Tag Archive for Amazon.com

Late Age On the Radio

Just a quick post linking you to my latest radio interview, with WFHB-Bloomington’s Doug Storm.  Doug is one of the hosts of a great program called “Interchange,” and this past Tuesday I was delighted to share with him a broad-ranging conversation about many of the topics I address in The Late Age of Print—the longevity of books, print (and paper) culture, reading practices, taste hierarchies, and more.  Toward the end the conversation turned to my latest work, on the politics of algorithmic culture.

The program lasts about an hour.  Enjoy!

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NYT on Amazon’s Prices

Just a quick post to direct your attention to an article by David Streitfeld, published on Friday, July 5th in the physical edition of the New York Times (and published online a day earlier).  It concerns Amazon.com’s prices, specifically with respect to independent and university press books.

I’m calling attention to the piece for several reasons.  First, it raises important questions about Amazon’s role as a cultural intermediary in the wake of Borders’ demise,  Barnes & Noble’s slide, and the ongoing shakeout of independent bookstores.  Second, I happen to be quoted in the story.  Here’s what I had to say, echoing some of my points in Chapters 2 and 3 of Late Age, in addition to the Preface to the paperback edition:

“Amazon is doing something vitally important for book culture by making books readily available in places they might not otherwise exist,” said Ted Striphas, an associate professor at Indiana University Bloomington. “But culture is best when it is robust and decentralized, not when there is a single authority that controls the bulk of every transaction.”

When Mr. Striphas’s book, “The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control,” first appeared in paperback in 2011, Amazon sold it for $17.50, the author said. Now it is $19.

“There’s not much competition to sell my book,” Mr. Striphas said. “The conspiracy theorist would say Amazon understands this.”

Needless to say, the rest of the piece is worth the read, too.  My thanks to David for giving me the opportunity to speak to this important issue.

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Free Download and Other News

Sorry, dear readers, for the precipitous falloff in posting.  I was on a roll during the first two or three years of The Late Age of Print blog, but since then I’ve been overwhelmed by administrative duties, my ongoing research on the topic of algorithmic culture (as well as some other side projects), and helping to raise a preschooler.  Blogging has become something of a luxury of late.  Not to worry, though: I’m not hanging up my gloves, though obviously I’m backing off a bit.

I’m writing, first of all, to alert you to my latest interview, appearing on Figure/Ground.  If you’re not familiar with F/G, it’s a fantastic “open source, student-led, para-academic collaboration.”  There you’ll find an outstanding series of interviews with leading figures in media/technology studies—people like Ian Bogost, Jodi Dean, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Gary Genosko, Katherine Hayles, Henry Jenkins, Douglas Kellner, Robert McChesney, Eric McLuhan, John Durham Peters, Douglas Rushkoff, Peter Zhang, and a host of others.  Needless to say, I’m honored to join such distinguished company.  I thank Justin Dowdall for taking the time to prepare such challenging questions.

I’m also writing to give you some fair warning.  Columbia University Press, my publisher, and I have been in talks for a few months about the freely downloadable, Creative Commons-licensed PDF of The Late Age of Print.  As you may know, it’s been accessible via this blog for more than four years now.  I don’t have an accurate count of the number of times it’s been downloaded, though I can assure you the number would be reasonably impressive.  But it’s been four years, and print sales have slowed somewhat.  Back in December I implemented a “pay with a Tweet” program, requiring anyone who wanted to download the book without paying also to spread the word about the book on Twitter or Facebook.   That’s helped to jumpstart sales a bit, but in any case my editor at Columbia and I agreed that it’s finally time to pull the plug on the free download.  I hope you’ll understand.

I plan on taking the free PDF down at the end of July.  If you still want the book for the cost of a tweet or a Facebook post, this is your last chance (of course, I’d welcome reviews on Amazon.com or additional likes on the book’s Facebook page, too).  After that…well, you know the drill.

 

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Cloud Control

Okay, I fibbed.  Almost two months ago I promised I’d be back blogging regularly.  Obviously, that hasn’t been the case — not by a long shot.  My summer got eaten up with writing, travel, the Crossroads in Cultural Studies conference, lots of student obligations, and a bunch of other things.  The blogging never materialized, unfortunately, which seems to be a trend for me in the summertime.  Maybe one of these years I’ll just accept this fact and declare a formal hiatus.

Anyway, I have lots of good material to blog about but not much time to do so — at least, not right now.  To tide you over, then, I’m linking you to my latest interview with Future Tense, the great weekly radio show on technology and culture produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  The topic is cloud computing, which is timely and important given the migration of great swaths of information from people’s home computers and laptops to Amazon Web Services, Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, Microsoft Cloud Services, and other offsite storage services.  Mine is the third interview following the one with danah boyd, with whom I was pleased to share the stage as it were.  The direct link to the mp3 audio file of the program is here if you want to cut right to the chase.

This is my second interview with Future Tense.  Back in March I recorded a show about algorithms with them, based on my ongoing research on algorithmic culture.  What a blast to have a chance to chat again with FT’s great host, Antony Funnell!

So, more anon.  I can’t tell you when, exactly, though my best guess would be towards the end of the month.  Rest assured — and I really mean this — I’ll be back.  You know I can’t stay away for too long!

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Two Interviews

My blogging got interrupted as a result of my (very welcome) spring break travels, so apologies for not posting any new material last week.  But it wasn’t just travel that kept me from writing.  I’ve also been busy giving interviews about my past and current research projects, which, truth be told, were a real blast to do.  Here’s a bit about them.

The first is a two-part Q & A with the great Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture (NYU Press, 2006) and Textual Poachers (Routledge, 1992), among many other notable books and articles.  The interview with Henry was a great opportunity to sit down and revisit arguments and themes from The Late Age of Print, now three years on.  It also gave me a chance to reflect a bit on what Late Age might have looked like were I writing it today, e.g., in light of Borders’ recent liquidation, Amazon.com’s forays into social media-based e-reading, and more.  Part I of the interview, which focuses mostly on the first half of Late Age, is here;  part II, which focuses largely on material from the second half of the book, is here.

I was also interview recently by the good folks at “Future Tense,” a fantastic radio program produced for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  For those of you who may be unacquainted with the show, here’s a little information about it: “Future Tense explores the social, cultural, political and economic fault lines arising from rapid change. The weekly half-hour program/podcast takes a critical look at new technologies, new approaches and new ways of thinking. From politics to social media to urban agriculture, nothing is outside our brief.”  Great stuff, needless to say, and so I was thrilled when they approached me to talk about my recent work on algorithmic culture as part of their March 25th program, “The Algorithm.”  You can listen to the complete show here.  Mine is the first voice you’ll hear following host Antony Funnell’s introduction of the program.

Thanks for reading, listening, and commenting.  And while you’re at it,  please don’t forget to like the new Late Age of Print Facebook page.

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E-Reading on a Schwinn

I just wrapped up an interview about Late Age, where my interlocutor asked me about my scholarly relationship to e-books.  It was such an intriguing question, because it forced me to admit to, and to begin working through, a contradiction with which I’ve wrestled privately for quite some time now: the amount I write about e-books is incommensurate with my consumption of them.  Or, to put it more straightforwardly, I haven’t read many e-books, despite the fact that I write about them all the time.

There you have it, then.  The cat’s out of the bag.  Truth be told, I’ve read exactly two e-books “cover to cover” (although we cannot exactly say that about them, can we?) since I began writing about the technology back in 2001: Keith Sawyer’s Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration; and Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning and Unfair Game.  Currently I’m halfway through the Walter Isaacson biography, Steve Jobs.  That brings the tally up to two-and-a-half, and it may be as high as three, four, or five once you’ve factored in all the sample chapters I’ve downloaded and read.

The question is, why have I kept my distance?  I’m not lazy — of that much I can assure you.  I’ve spent countless hours studying the designs, interfaces, capabilities, terms of use, and any number of other aspects of most major commercially available e-readers.  And I’m not one of those fly-by-night academics who picks up on some trend but has no personal investment in it.  I don’t read a lot of e-books because I can’t read a lot of e-books.  The technology as it currently exists is ill-equipped to handle my particular needs as a scholarly reader.

I’ll show you what I mean.  Below are three photos of a book — Stuart Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness — that my graduate students and I discussed two weeks ago in seminar.

 

The first shows the inner flyleaf, where I’ve created an index based on key ideas and themes from the text.  The second is the title page, where I’ve jotted down a brainstorm about the text in general.  The third shows another small index consisting of passages, themes, and so forth that I wanted to address specifically in class.

I know what you’re thinking: Kindle, Nook, and iBooks all allow you to take notes on a text, mark passages, and more.  You’re absolutely right.  The difference for me, though, is the way the form of a physical book allows you to organize this information, both spatially and temporally.  You’ll see, for instance, the double lines appearing in my index in the image at left.  That’s a “generational” marker for me, cuing me to notes I took upon rereading (and rereading and rereading…) the text.  This also then signals ideas and themes that were most recently on my mind, ones that I ought to be returning to in my current research.  Ditto the brainstorm page, which allows me to take notes on the text independent of any specific passage.  (Sometimes these pages of notes become quite elaborate for me, in fact.)

It’s an archival issue, I suppose, and as a scholar I have unusually specific archival needs when it comes to reading books.  And with this I realize that however much the Kindle, Nook, and iPad may be devices for readers (that’s the tagline of a marketing campaign for the e-ink Kindle), they’re actually designed for general or nonspecialist readers.

This isn’t really surprising, since to grow market share you want to capture as broad an audience as possible.  But beyond that, most people don’t need to read books like scholars.  In fact, that’s a reason why portable, paperback books became so popular in the late 19th century and again in the mid-to-late 20th century: books can actually be cheap and even disposable things to which readers might not ever return. Very few people want or need to treat them as sacred objects.

So why am I not a prolific e-reader?  I’ll put it this way: would you rather ride the Tour de France on a clunky, off-the-shelf Schwinn or a custom Italian racing bike?

I’m not drawing this analogy to be snooty.  As I’ve said, most people don’t need the expensive Italian racing bike.  It would be a complete waste of money, especially when most of the time you’re just out for a casual ride.  Instead, I’m trying to underscore how the mark of a good technology is that it seems to disappear for the user — something I discovered, incidentally, from reading the Kindle edition of the Steve Jobs biography.  The present generation of e-readers forces me to get caught up in and become frustrated with the technology — this in contrast to the technology of the physical book, which has more of a capacity to disappear for me, or at least work with me.

Maybe I’ll come around in the end, or maybe Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple will continue adding features to their devices so that they become more agreeable to specialist readers like me.  Until then, though, I’m sticking to atoms for serious reading and bits for fun.


P.S.  Please don’t forget to like the Late Age of Print Facebook page that I just launched!

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How Publishers Misunderstand Kindle

Last week, in a post entitled “The Book Industry’s Moneyball,” I blogged about the origins of my interest in algorithmic culture — the use of computational processes to sort, classify, and hierarchize people, places, objects, and ideas.  There I discussed a study published in 1932, the so-called “Cheney Report,” which imagined a highly networked book industry whose decisions were driven exclusively by “facts,” or in contemporary terms, “information.”

It occurred to me, in thinking through the matter more this week, that the Cheney Report wasn’t the only way in which I stumbled on to the topic of algorithmic culture.  Something else led me there was well — something more present-day.  I’m talking about the Amazon Kindle, which I wrote about in a scholarly essay published in the journal Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies (CCCS) back in 2010.  The title is “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.”  (You can read a precis of the piece here.)

The CCCS essay focused on privacy issues related to devices like the Kindle, Nook, and iPad, which quietly relay information about what and how you’ve been reading back to their respective corporate custodians.  Since it appeared that’s become a fairly widespread concern, and I’d like to think my piece had something to do with nudging the conversation in that direction.

Anyway, in prepping to write the essay, a good friend of mine, M—-, suggested I read Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing (New Riders, 2006).   It’s an astonishingly good book, one I would recommend highly to anyone who writes about digital technologies.

Greenfield - Everyware

I didn’t really know much about algorithms or information when I first read Everyware.  Of course, that didn’t stop me from quoting Greenfield in “The Abuses of Literacy,” where I made a passing reference to what he calls “ambient informatics.”  This refers to the idea that almost every aspect our world is giving off some type of information.  People interested in ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp, want to figure out ways to detect, process, and in some cases exploit that information.  With any number of mobile technologies, from smart phones to Kindle, ubicomp is fast becoming an everyday part of our reality.

The phrase “ambient informatics” has stuck with me ever since I first quoted it, and on Wednesday of last week it hit me again like a lightning bolt.  A friend and I were talking about Google Voice, which, he reminded me, may look like a telephone service from the perspective of its users, but it’s so much more from the perspective of Google.  Voice gives Google access to hours upon hours of spoken conversation that it can then use to train its natural language processing systems — systems that are essential to improving speech-to-text recognition, voiced-based searching, and any number of other vox-based services.  Its a weird kind of switcheroo, one that most of us don’t even realize is happening.

So what would it mean, I wondered, to think about Kindle not from the vantage point of its users but instead from that of Amazon.com?  As soon as you ask this question, it soon becomes apparent that Kindle is only nominally an e-reader.  It is, like Google Voice, a means to some other, data-driven end: specifically, the end of apprehending the “ambient informatics” of reading.  In this scenario Kindle books become a hook whose purpose is to get us to tell Amazon.com more about who we are, where we go, and what we do.

Imagine what Amazon must know about people’s reading habits — and who knows what else?!  And imagine how valuable that information could be!

What’s interesting to me, beyond the privacy concerns I’ve addressed elsewhere, is how, with Kindle, book publishers now seem to be confusing means with ends.  It’s understandable, really.  As literary people they’re disposed to think about books as ends in themselves — as items people acquire for purposes of reading.  Indeed, this has long been the “being” of books, especially physical ones. With Kindle, however, books are in the process of getting an existential makeover.  Today they’re becoming prompts for all sorts of personal and ambient information, much of which then goes on to become proprietary to Amazon.com.

I would venture to speculate that, despite the success of the Nook, Barnes & Noble has yet to fully wake up to this fact as well.  For more than a century the company has fancied itself a bookseller — this in contrast to Amazon, which CEO Jeff Bezos once described as “a technology company at its core” (Advertising Age, June 1, 2005).  The one sells books, the other bandies in information (which is to say nothing of all the physical stuff Amazon sells).  The difference is fundamental.

Where does all this leave us, then?  First and foremost, publishers need to begin recognizing the dual existence of their Kindle books: that is, as both means and ends.  I suppose they should also press Amazon for some type of “cut” — informational, financial, or otherwise — since Amazon is in a manner of speaking free-riding on the publishers’ products.

This last point I raise with some trepidation, though; the humanist in me feels a compulsion to pull back.  Indeed it’s here that I begin to glimpse the realization of O. H. Cheney’s world, where matters of the heart are anathema and reason, guided by information, dictates virtually all publishing decisions.  I say this in the thick of the Kindle edition of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, where I’ve learned that intuition, even unbridled emotion, guided much of Jobs’ decision making.

Information may be the order of the day, but that’s no reason to overlook what Jobs so successfully grasped.  Technology alone isn’t enough.  It’s best when “married” to the liberal arts and humanities.

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The Book Industry’s Moneyball

Some folks have asked me how I came to the idea of algorithmic culture, the subject of my next book as well as many of my blog posts of late.  I usually respond by pointing them in the direction of chapter three of The Late Age of Print, which focuses on Amazon.com, product coding, and the rise digital communications in business.

It occurs to me, though, that Amazon wasn’t exactly what inspired me to begin writing about algorithms, computational processes, and the broader application of principles of scientific reason to the book world.  My real inspiration came from someone you’ve probably never heard of before (unless, of course, you’ve read The Late Age of Print). I’m talking about Orion Howard (O. H.) Cheney, a banker and business consultant whose ideas did more to lay the groundwork for today’s book industry than perhaps anyone’s.

Cheney was born in 1869 in Bloomington, Illinois.  For much of his adult life he lived and worked in New York State, where, from 1909-1911, he served as the State Superintendent of Banks and later as a high level executive in the banking industry.  In 1932 he published what was to be the first comprehensive study of the book business in the United States, the Economic Survey of the Book Industry, 1930-1931.  It almost immediately came to be known as the “Cheney Report” due to the author’s refusal to soft-peddle his criticisms of, well, pretty much anyone who had anything to do with promoting books in the United States — from authors and publishers on down to librarians and school teachers, and everyone else in between.

In essence, Cheney wanted to fundamentally rethink the game of publishing.  His notorious report was the book industry equivalent of Moneyball.

If you haven’t read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003), you should.  It’s about how the Oakland A’s, one of the most poorly financed teams in Major League Baseball, used computer algorithms (so-called “Sabermetrics“) to build a successful franchise by identifying highly skilled yet undervalued players.  The protagonists of Moneyball, A’s General Manager Billy Bean and Assistant GM Paul DePodesta, did everything in their power to purge gut feeling from the game.  Indeed, one of the book’s central claims is that assessments of player performance have long been driven by unexamined assumptions about how ball players ought to look, move, and behave, usually to a team’s detriment.

The A’s method for identifying talent and devising on-field strategy raised the ire of practically all baseball traditionalists.  It yielded insights that were so far afield of the conventional wisdom that its proponents were apt to seem crazy, even after they started winning big.

It’s the same story with The Cheney Report.  Consider this passage, where Cheney faults the book industry for operating on experience and intuition instead of a statistically sound “fact basis”:

Facts are the only basis for management in publishing, as they must be in any field.  In that respect, the book industry is painfully behind many others — both in facts relating to the industry as a whole and in facts of individual [publishing] houses….”Luck”; waiting for a best-seller; intuitive publishing by a “born publisher” — these must give way as the basis for the industry, for the sake of the industry and everybody in it….In too many publishing operations the theory seems to be that learning from experience means learning how to do a thing right by continuing to do it wrong (pp. 167-68).

This, more than 70 years before Moneyball!  And, like Beane and DePodesta, Cheney was raked over the coals by almost everyone in the industry he was criticizing.  They refused to listen to him, despite the fact that, in the throes of the Great Depression, most everything that had worked in the book industry didn’t seem to be working so well anymore.

Well, it’s almost the same story. Beane and DePodesta have enjoyed excellent careers in Major League Baseball, despite the heresy of their ideas.  They’ve been fortunate to have lived at a time when algorithms and computational mathematics are enough the norm that at least some can recognize the value of what they’ve brought to the game.

The Cheney Report, in contrast, had almost no immediate effect on the book industry.  The Report suffered due to its — and Cheney’s own — untimeliness.  The cybernetics revolution was still more than a decade off, and so the idea of imagining the book industry as a complexly communicative ecosystem was all but unimaginable to most.  This was true even with Cheney, who, in his insistence on ascertaining the “facts,” was fumbling around for what would later come to be known as “information.”

Today we live in O. H. Cheney’s vision for the book world, or, at least, some semblance of it.  People wonder why Amazon.com has so shaken up all facets of the industry.  It’s an aggressive competitor, to be sure, but its success is premised more on its having fundamentally rethought the game.  And for this Jeff Bezos owes a serious thank you to a grumpy old banker who, in the 1930s, wrote the first draft of what would go on to become publishing’s new playbook.

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The Indies and the E’s

OR, HOW TO SAVE INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES ONE E-BOOK AT A TIME

Several weeks ago I mentioned the “Cultures of Books and Reading” class I’m teaching this semester at Indiana University.  It’s been a blast so far.  My students have had so many provocative things to say about the present and future of book culture.  More than anything, I’m amazed at the extent to which many of them seem to be book lovers, however book may be defined these days.

Right now I’m about midstream grading their second papers.  I structured the assignment in the form of a debate, asking each student to stake out and defend a position on this statement: “Physical bookstores are neither relevant nor necessary in the age of Amazon.com, and U.S. book culture is better off without them.”  In case you’re wondering, there’s been an almost equal balance between “pro” and “con” thus far.

One recurrent theme I’ve been seeing concerns how independent booksellers have almost no presence in the realm of e-readers and e-reading.  Really, it’s an oligarchy.  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and to a lesser extent, Apple have an almost exclusive lock on the commercial e-book market in the United States.  And in this sense, my students have reminded me, the handwriting is basically on the wall for the Indies.  Unless they get their act together — soon — they’re liable to end up frozen out of probably the most important book market to have emerged since the paperback revolution of the 1950s and 60s.

Thus far the strategy of the Indies seems to be, ignore e-books, and they’ll go away.  But these booksellers have it backward.  The “e” isn’t apt to disappear in this scenario, but the Indies are.  How, then, can independent booksellers hope to get a toehold in the world of e-reading?

The first thing they need to do is, paradoxically, to cease acting independently.  Years ago the Indies banded together to launch the e-commerce site, IndieBound, which is basically a collective portal through which individual booksellers can market their stock of physical books online.  I can’t say the actual sales model is the best, but the spirit of cooperation is outstanding.  Companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple are too well capitalized for any one independent store to realistically compete.  Together, though, the Indies have a fighting chance.

Second, the Indies need to exploit a vulnerability in the dominant e-book platforms; they then need to build and market a device of their own accordingly.  So listen up, Indies — here’s your exploit, for which I won’t even charge you a consulting fee: Amazon, B&N, and Apple all use proprietary e-book formats.  Every Kindle, Nook, and iBook is basically tethered to its respective corporate custodian, whose long-term survival is a precondition of the continuing existence of one’s e-library.  Were Barnes & Noble ever to go under, for example, then poof! – one’s Nook library essentially vanishes, or at least it ceases to be as functional as it once was due to the discontinuation of software updates, bug fixes, new content, etc.

What the Indies need to do, then, is to create an open e-book system, one that’s feature rich and, more importantly, platform agnostic.  Indeed, one of the great virtues of printed books is their platform agnosticism.  The bound, paper book isn’t tied to any one publisher, printer, or bookseller.  In the event that one or more happens to go under, the format — and thus the content — still endures.  That’s another advantage the Indies have over the e-book oligarchs, by the way: there are many of them.  The survival of any e-book platform they may produce thus wouldn’t depend on the well being of any one independent bookseller but rather on that of the broader institution of independent bookselling.

How do you make it work, financially?  The IndieBound model, whereby shoppers who want to buy printed books are funneled to a local member bookshop, won’t work very well, I suspect.  Local doesn’t make much sense in the world of e-commerce, much less in the world of e-books.  It doesn’t really matter “where” online you buy a digital good, since really it just comes to you from a remote server anyway.  So here’s an alternative: allow independent booksellers to buy shares in, say, IndieRead, or maybe Ind-ē.  Sales of all e-books are centralized and profits get distributed based on the proportion of any given shop’s buy-in.

There you have it.  Will the Indies run with it?  Or will all of the students enrolled in my next  “Cultures of Books and Reading” class conclude that independent bookselling has become irrelevant indeed?

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Hacking the Real

Lest there be any confusion, yes, indeed, you’re reading The Late Age of Print blog, still authored by me, Ted Striphas.  The last time you visited, the site was probably red, white, black, and gray.  Now it’s not.  I imagine you’re wondering what prompted the change.

The short answer is: a hack.  The longer answer is: algorithmic culture.

At some point in the recent past, and unbeknownst to me, The Late Age of Print got hacked.  Since then I’ve been receiving sporadic reports from readers telling me that their safe browsing software was alerting them to a potential issue with the site.  Responsible digital citizen that I am, I ran numerous malware scans using multiple scanning services.  Only one out of twenty-three of those services ever returned a “suspicious” result, and so I figured, with those odds, that the one positive must be an anomaly.  It was the same service that the readers who’d contacted me also happened to be using.

Well, last week, Facebook implemented a new partnership with an internet security company called Websense.  The latter checks links shared on the social networking site for malware and the like.  A friend alerted me that an update I’d posted linking to Late Age came up as “abusive.”  That was enough; I knew something must be wrong.  I contacted my web hosting service and asked them to scan my site.  Sure enough, they found some malicious code hiding in the back-end.

Here’s the good news: as far as my host and I can tell, the code — which, rest assured, I’ve cleaned — had no effect on readers of Late Age or your computers.  (Having said that, it never hurts to run an anti-virus/malware scan.)  It was intended only for Google and other search engines, and its effects were visible only to them.  The screen capture, below, shows how Google was “seeing” Late Age before the cleanup.  Neither you nor I ever saw anything out of the ordinary around here.

Essentially the code grafted invisible links to specious online pharmacies onto the legitimate links appearing in many of my posts.  The point of the attack, when implemented widely enough, is to game the system of search.  The victim sites all look as if they’re pointing to whatever website the hacker is trying to promote. And with thousands of incoming links, that site is almost guaranteed to come out as a top result whenever someone runs a search query for popular pharma terms.

So, in case you were wondering, I haven’t given up writing and teaching for a career hocking drugs to combat male-pattern baldness and E.D.

This experience has been something of an object lesson for me in the seedier side of algorithmic culture.  I’ve been critical of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other such sites for the opacity of the systems by which they determine the relevance of products, services, knowledge, and associations.  Those criticisms remain, but now I’m beginning to see another layer of the problem.  The hack has shown me just how vulnerable those systems are to manipulation, and how, then, the frameworks of trust, reputation, and relevance that exist online are deeply — maybe even fundamentally — flawed.

In a more philosophical vein, the algorithms about which I’ve blogged over the last several weeks and months attempt to model “the real.”  They leverage crowd wisdom — information coming in the form of feedback — in an attempt to determine what the world thinks or how it feels about x.  The problem is, the digital real doesn’t exist “out there” waiting to be discovered; it is a work in progress, and much like The Matrix, there are those who understand far better than most how to twist, bend, and mold it to suit their own ends.  They’re out in front of the digital real, as it were, and their actions demonstrate how the results we see on Google, Amazon, Facebook, and elsewhere suffer from what Meaghan Morris has called, in another context, “reality lag.”  They’re not the real; they’re an afterimage.

The other, related issue here concerns the fact that, increasingly, we’re placing the job of determining the digital real in the hands of a small group of authorities.  The irony is that the internet has long been understood to be a decentralized network and lauded, then, for its capacity to endure even when parts of it get compromised.  What the hack of my site has underscored for me, however, is the extent to which the internet has become territorialized of late and thus subject to many of the same types of vulnerabilities it was once thought to have thwarted.  Algorithmic culture is the new mass culture.

Moving on, I’d rather not have spent a good chunk of my week cleaning up after another person’s mischief, but at least the attack gave me an excuse to do something I’d wanted to do for a while now: give Late Age a makeover.  For awhile I’ve been feeling as if the site looked dated, and so I’m happy to give it a fresher look.  I’m not yet used to it, admittedly, but of course feeling comfortable in new style of anything takes time.

The other major change I made was to optimize Late Age for viewing on mobile devices.  Now, if you’re visiting using your smart phone or tablet computer, you’ll see the same content but in significantly streamlined form.  I’m not one to believe that the PC is dead — at least, not yet — but for better or for worse it’s clear that mobile is very much at the center of the internet’s future.  In any case, if you’re using a mobile device and want to see the normal Late Age site, there’s a link at the bottom of the screen allowing you to switch back.

I’d be delighted to hear your feedback about the new Late Age of Print.  Drop me a line, and thanks to all of you who wrote in to let me know something was up with the old site.

 

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