned to the kind of topics that preoccupy professional writers — the changes that are happening to the book-publishing business; how reviews in big newspapers matter so much less nowadays than they once did; the way agents and some publishers (with some notable exceptions) seem to be in that same dreamlike state of denial one once observed in record executives and newspaper editors; and so on. The one thing my friend seemed entirely unaware of was what Amazon is doing to the self-publishing business. He was shocked by my explanation of the simple process by which one can transform a book draft in Microsoft Word into a Kindle eBook (as Jeff Jarvis did recently, for example). So it was interesting to turn to the New York Times this morning and find this quote from Jeff Bezos in a column by Tom Friedman:

“I see the elimination of gatekeepers everywhere,” said Bezos. Thanks to cloud computing for the masses, anyone anywhere can for a tiny hourly fee now rent the most powerful computing and storage facilities on Amazon’s “cloud” to test any algorithm or start any company or publish any book. Start-ups can even send all their inventory to Amazon, and it will do all the fulfillment and delivery — and even gift wrap your invention before shipping it to your customers.This is leading to an explosion of new firms and voices. “Sixteen of the top 100 best sellers on Kindle today were self-published,” said Bezos. That means no agent, no publisher, no paper — just an author, who gets most of the royalties, and Amazon and the reader.

Satire surfaces on Amazon

Sample of one of the spoof reviews on Amazon mentioned by Jamie Doward in his lovely Observer piece today.

I used to be a very successful insurance salesman at AIG. I had riches beyond belief: Faberge Eggs; Brut Aftershave, also by Faberge; a diamond encrusted Rolex; lime green Lamborghini; monogrammed slippers; a piano shaped toilet that once belonged to Liberace and a 16 ft pyramid of Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Some friends at the country club let me in on this secret that all the old money had canvas printed photos of Paul Ross, so I bought one at auction.

There was something wonderful and majestic about it, some people say the enigmatic smile is a knowing reference to his Merovingian ancestry. It hung for 3 years above the alabaster fireplace in my drawing room, replacing Munch’s Scream, which I borrowed from a friend who was also in the insurance business.

But over time there was something unsettling about the picture. At first it sounded like it emitted a high pitched, almost imperceptible, tone, like an old TV set. Then it started whispering things to me. After a while it started telling jokes and then giving me stock tips. Eventually it recommended I invest all my money with a guy called Bernie Madoff.

Now I have nothing, I get high by sucking anti-freeze from car windscreen washers, and even had to take public transport. My only possession is this picture of Paul Ross. It is my love, my life. He completes me.

Restores one’s faith in human nature.