Working Backwards

“The two-page (or one-page) mock press release format is also a writing genre common to Amazon, although it’s less often discussed than the six-page memo. What’s interesting to me about Limp’s invocation of the six-page memo in this Decoder interview is that 1) he describes how the two writing forms are, at least for his group, a combined genre and especially 2) how the memo has actually become a roadmap for product development. In short, the Devices group not infrequently begins with the press release, expands into the six-page narrative memo, and uses that document as a tool to decide which new products to develop and release.”

-Tim Carmody, “Working Backwards: Dave Limp on Amazon’s Six Page Memo.” The Amazon Chronicles. October 12, 2021.

Related to the Write: More Frequently, Less Long post from yesterday. The one, two and six page memo strikes me as an interesting model, where we take the less long pieces and start merging them together into single pages and than up to six. Of course, there’s no need to stop there, but I think the six page discipline would probably improve everyone’s writing considerably.

Amazon’s Censorship of Devil Daddy

“Censorship is alive and well over at Amazon Kindle. Last time it was our scholarly edition of the rare 1881 Victorian gay text Sins of the Cities of the Plain, which they banned for several years. Now they’ve banned the ebook of John Blackburn’s 1972 horror novel Devil Daddy, while refusing to explain why. At Amazon, any book can be blocked from sale at some random employee’s whim, with no right of appeal. Please remember that you have a choice of where to shop, and all our ebooks are available on our site, as well as Nook, Kobo and iTunes.

If you can’t zoom in on the screenshot below, here is the email from Amazon:

“As stated in our content guidelines, we reserve the right to determine what content we consider to be appropriate. This content includes both the cover art image and the content within the book. We’re unable to elaborate further on specific details regarding our content guidelines…”

-Valancourt Books, “September 2021 Update, part 2“.

I should have known. But, this is the first time I’ve heard of Amazon censoring books. When the largest retailer of book refuses to carry particular titles, especially ones that are controversial in some way, it cheapens the public discourse. Devil Daddy may not be to the taste of the average American, but the average American’s taste and community standards is a horrible basis for content guidelines.

Facebook Directs Your Eyes

“What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook…

…To sum up: there is a lot of research showing that Facebook makes people feel like shit. So maybe, one day, people will stop using it.”

—John Lanchester, “You are the product.” London Review of Books. August 17, 2017.

I’ve been off Facebook, and most social media, for over four years. I can’t imagine returning. In fact, lately, I’m leaning towards a more extreme position. The problems of the Internet are larger than social media and the feudal Internet, where Microsoft puts ads on every Windows machine and cloud infrastructure sits behind every website and stores local files in the cloud. But, instead, these are the more obvious symptoms of commercialized communications, embedded down to the level of the protocols that make it all possible, such as HTML. That’s why efforts like the Gemini Protocol, small Internet pubnixes, Tor, cryptocurrencies, and so forth are worth learning about because they have the potential to completely transform our ways of communicating online in ways that are both more meaningful and authentic.

What is Amazon?

“So, what is Amazon? It started as an unbound Walmart, an algorithm for running an unbound search for global optima in the world of physical products. It became a platform for adapting that algorithm to any opportunity for customer-centric value creation that it encountered. If it devises a way to keep its incentive structures intact as it exposes itself through its ever-expanding external interfaces, it – or its various split-off subsidiaries – will dominate the economy for a generation. And if not, it’ll be just another company that seemed unstoppable until it wasn’t.”

-Zack Kantor, “What is Amazon?zackkantor.com. March 13, 2019.

Amazon & The Cultural Landscape of Books

The small print publisher 404 Ink’s discussion of their finances, particularly the portion on the cost to small press publishers to have their books sold via Amazon, is a bit of an eye-opener. On some level, I was aware that the discounts that Amazon is able to offer on books had to be squeezed from authors and publishers (but apparently not distributors). But, I was not sure of the exact scope.

I’m imagining a publisher like Dorothy selling Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk. On the publisher’s website, it is $16.00. On Amazon, it is being sold for $14.87. If we assume a similar distribution like 404 Ink’s, then:

  • Printing cost (9%): $1.44
  • Royalty to author (12%): $1.60
  • Share to distributor (12%): $1.92
  • Share to publisher (9%): $1.44
  • Share to Amazon (60%): $8.48

So, the $1.13 difference between Amazon and Publisher prices is 7%, which Amazon offers as part of a package with Amazon Prime, free delivery and so forth to create a price sensitive, captive book market that buys primarily through them. But, even with the 7% off they are still making 13%, or $2.08, more on a $16 book than a traditional book seller.

And let’s be real about mom and pop book shops. Books selling have been dominated by the likes of Walden’s, Borders, Books-a-Million and other chain book stores for decades. I don’t really care if Amazon puts them out of business. But, there are still independent shops that are trying to carve out space in the cracks, promoting books that are not in the cultural mainstream. The problem is that there are not many cracks that Amazon isn’t in.

There’s also a large question about our cultural output. If there is no room for an independent publisher or book store to make a living doing that kind of work, and publishing houses like Dorothy are doing vital cultural work in promoting emerging women writers, what happens to those writers? Do they stay at their technical writing jobs, in the corporate cubicle, etc. and never produce any work? Or, do they end up channelling their creative energy to generate page views, followers and what not, hoping there’s a life to be found, like salt sprinkled in a wound?

There’s an argument here, beyond the standard argument about the feudal internet, the Rating Rabbit Hole, and so forth that we should pay the extra $1.13, buy directly from publishers, and consider this a tax to support diversity in our cultural landscape. Because every time we buy from Amazon rather than directly from these small publishing houses, we are voting with our dollars to essentially destroy the very stories we are showing we are willing to buy, just to save a small fraction of the cost. It’s a tragedy.

Of course, you could argue that if there is no money to be made on Amazon, then these small publishers will turn to alternatives, such as print on demand, and they will develop a market outside of Amazon. This is true, and it is happening. But, relegating a large portion of our cultural output to the long tail is also an exercise in diminishment. The diversity of the long tail will be a function of the amount of effort we put into creating it, and the first step is to stop using Amazon to buy books.

The Cost of Amazon to Small Publishers

“When someone buys a £8.99 book from us via our website…

Printing cost: 80p
Royalty to author: £1.35
Share to 404 Ink: £6.84

WE LOVE IT WHEN PEOPLE BUY DIRECTLY. It also means the author gets more…

When someone buys a £8.99 book from a bookshop…

Printing cost: 80p
Royalty to author: £1.08
Share to distributor: £1.08
Share to bookshop: £3.60
Share to 404 Ink: £2.43…

When someone buys a £8.99 book from Amazon…

Printing cost: 80p
Royalty to author: 90p
Share to distributor: £1.08
Share to Amazon: £5.40
Share to 404 Ink: 81p

It’s fairly self-explanatory that sales via Amazon really hurt. For some titles we practically make a loss on sales so we have to reassess some of our RRPs in future to balance this issue.”

—Laura Jones, “Money, money, money.” 404 Ink. March 1, 2019.

Swimming Against the Stream of Convenience

A year ago, I deleted my Facebook account. It was a bit of a watershed moment for my digital life because it was the start of a process, where I took a hard look at my use of the “free” services offered by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple and tried to assess whether other alternatives, particularly paid ones, were better based on factoring in other considerations than cost.

Facebook was the obvious starting point. On the plus side, it helped me to keep in touch with my extended family, a few groups I liked to participate in use the platform, and the calendar of events integration into Google calendar made it very easy to plan and take advantage of all the events my city has to offer.

On the negative side, those benefits came with a cost to my well-being and to society at large. During the U.S. election, it gave me a window into the thought-processes of people in my extended social circle, and I found I started liking them a lot less. It was obvious to me that people were being manipulated, less obvious to me is that I was one of those people. Reading “The Data That Turned The World Upside Down,” I had a realization that Facebook was manipulating everyone’s thoughts and interactions that used it, and by continuing to use it, I was essentially saying it was alright. It wasn’t.

But, once your mind goes down that route, then you can’t stop. You have to look at everything. Google has more than double the advertising revenue of Facebook. Yet, I used Google for almost everything, such as email, photo storage, contacts, etc. And, the influence they have, such as the companies that surface when using search, maps, or their other products is profound, but the algorithm is even more opaque than Facebook’s. You really have no idea what kind of influence Google is having over your choices, and it is impossible to have any transparency about what is going on behind the scenes and the intent behind it. Again, using Google means you agree the convenience is worth being manipulated. For me, it wasn’t worth it.

I changed my search engine to DuckDuckGo. I switched off of Gmail to one email provider then another. I switched off Google Drive to NextCloud, a free software cloud storage solution. With Nextcloud, I was able to migrate documents, pictures, contacts and notes off of Google’s servers. Some services, such as managing RSS feeds, were also part of NextCloud, which Google chose to no longer support when they retired Google Reader.

And once you go this far, it’s a short step to look at things like Wallabag to replace Feedly. Or eliminating other social media applications that are affiliated with feudal Internet companies, such as Instagram, Whatsapp, Hangouts, etc.

Once there, I was able to take bigger steps, such as installing LineageOS onto my android phone and Linux on the desktop to replace Microsoft Windows. Or using free alternatives to apps, such as those in F-Droid over those in Google Play or LibreOffice instead of the Microsoft Office suite. These moves were organic extensions of the thought processes quitting Facebook began.

Still, some things have no ready replacements. If you don’t use Google Maps, what are the alternatives? Those that exist are objectively nowhere near as good.

Choosing to not use Amazon is possible, but it comes with significant inconvenience, trade-offs and costs. Is it better to go to Wal-Mart rather than order from Amazon? What about paying 20% more by shopping elsewhere? Consider that over half of U.S. households have a subscription to Amazon Prime. Shipping costs alone make shopping for some products online prohibitive.

For Amazon, I’ve stopped buying ebooks from them. There is a lot of reading material to choose from in this world. I try to stick to DRM free books, but failing that, I try to use services that are not Amazon and available via the library, such as OverDrive. While OverDrive is not as good from a reading experience perspective, it does have the advantage of not being part of the feudal Internet.

The only Apple product I have ever used is iTunes and iPod related devices. I find other programs integrating my music collection to be easier to use. So, my exposure to Apple is negligible.

Being against the feudal Internet is swimming against the stream of convenience. It means more cost, more aggravation, and more of your time troubleshooting problems that would “just work” if you let Google, Apple or Microsoft manage everything for you.

Looking back after a year, choosing the path less travelled by has indeed made all the difference. Not everyone can do it — due to financial, time, or other constraints — but it is worth doing, if you can.

The Case Against Google – The New York Times

“In other words, it’s very likely you love Google, or are at least fond of Google, or hardly think about Google, the same way you hardly think about water systems or traffic lights or any of the other things you rely on every day. Therefore you might have been surprised when headlines began appearing last year suggesting that Google and its fellow tech giants were threatening everything from our economy to democracy itself. Lawmakers have accused Google of creating an automated advertising system so vast and subtle that hardly anyone noticed when Russian saboteurs co-opted it in the last election. Critics say Facebook exploits our addictive impulses and silos us in ideological echo chambers. Amazon’s reach is blamed for spurring a retail meltdown; Apple’s economic impact is so profound it can cause market-wide gyrations. These controversies point to the growing anxiety that a small number of technology companies are now such powerful entities that they can destroy entire industries or social norms with just a few lines of computer code. Those four companies, plus Microsoft, make up America’s largest sources of aggregated news, advertising, online shopping, digital entertainment and the tools of business and communication.”

—Charles Duhigg, “The Case Against Google.” The New York Times. February 20, 2018.

This is the best description of the feudal internet I’ve seen. It then discusses real life implications.

“As the years passed, Shivaun and Adam got into the habit of visiting message boards where people obsessively discussed Google’s many peculiarities. They began to notice an interesting pattern among companies complaining about the search giant: Often, the aggrieved parties had, in some way, posed some kind of threat to Google’s business. And they seemed to have suffered dire consequences…

… “All of the money spent online is going to just a few companies now,” says Reback (who disdains the New Brandeis label). “They don’t need dynamite or Pinkertons to club their competitors anymore. They just need algorithms and data.”

Amazon Health – Stratechery by Ben Thompson

“At the same time, the U.S. healthcare system is inextricably tied up with the post-World War 2 order; indeed, the entire reason employers are so important to the system is because of World War 2 regulations that instituted price controls on wages, incentivizing employers to use benefits as a means of attracting workers (this was further enshrined by making healthcare benefits tax-exempt)…

…My expectation, then, is not that the Internet methodically disrupts industry after industry in some sort of chronological order, but rather that the entire edifice lasts far longer than technologists think, only to one day collapse far quicker than anyone expected.

The ultimate winners of this shakeout, then, are not only companies that are building businesses predicated on the Internet, but just as importantly, are willing and able to build those businesses with the patience that will be necessary to wait for the old order to collapse, particularly if that collapse happens years or decades after the underlying business models are rotten.

There is no more patient company than Amazon.”

—Ben Thompson, “Amazon Health.” Stratechery.com. January 31, 2018.