Algorithmic merchandising leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Slowly but surely, it will erode trust for all the tech giants.
Yesterday, I lost it over a hangnail and a two-dollar bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
You know when a hangnail gets angry, and a tiny red ball of pain settles in for a party on the side of your finger? Well, yeah. That was me last night. My usual solution is to stick said finger into a bottle of peroxide for a good long soak. But we were out of the stuff, so, as has become my habit, I turned to Amazon. And that’s when things not only got weird, they got manipulative. Sure, I’ve been ambiently aware of Amazon’s algorithmic pricing and merchandising practices, but last night, the raw power of the company’s control over my routine purchases was on full display.
There’s literally no company in the world with better data about online purchasing than Amazon. So studying how and where it lures a shopper through a purchase process is a worthy exercise. This particular one left a terrible taste in my mouth – one I don’t think I’ll ever shake.
So first the news. To celebrate the company’s eight birthday, Cloudflare is announcing the launch of a domain registrar. And because the company operates at massive scale, and can afford to do things most companies simply can’t (or won’t – looking at you, Google, Amazon, Facebook) – the company is offering domains *at cost.* In other words, Cloudflare isn’t making one red cent when you register a domain with them. What they pay to register a domain (and yes, that number is fixed, and the same for all domain registrars), is what you pay to register a domain.
If you pull far enough back from the day to day debate over technology’s impact on society – far enough that Facebook’s destabilization of democracy, Amazon’s conquering of capitalism, and Google’s domination of our data flows start to blend into one broader, more cohesive picture – what does that picture communicate about the state of humanity today?
Technology forces us to recalculate what it means to be human – what is essentially us, and whether technology represents us, or some emerging otherness which alienates or even terrifies us. We have clothed ourselves in newly discovered data, we have yoked ourselves to new algorithmic harnesses, and we are waking to the human costs of this new practice. Who are we becoming?
For decades technology helped the industrial world work better; more and more, technology is replacing that world completely, and there will be pain. That, though, is precisely why it is worth remembering that the world is not static: to replace humans is, in the long run, to free humans to create entirely new needs and means to satisfy those needs. It’s what we do, and the faith to believe it will happen again will be the best guide in figuring out how.
Everyone’s favorite parlor game is “where will Amazon go?” Better to ask: Why does Amazon needs a second headquarters in the first place?
Why does Amazon want a new headquarters? Peruse the company’s RFP, and the company is frustratingly vague on the question. “Due to the successful growth of the Company,” Amazon says of itself in the royal third person, “it now requires a second corporate headquarters in North America.”
Plus gutting the DOE, and it’s time to take a stand
Every single company that dominates our digital life these days — oh hell, let’s just call it what it really is, shall we? Every company that dominates most of ourlife these days — Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple — these companies all were born as upstarts — challengers who fought against the status quo, founder-driven scrappers who discovered new paths, paths which led to their ultimate ascendance.
But now they’re dominant, they’re incumbents. And that means they care as much — perhaps more — about maintaining their power as they do about maintaining the level playing field which allowed them all to prosper in the first place.
And: Ethics in business follow ethics in government, Valerian follow up…
For a short item in a daily newsletter, my post on Google and Amazon’s feed-driven ambitions brought some outsized email responses my way. Suffice to say, people in the industry are paying close attention to the topic, and that got me thinking a bit more about where this all might lead. Given it’s Monday, and the news is a bit slow, indulge me in a bit of speculation.
Here’s the headline: I predict Walmart will attempt to either partner with Instagram, or to invest in (and partner with) Pinterest. Or both.
Antitrust fights in the tech industry have always been problematic. Software is a “non-rival” good — additional copies cost nothing to produce, and one person possessing it doesn’t exclude another — so monopolies don’t feel like such a big problem, and the industry changes so quickly that monopolies tend to be fleeting. The last big antitrust battle in tech, the 1990s-era case against Microsoft, created a lot of sound and fury but mostly succeeded in distracting, rather than dismantling, its target.
Many companies enter the fray for possession of the coveted default seller position on Amazon pages — the seller you end up choosing when you click the big orange “buy” button — but only one can win. Since an estimated 85 to 90 percent of the sales for a given product page go to the winner, it’s a consequential choice. In Buzzfeed, Leticia Miranda lays out how this struggle has evolved, and what criteria Amazon uses to resolve it.
The answers are to some extent opaque: Amazon won’t detail its formula for fear it will get gamed, but says companies can win by “keeping prices low, updating their inventory, and offering multiple shipping methods and fast, reliable service.” Also, it helps if they are Amazon Marketplace veterans and if they ship from Amazon warehouses.
Sometimes the day-two and week-two takes on big stories are more valuable to read than the breaking coverage. Here’s a couple of examples.
For Investors, Travis Kalanick Was Great, Until He Wasn’t
Before he became the icon of toxic management and bad-boss behavior that he is today, Travis Kalanick was, in the eyes of the venture capitalists who funded his company, the perfect startup CEO. He had the vision. He had the hard-charging spirit, the “won’t take no for an answer” stance, the “I’ll do anything to win” determination. As long as VCs value “manic, headstrong sociopaths,” we’ll be stuck with more Kalanicks, writes Adrianne Jeffries in The Outline.