Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The tyranny of algorithms - IV

It is commonly assumed that algorithms mindlessly execute their programs and see patterns in the data without any biases. This view fails to acknowledge that they reflect the minds and worldviews of their creators. When we outsource thinking to machines we are actually outsourcing thinking to the organisations that run those machines. For example, both Amazon and Netflix give recommendations about books and  films respectively but the nature of their recommendations differ. Amazon will nudge you towards the types of books with which you are familiar while Netflix will direct users towards unfamiliar movies. Blockbuster movies cost more to stream and Netflix makes more profit when users watch more obscure films.

Thus the algorithms are programmed to direct users towards what benefits the corporation although the propaganda will be 'to enhance user experience'. The power to include, exclude, and rank is the power to ensure that certain public impressions become permanent, while others remain fleeting. How does Amazon decide which books to prioritize in searches? How does it identify fake or purchased reviews? Why do Facebook and Twitter highlight some political stories or sources at the expense of others? Although internet giants say their algorithms  are scientific and neutral tools, it is very difficult to verify those claims.

When the Amazon boss Jeff Bezos started  out, he said that Amazon intended to sell books as a way of gathering data on affluent, educated shoppers. The books would be priced close to cost in order to increase sales volume. After collecting data on millions of customers, Amazon could figure out how to sell everything else dirt cheap on the Internet. Now books are not the only business of Amazon. It also sells hardware, is a video distributor, a  production studio, a grocery deliverer. According to one publisher’s estimate, book sales in the U.S. now make up no more than seven per cent of the company’s  annual revenue. Books were going to be the way to get the names and the data, a customer-acquisition strategy.

Amazon is ruled by computer engineers and M.B.A.s who value data most and believe only in measurable truths. The vast majority of them can be classified into two or three similar categories, and Bezos is the same: introverted, detail-oriented, engineer-type personality. Not musicians, designers, salesmen. A former Amazon employee who worked in the Kindle division said that few of his colleagues in Seattle had a real interest in books: “You never heard people say, ‘Hey, what are you reading?’ Everyone there is so engineering-oriented. They don’t know how to talk to novelists.” Amazon's writers were under pressure to prove that their work produced sales. If a customer clicked on a review or an interview, then left the page without making a purchase, it was logged as a Repel. Writers had to make sure that their repulsion rate was not too high.

The customer has always been king in the Bezos ethos."Amazon gives the customers what they want: low prices, vast selection and extreme convenience," he told a shareholders’ meeting. On these terms, Amazon’s success is stellar. It has more than 2 million titles on sale; bestselling books are routinely discounted by 50 percent or more; and it ranked first in Business Week‘s "customer service champs" awards a couple of years ago. Dennis Johnson, an independent publisher, says that “Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value — it’s a widget.”  Adrian Chen of said, 'Do you remember books? A book is basically thousands of tweets printed out and stapled together between pieces of cardboard.'

Recently, Amazon even started creating its own “content” — publishing books. The old print world of scarcity — with a limited number of publishers and editors selecting which manuscripts to publish, and a limited number of bookstores selecting which titles to carry — is yielding to a world of digital abundance. Amazon will say that, because an unprecedented number of titles are available in an instant, “it’s never been a better time to be a reader.” It will point to the growth of online reader networks, such as GoodReads, which Amazon owns, as a welcome development: “Suddenly, we’re not locked into hearing the opinions of a small number of reviewers in newspapers.” The elimination of the “gatekeepers,” as Bezos calls the professionals who get in the customer’s way, is one of his pet themes, thinking that it will rid the public sphere of their biases and inefficiencies.

Bezos believes that he provides an argument against elitist institutions and for “the democratization of the means of production”. “Even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation,” Bezos wrote in his 2011 letter to shareholders. “When a platform is self-service, even the improbable ideas can get tried, because there’s no expert gatekeeper ready to say ‘that will never work!’" Amazon believes that its approach encourages ever more people to tell their stories to ever more people, and turns writers into entrepreneurs; the price per unit might be cheap, but the higher number of units sold, and the accompanying royalties, will make authors wealthier. It believes that selling digital books at low prices will democratize reading.

When it comes to the books it stocks, Amazon makes no pretense of selectivity. Provided it carries an ISBN and isn’t offensive, Amazon is happy to sell any book anyone cares to publish. "We want to make every book available — the good, the bad and the ugly," Bezos once said. As Evgeny Morozov says in To Save Everything Click Here, 'Whether these books are Sudoku puzzles or Tolstoy novels doesn't matter at al, for it is all about the number of books downloaded, pages flipped, and memes created.' Many would argue that the increase in the variety of books being published that Amazon has encouraged can only be a good thing, that it enriches cultural diversity and expands choice.

But is this the whole truth? Is the method of production the only criterion to consider? Is the only goal of publishing to produce as many books as possible? Gatekeepers are barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths. Ideas and artistry are important in deciding what is sold but Amazon neglects these criteria and focuses only on measurable data like sales volumes and price points provided by 'unbiased' algorithms. There is also the paradox of choice: when people are offered a narrower range of options, their selections are likely to be more diverse than if they are presented with a number of choices so vast as to be overwhelming. When consumers are overwhelmed with choices, some experts argue, they all tend to buy the same well-known thing.

Amazon has the ability -- and willingness -- to lose money in order to put competitors out of business. It views losing money as a marketing expense, the cost of acquisition of a new customer. Very few companies besides Amazon could absorb such losses without being penalized by the market. A monopoly is dangerous because it concentrates so much economic power, but in the book business the prospect of a single owner of both the means of production and the modes of distribution is especially worrisome: it would give Amazon more control over the exchange of ideas than any company in history. Some have wondered if Amazon would eventually control so much of the market that it would stop selling books at cost and raise prices to become more profitable.

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