Tag Archive for back office

How to Have Culture in an Algorithmic Age

The subtitle of this post ought to be “apparently,” since I have developing doubts about substituting digital surveillance systems and complex computer programs for the considered — humane — work of culture.

Case in point: about six weeks ago, Galley Cat reported on a new Kindle-related initiative called “popular highlights,”which Amazon.com had just rolled out onto the web for beta testing.  In a nutshell, Amazon is now going public with information about which Kindle books are the most popular, as well as which passages within them have been the most consistently highlighted by readers.

How does Amazon determine this?  Using the 3G connection built into your Kindle, the company automatically uploads your highlights, bookmarks, marginal notes, and more to its server array, or computing cloud.  Amazon calls this service “back up,” but the phrase is something of a misnomer.  Sure, there’s goodwill on Amazon’s part in helping to ensure that your Kindle data never gets deleted or corrupted.  By the same token, it’s becoming abundantly clear that “back up” exists as much for the sake of your convenience as it does for Amazon itself, who mines all of your Kindle-related data.  The Galley Cat story only confirms this.

This isn’t really news.  For months I’ve been writing here and elsewhere about the back up/surveillance issue, and I even have an academic journal article appearing on the topic this fall.  Now, don’t get me wrong — this is an important issue.  But the focus on surveillance has obscured another pressing matter: the way in which Amazon, and indeed other tech companies, are altering the idea of culture through these types of services.  Hence my concern with what I’m calling, following Alex Galloway, “algorithmic culture.”

In the old paradigm of culture — you might call it “elite culture,” although I find the term “elite” to be so overused these days as to be almost meaningless — a small group of well-trained, trusted authorities determined not only what was worth reading, but also what within a given reading selection were the most important aspects to focus on.  The basic principle is similar with algorithmic culture, which is also concerned with sorting, classifying, and hierarchizing cultural artifacts.

Here’s the twist, however, which is apparent from the “About” page on the Amazon Popular Highlights site:

We combine the highlights of all Kindle customers and identify the passages with the most highlights. The resulting Popular Highlights help readers to focus on passages that are meaningful to the greatest number of people.

Using its computing cloud, Amazon aggregates all of the information it’s gathered from its customers’ Kindles to produce a statistical determination of what’s culturally relevant. In other words, significance and meaningfulness are decided by a massive — and massively distributed — group of readers, whose responses to texts are measured, quantified, and processed by Amazon.

I realize that in raising doubts about this type of cultural work, I’m opening myself to charges of elitism.  So be it.  Anytime you question what used to be called “the popular,” and what is now increasingly referred to as “the crowd,” you open yourself to those types of accusations. Honestly, though, I’m not out to impugn the crowd.

To my mind, the whole elites-versus-crowd debate is little more than a red-herring, one that distracts from a much deeper issue: Amazon’s algorithm and the mysterious ways in which it renders culture.

When people read, on a Kindle or elsewhere, there’s context.  For example, I may highlight a passage because I find it to be provocative or insightful.  By the same token, I may find it to be objectionable, or boring, or grammatically troublesome, or confusing, or…you get the point.  When Amazon uploads your passages and begins aggregating them with those of other readers, this sense of context is lost.  What this means is that algorithmic culture, in its obsession with metrics and quantification, exists at least one level of abstraction beyond the acts of reading that first produced the data.

I’m not against the crowd, and let me add that I’m not even against this type of cultural work per se.  I don’t fear the machine.  What I do fear, though, is the black box of algorithmic culture.  We have virtually no idea of how Amazon’s Popular Highlights algorithm works, let alone who made it.  All that information is proprietary, and given Amazon’s penchant for secrecy, the company is unlikely to open up about it anytime soon.

In the old cultural paradigm, you could question authorities about their reasons for selecting particular cultural artifacts as worthy, while dismissing or neglecting others.  Not so with algorithmic culture, which wraps abstraction inside of secrecy and sells it back to you as, “the people have spoken.”


Is the ISBN Still Necessary?

My inner distribution nerd was thrilled to discover (via José Afonso Furtado) Michael Carins’ recent reflections on the death of the international standard book number, or ISBN, over on his blog PersonaNondata.  The argument goes something like this.  Over the last several years there has been a noticeable movement away from the ISBN, particularly in the case of e-books.  Leading the way has been Amazon.com, which refuses to assign ISBNs to any of the Kindle books it sells.  With book digitization there has also tended to follow dis-aggregation, or the chopping up of books into smaller, component parts that can be sold separately.  How do you assign a single ISBN to what’s fast becoming an exploding whole?

Cairns clearly knows his stuff.  As a former President of Bowker, he was chin-deep in the trenches of the recent effort to rework the ISBN for the 21st century.  The result was the shift from a 10-digit to a 13-digit standard, which went into effect on January 1, 2007.  My question is this: is the ISBN still necessary?

Anyone who’s read The Late Age of Print will know that I do not ask this question lightly. I devote the better part of Chapter 3 to the ISBN’s history, and to tell you the truth, in the process of doing the research I developed something of a crush on this smart little product code.  Personally I’d be sad to see it go.  But as an historian of technology it seems clear that the ISBN has just about exhausted its usefulness.

It’s important to bear in mind what computing and online communications looked like when the ISBN was first conceived, back in the late 1960s.  Processing power was paltry by today’s standards.  Broadband was barely an inkling of an idea.  The ISBN was developed within the context of these technological constraints, as a concise and thus highly efficient way in which to convey extremely detailed information about the language, publisher, title, and edition of any given book.

Today computers are capable of processing much more complex data strings, which need not be limited to numerals or the occasional letter X.  Furthermore, broadband has resulted in much faster electronic communications and consequently obviates the need to “keep it simple” and to the point (Twitter notwithstanding).  In other words, the constraints under which the ISBN was created hardly apply today.

The ISBN was designed not only to facilitate “back-office” communications about books.  It was also designed to facilitate their distribution.  And in this respect Amazon’s move away from the ISBN with its Kindle editions is telling.  Time and again the company has shown that it, and only it, wants to control the distribution of Kindle books.  Indeed they are digitally rights managed so as to forestall their circulation beyond anyone besides the reader/customer/end-user/licensee (I’m not entirely sure what to call this person anymore).  Amazon is moving us away from an era of more or less unfettered book circulation, and its slow abandonment of the ISBN is a manifestation of this.

It’s also worth remembering that the ISBN grew up at a time when the book industry showed perhaps its sharpest division of labor.  There were authors, agents publishers, typesetters, printers, binders, distributors, booksellers, and certainly a whole host others all working in concert in disparate places on a single product.  Now consider Amazon. With Kindle the company effectively becomes an extension of the publisher, typesetter, printer, and binder, all while acting as book distributor and seller.  If Amazon has its way then we are likely to see a further breakdown in the book industry’s division of labor.  What’s the point of an industry Esperanto when centralization is fast becoming the order of the day?

Incidentally, this is precisely why the answer to my question, “Is the ISBN still necessary?” is still a “yes,” despite all that I have had to say about historical contexts and the like.  The ISBN was more than just a product code.  It was an accomplishment — a testament to an industry’s ability to achieve unity despite the pressures of competition, corporatization, and globalization.  Disturbingly, the waning of the ISBN signals the opposite trend: the growing hegemony of a single player who holds disproportionate sway over the industry as a whole.

with thanks to p.


Books, NOW!

Via Filed By and my good friend José Afonso Furtado’s Twitter Feed comes this fascinating Publishers Weekly story about Perseus Book Group and its BIG EXPERIMENT at BookExpo America 2009.  The crux of the matter is this: Perseus plans on publishing a 144-page book consisting of “sequels” to some of literature’s great opening lines — all within the span of 48 hours.

The title of the work — Book: The Sequel — clearly isn’t just about the content.  It’s as much if not more about the publishing industry and how it operates (or could operate), which is to say nothing of the existential crisis its main product — the book — finds itself in today.  What we have in Book: The Sequel is more than just print-on-demand, it’s essentially books, now!

I’m usually fairly circumspect of experiments like these.  Rarely are they particularly well thought through, and often they put far too much faith in simple, technological solutions or outcomes.  Not here.  Perseus proposes a remarkably holistic picture of what book publishing could be in the not-so-distant future — or later this week, if you want to get all “the future is now” about it.

First, the substance: crowdsourced content.  There already have been experiments in collaborative book writing, so in a sense what Perseus is doing is not altogether new.  Those who wish to contribute to the volume can log on to www.bookthesequel.com, where they can can pitch their own opening line sequels.  On the other hand, the Press’ experiment in crowdsourcing demonstrates one possible future function publishers may choose to take on.  That is, they may opt to become aggregators of decentralized information, as opposed to their simply remaining the gatekeepers of already centalized or unified information.  Perseus also plans on focus-grouping the cover designs using similar means, which is in keeping with my previous post on the marketing power of a site like Scribd.

Next, the product, which is multiple.  Perseus plans on releasing digital, audio, and online versions of Book: The Sequel, as well as a tangible, print-on-paper volume.  This is impressive.  Too often experiments in flash publishing result in only one of these — usually the e-edition and nothing more.  The looming test of the book industry’s mettle will be in how well it works — quickly and elegantly — across both analog and digital platforms.

Finally, the opportunities for post-publication interactivity.  Thus far publishing has done a fairly good job in recognizing the growing importance of author-audience interaction.  It has built ample infrastructure to support this.  But what the industry hasn’t caught on to well enough yet is the importance of decentralizing its social networks.  Online book marketing has been preoccupied with bringing audiences back again and again to the publishers’ or the authors’ websites.  This is understandable.  But we live in a time when conversations about culture happen all over the place, and increasingly on Facebook and Twitter.  It’s a testament to Perseus’ vision that it’s recognized how it need not try to control or consolidate the conversation about its book for that conversation to occur.

My only misgiving — and it is a significant one — about Book: The Sequel is that there appears to be no structure in place to compensate those who’ve donated their labor to create the book’s content.  This will have to change, even if it ultimately results in micro-payments to the authors (which, as Chris Anderson has shown, can add up in the long run).  Any book publishing business model that relies on crowdsourced content but that does not compensate the crowd for its initiative, wisdom, and goodwill surely will be unsustainable.

That said, Perseus plans on donating the profits of its grand experiment to the National Book Foundation. Who could have any truck with that?


Amazonfail and Algorithmic Culture

I’m rather late in adding my two cents to the recent controversy over Amazon.com, which broke a little over two weeks ago.  For all that I write about the late age of print (and Twitter, blog, etc.), my difficulty in keeping pace with the internet makes me suspect that I’m a Gutenberg guy at heart.

In any case, for those of you who may be even further behind than I, a PR disaster came crashing down around Amazon.com over Easter weekend.  Author Mark R. Probst, who writes gay-oriented fiction for young adults, noticed on Friday, April 10th that there were no sales rankings listed for two recently-released — and quite popular — gay romance novels.  He later discovered a similar trend among hundreds of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) titles on Amazon, including his own book, The Filly.  An initial inquiry into the situation brought this response from Amazon: “In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude ‘adult’ material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists.  Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.”

Needless to say, many people were outraged by the company’s apparent decision to classify GLBT books as “adult” and effectively to de-list them from its website.  The rest is pretty much history at this point.  Folks began Twittering en masse to #amazonfail, where details about — and inconsistencies in — Amazon’s listing process were revealed.  Among the more painful revelations?   As Feministe reported, A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality and related anti-GLBT screeds continued to be listed and ranked.  Meanwhile, the LA Times blog Jacket Copy noted that Amazon hadn’t classified Playboy: Six Decades of Centerfolds as “adult” (duh) but had given the label to philosopher Michel Foucault’s provocative but hardly titillating History of Sexuality, volume I.

Once Amazon had a chance to regroup, it began issuing this statement:

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.  It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles — in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer added: “Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as ‘adult,’ the source said. (Technically, the flag for adult content was flipped from ‘false’ to ‘true.’).”

Some people are understandably skeptical of Amazon’s explanations.  Though the company has admitted to making a huge mistake and taken steps to rectify the situation, regaining the trust of its customers will undoubtedly take time.  Clearly the whole situation was hurtful to a great many people, and a disaster for Amazon.com.

I wonder, in retrospect, what might it all tell us about the late age of print?

If Amazon is to be believed, the root of the problem lies not with any one person per se (the “ham-fisted” employee in France notwithstanding) but with what Alex Galloway, a professor at NYU, calls “algorithmic culture.”  By this he refers to the abrogation of the work of culture — the sorting, ordering, classifying, and judging of people and things — from human beings to machines.  You might think of algorithmic culture as an operational layer that sits on top of another, informational layer — call it database culture.  Put the two together and you realize just how much cultural work actually takes place more or less independent of human action.

I’m currently teaching a graduate seminar about mass culture.  In these days of interactive media and extraordinary customization, it’s become popular — even required — to rail against mass culture as dehumanizing, repetitive, and more.  But a question I always insist my graduate students confront is, “What did the mass culture paradigm do well in its day?”

The Amazon situation from a few weeks ago poses an analogous scenario.  It’s become de rigueur among many to decry traditional cultural work as “elitist,” given how it sets up a privileged few to determine what’s worth paying attention to, and why.  The assumption seems to be, if we could just make the process more open and democratic, then we’d move further in the direction of a more inclusive public culture.

The folks over at #amazonfail, and indeed all those who chimed in on the book ranking and listing controversy, have begun to show us that algorithmic culture has its weaknesses, too, and that there may be benefits to a more “traditional” approach to cultural valuation and classification.  If nothing else, the latter has an immediate doer behind the deed, who can be questioned about her or his choices.  Algorithmic culture may provide for more “democratic” forms of participation, particularly in the area of tagging and reviewing.  On the flipside, accountability exists at a much further remove.  If handled improperly, algorithmic culture can open large swaths of material to the  threat of “global replace,” in which a one becomes a zero and all hell subsequently breaks lose.


Mr. Bezos Goes to Lexington

Amazon.com seems to be all over the news in 2009.

In January we learned that the company posted a profit in the final quarter of last year, despite the severe economic downturn.  Then in February, Amazon released the second-generation of its heralded e-reading device, Kindle, whose text-to-speech feature prompted a swift and bitter response from the Authors Guild.  March was a relatively quiet month for the retailer — that is, until CEO Jeff Bezos decided to shake things up again.  On Friday he reported for work not at Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle but rather on the line at the company’s Lexington, KY warehouse.  He plans to work there for a week.

One can only wonder what motivations underlie Bezos’ decision to go blue-collar, if only temporarily.  The company hasn’t said much about why he’s decided to do so.

A commentator on the New York Times “Bits” Blog sees Bezos’ week in the warehouse as a stand-up move, especially given the penchant of late among billionaire CEOs to deny they had any sense of their company’s day-to-day operations.  And according to the Lexington Herald-Leader: “Local Amazon employees say Bezos is working in the warehouse with the company’s hourly employees to see what they do and hear their comments about their work.”

I’m inclined to believe that Bezos’ reasons for getting his hands dirty are many.  No doubt he feels extraordinary pressure to show that he knows what’s going on in his firm, everywhere from the corporate boardroom on down to the warehouse break rooom.

The timing of his visit to Lexington, however, raises all sorts of other questions. It just happens to coincide with the quiet-ish shutdown of three of Amazon’s distribution facilities: in Munster, IN, Red Rock, NV, and Chambersburg, PA.  More than 200 employees will be affected, though at least some will see transfers to neighboring facilities.

In its rosier moods, the book industry likes to say that it favors culture over commerce.  Perhaps that’s true, but claims like this can only be sustained by ignoring what, in The Late Age of Print, I call the book industry’s “back office.”  This consists of places like Amazon.com’s colossal warehouses, which are nothing more and nothing less than labor intensive workplaces.  I detail how so in the book; for more, check out this fascinating article from the Guardian (UK).  Here’s an excerpt:

[T]he Sunday Times reported that staff at the . . . [Amazon warehouse at] Marston Gate near Milton Keynes . . . were required to work seven days a week and “punished” for being ill (where staff with a sick note received a “penalty” point; six points meant dismissal). The quotas for packing – 140 items an hour, which is only slightly below the 5 items per two minutes of 2001. Collecting items for packing can mean walking up to 14 miles during a shift.

Given these working conditions, one can only hope that the ultimate aim of Bezos’ week in the Lexington warehouse isn’t a speed-up of Amazon’s order fulfillment system.  But given the questionable timing, that doesn’t seem implausible, either.