Firefly threatens to become one of the most insidious assault upon American life, where every action and every quiet moment becomes an opportunity to squeeze dollars out of everyday citizens. This article argues why it must be resisted at all costs.
On Wednesday afternoon, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduced Firefly, an app for its new Fire phone that can scan just about any object in the real world and, with the push of a button, allow you to purchase it from Amazon. As of today, 100 million items can be scanned and identified by Firefly. Firefly can read barcodes, a DVD cover, a QR code, damn near anything. It effectively turns every physical store into an Amazon showroom, where the customer can walk in, scan an object, and be on her merry way with an order waiting by mail or drone delivery. It remains unknown just how much Firefly tracks (such as scanned objects that the customer hesitates over) or what Amazon intends to do with the additional data it will connect through Firefly, but given Amazon’s $600 million contract with the CIA for cloud computing services, any sinister alliance is possible. What’s especially creepy is that Firefly can also recognize street addresses and phone numbers. Firefly intends to listen to any songs playing from your speakers and any movie screening on your TV, giving you the option to purchase these.
Assuming it garners substantial mass adoption, Firefly threatens to become one of the most insidious assaults upon American life, where every action and every quiet moment becomes an opportunity to squeeze dollars. It is the most salient example of Amazon reaching ever so closer to its ideal of vertical integration — a practice famously and rightly halted in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948), when the Supreme Court ruled that movie studios could not own their own theaters and maintain the exclusive right to show their own films. The difference with Firefly is that Amazon doesn’t have to make the products and could argue this if confronted with any serious legal challenge.
Amazon has just turned the entire physical world — the streets you walk on, the bedroom you retreat to, the shops you frequent — into a commercial marketplace. One can only imagine the fresh and awkward social hell to be experienced if a party guest points Firefly at someone wearing a snazzy dress. Rather than complimenting the partygoer on her sartorial flair, Firefly turns this into a potential sales transaction. One no longer has to seek exotic or bespoke items through languorous journeys in which one never asks for the time. With one simple app, the curatorial impulse and the quest for the obscure is traduced. Firefly threatens to deracinate the remaining tangible value of the physical world. It puts a price tag on taste, texture, hearing, sight, and smell. Will such quantitative objectification eventually extend to people? To credit poles that assess one’s financial worth along the lines of what Gary Shteyngart predicted in his satirical near future novel, Super Sad True Love Story?
The question that consumers must ask themselves is whether they want to live in such a world and whether convenience is worth pointing a phone in someone’s face. It is quite possible that establishments will fight Firefly by enacting “No Phones” policies along the lines of bars that prohibit Google Glass. But if Amazon is willing to take such a bold lead with Firefly, to truly view all humans as little more than avaricious hosts for the gargantuan corporate parasite, other companies will surely follow its lead.
We can Google any reference or half-formed remembrance with our phones. We can take photos of our families and friends. We can call anyone in the world from just about any location at a price and convenience that was inconceivable ten years ago. These are grand technological achievements that, on the whole, benefit the human race.
Firefly is a crass betrayal of this. It will cause many specialized businesses or establishments (such as indie bookstores) that operate at a precarious profit margin to go under. It could artificially inflate homogeneous products while expunging the artistic value out of the esoteric. But most importantly, it’s the first app to overtly put a price tag on everything in the universe. Think about that. Do you really want your friends to scan all the items in your house and get an instant cash value for everything you have struggled for years to build? (And how much sneaky data will Amazon grab to get a collective value on any individual’s possessions? Could this be compared against credit reports? Could this prevent working people from buying homes or small business owners from establishing credit?) Do you really want one company to encourage and profit from this rapacity?
That bald boorish billionaire has just signaled that he does not want to make your life better. He will stop at nothing to profit from you at every minute. Lex Luthor was never intended as a role model, but Bezos has set out to become just that. His efforts must be resisted by every thinking and breathing individual until the bright glow from his cretinous pate is permanently stubbed out.
This 10,000 word consideration presents thirty-five arguments against Google Glass, revealing how privacy, kindness, respect, the disclosure of information, violence, and confidentiality will all change.
Google Glass is a snazzy set of specs that will part the Red Sea if you tap it from the right angle. It aims to fuse smartphones and computers into a hands-free user experience more pleasurable than sex, religion, and world domination combined.
Glass is not yet on the market, but the news of its existence cut a hew through Mountain View with the strident fife of an unpaid piper wooing unsuspecting kids into a dark cave. It inspired Google co-founder Sergey Brin to publicly announce that he felt less male with the thick tools that came before. Some wondered why Brin didn’t just hold hard to his smartphone and slam down shots every Friday night like the rest of America. But when your net worth is $23 billion, different rules apply.
They are, uh, a new form of computing, uh, that’s designed to really free you. So you’re hands-free. Uh, you know, your eyes are free. Your ears are free. Uh, and yet you can do, uh, many of the things that you might typically expect a computer or a mobile device to do. Uh, whether it’s taking pictures or video or getting messages or navigation. Uh, all those things are available.
The glasses are not now available to the general public, but Google informed The Vergea few weeks ago that the specs would cost “less than $1,500” when hitting the stores, which is believed to be sometime next year. Last month, Google offered an Explorer Program for “bold, creative individuals” who longed to test the device. Some people wearing early Glass prototypes began making bold and creative appearances in San Francisco Bay Area bars and restaurants, keen on “exploring” territory already inhabited by humble regulars. They were not received with the bountiful benisons that their algorithms predicted. As a man named David Yee put it on Twitter:
I put forth the modest proposition that Google Glass, conjured and constructed and conceived only in terms of “cool” and propped up by ostensible “journalists” who have never thought to question Mr. Brin’s brilliant PR, could pose more problems to our world than any digital invention we have seen in some time. Contrary to Mr. Brin’s suggestions, his device will not “free” us. It will quite possibly destroy several vital qualities of life we now take for granted, preying upon kind and decent and hardworking people who are still playing pickup from an economic blitzkrieg in which they had no power, little hope, and no control. One would think that a man born in Moscow under Brezhnev would grasp the cruel irony of being directly responsible for an entirely new set of encroachments upon freedom and human possibility. On the other hand, great hills of money often move mountains in other ranges.
Here are thirty-five arguments against Google Glass:
It could destroy whatever shreds of privacy we have left.
This is the greatest criticism against Google Glass. So let’s look at this in terms of law. If present terms are not refashioned by Congress in the next year to meet the realities of 2014 digital life, Google may be helped by current law, which may not protect the American public from the “electronic communications” of video recorded from a pair of glasses and uploaded to Google. The Stored Communications Act, drafted and legislated in 1986, was put into place well before webmail, social media, and cloud computing were realities. And until the SCA is updated by legislators to reflect today’s world, it remains possible that a Google Glass video — if it is defined as an “electronic communication service” comparable to email — will remain unprotected because of how the SCA now defines “electronic storage.” (See these recent cases for the present state of affairs, including Jennings v. Jennings, in which the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that accessing another person’s email doesn’t count as a violation — even when the other person correctly guesses the email account’s security questions. But see also Viacom Int’l, Inc. v. YouTube, Inc., 253 F.R.D. 256, 258, 264 (S.D.N.Y. 2008), in which a court defined YouTube as “remote computing service” — the counterpart to “electronic communication service” — without supplying a reason.)
Metadata may create more headaches. As Mark Hurst has suggested, not only is it likely that the Glass videos will be uploaded to Google’s server, but “all of the indexing, tagging, and storage could happen without the Google Glass user even requesting it.” It’s possible that Google could introduce a service in which privacy could turn into a lucrative sideline where someone pays a premium not to be videotaped or photographed or indexed. Imagine a scenario in which Google, having rejiggered our present expectations of privacy, is further allowed to profit from the amended definition. Having already disrupted cities and widened the digital divide with the infamous Google Bus, this ungentle giant is poised to shatter our world further with Glass.
It will turn the United States into a surveillance state.
Forbes‘s Kashmir Hill was the first to observe this. But as seen in the above photograph, taken from the Youth Ball on Obama’s Inauguration Day on January 20, 2009, we were already on our way there. In just under six years, an entire generation has trained itself to take a photo with a smartphone rather than stand awestruck before mighty events unfolding.
But what if you could record and save every moment? And what if all this information could be used to incriminate other people? As Hill pointed out, Google Glass will deracinate the Young Turk’s privileged regret of not being able to jerk out her phone in time to capture a moment once called Kodak. Soon, with a simple voice command and a pair of glasses, the Young Turk can saunter up to two regular people having loud sex in a car, memorialize this private moment through video, and upload it to the cloud in an instant. Who cares if the video goes viral and these people lose their jobs? Who cares if you live in a small town where homophobia is rampant and the two taped people share the same gender? For many using Google Glass, this shutterbug roundelay will be about the lulz. But the lulz won’t sting nearly as much as the more disturbing prospect of civvies ratting out neighbors they don’t want to talk to sinks into our national psyche. McCarthyism will feel charmingly quaint by comparison. A proud nation of incognizant spies won’t have any trouble filling up the information coffers inside that massive data center that the NSA has almost finished constructing in Utah.
It will hold more people needlessly accountable for easily pardonable activities.
According to a CareerBuilder survey last year, nearly two in five companies used social networking sites to screen potential employees. Drinking, using drugs, and posting “provocative” or “inappropriate” material were more serious reasons not to hire someone than clearly vocational concerns such as poor communication skills and badmouthing former employers. In 2011, a Georgia teacher was fired for posting a Facebook photo. The crime? Holding a glass of beer in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. So what will happen when Glass lathers up more videos offering more rabid opportunities for vengeful people to be offended? Will an entire subculture emerge in which creeps sift through a person’s Google Glass oeuvre looking for the one soundbyte that will go viral and destroy that person’s reputation? As more technology enters our lives, we have become more beholden to an unreasonable ideal. We’ve seen how employers humiliate prospective employees with endless interviews because they crave perfection, but a culture that does not allow people to make mistakes cannot possibly know and feel what it is to be alive.
It is remarkably easy to steal a pair of glasses.
Just ask the guy who stole Jonathan Franzen’s specs three years ago. We have seen how laptops, smartphones, and tablets were pilfered prolifically during early adoption. (In fact, nearly half of all robberies in New York during 2011 involved smartphones and tablets.) But consider how effortless it is to snatch a pair of glasses from a person’s head. If the Google Glass user is lost in the moist miasma of a fresh fix, then there’s a good chance that his perspective will be quite removed from what’s happening in the real world. This allows the criminal to grab the glasses and run, with little time for the Google Glass user to acclimate to unlayered reality. By the time the Google Glass user has deduced that he has been fleeced of his high-end eyewear, the criminal has greatly outpaced him.
Because the specs are worn on the outside of a highly visible part of the body, Google Glass is more vulnerable to theft than a purse or a wallet or a smartphone. And if the Google Glass user has shared considerable personal information, then the prospects for identity theft are quite promising. Once criminals work out the kinks, this type of crime could prove more lucrative and high-speed than credit card skimming. And if someone repeatedly has her Google Glass specs stolen, can Google continue to take the financial hit of replacing the glasses? With Google Glass retailing close to $1,500, this may open up a new insurance business which extorts the Glass user. Will certain neighborhoods become too “high-risk” for prospective Glass applicants? Mr. Brin’s price point doesn’t exactly signal a commitment to egalitarianism.
So what of pragmatic security measures? I highly doubt that the myopic utopians basking in Glass’s technological empowerment will take kindly to a vulgar chain attached to the specs. It could remind them of a greasy key with a heavy brick unlocking a dingy gas station restroom. What we do know is this: in its present form, Google Glass will be as easy to pluck from a stranger’s noggin as a clown nose.
(It’s also possible that Glass will include some form of remote administration to protect against threat. But this may also create problems. See Argument Twenty-Two.)
It gives Google far more personal information than it needs to know.
details of how you used our service, such as your search queries
telephony log information like your phone number, calling-party number, forwarding numbers, time and date of calls, duration of calls, SMS routing information and types of calls
device event information such as crashes, system activity, hardware settings, browser type, browser language, the date and time of your request and referral URL
cookies that may uniquely identify your browser or your Google Account
any personal information you give Google (emphasis added)
Google has a very poor history of sympathizing with people who don’t want their personal information shared. Forget that these users have very principled reasons for staying anonymous. But as far as Google is concerned, quiet lives don’t contribute to the hard profit line. In December 2009, then Google CEO Eric Schmidt barked to CNBC, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” If this remains Google’s philosophy in 2013 (without Schmidt), then will this corporate sentiment apply to Google Glass?
We are dealing with a company that casually collects as much personal information as it can about its users without always informing them. Look no further than this FCC report from last year (PDF), which describes how Google’s Street View vehicles picked up “payload” data — that is, email, text messages, Internet usage history, and other personal information — between May 2007 and May 2010 while performing “location-based services.” Not only did Google collect 200 gigabytes of payload data between January 2008 and April 2010, but Google transferred it all to a data center in Oregon. (This privacy breach case was recently settled for the paltry sum of $7 million.)
So how much payload data will Google Glass collect? And what will the user agree to when signing up for the headset? If data limit isn’t an issue and Google employees are incapable of respecting privacy even on a subconscious level, what brave new metadata will be fed into Google’s data centers?
It will open new possibilities for online sexual extortion.
Last year, we were introduced to Hunter Moore, declared “The Most Hated Man on the Internet” by Rolling Stone for publishing compromising photos sent in by embittered ex-lovers. Moore would humiliate the women in these images by posting the full name, city of residence, profession, and social media profile. He deemed what he did “revenge porn.” At the height of Moore’s success, his website earned him $10,000 in monthly ad revenue. There was also the vile Craig Brittain, who collected naked pictures of ordinary people and charged $250 to remove the photos. These are two very public examples of online sexual extortion, an atavistic practice which has caused countless women to be harassed. Consider the sextortionist who blackmailed 350 women to strip through Skype.
Contrary to Jeff Jarvis’s risible suggestion that humanity does not contain “uncivilized perverts,” all this awful behavior brimmed to the top of the cruel cauldron with the technology we have in place right now. Will Google Glass’s easy and portable setup encourage some of these malicious misogynists to leave their homes and seek out these women in the streets? Thanks to Google Glass, tomorrow’s Hunter Moores and Craig Brittains will innovate new mobile methods ensuring that more women are photographed, videotaped, extorted, harassed, and brutalized.
It may increase violence.
On March 8, 2013, GeekWire reported on a Seattle bar that became the first establishment to ban Google Glass. It started with a Facebook message that read: “For the record, The 5 Point is the first Seattle business to ban in advance Google Glasses. And ass kickings will be encouraged for violators.” While the “ass kickings” aspect of this message was clearly tongue-in-cheek, it does highlight one little discussed consequence of sticking an unwanted camera in someone’s face: you may get your ass beat.
The kind of violence we’re considering goes well beyond Justin Beiber threatening a photographer or Alec Baldwin getting into another paparazzi rumble. As we continue an ongoing dialogue about First Amendment rights and what photographers can and cannot shoot, cameras mounted on specs could lead to a greater distrust of the photographic form. It could lead to more assaults directed at legitimate photographers who are trying to document history. Street photographers have developed well-honed rules that take into account respect for subjects. (See also Argument Fifteen.) But when anybody with Google Glass styles himself a “photographer,” can these inexperienced types be counted on to display the same finesse? If these new “photographers” invade the privacy of subjects, will their subjects remain calm and nonviolent?
It will discourage personal risk.
In a 2008 study, three Dutch researchers demonstrated that security cameras triggered approval-seeking behaviors. The mere presence of cameras was enough to suggest some omniscience. Another experiment in 2011 revealed how cameras discouraged 86 students from cheating. These two studies relied on clearly delineated cameras. But it does leave us wondering how risk or a free-flowing conversation will be actively discouraged when a person enters a restaurant, only to find four people sitting at tables wearing Google glasses, all recording the world around them.
(Argument Sixteen also relates to the issue of risk, discussing how artists and performers could be held more accountable for what “offends.”)
We have no idea what health problems Glass will create.
Last July, Cult of Android revealed that the HTC Evo 4G, the Apple 4S, and the Blackberry Bold all exposed users to an SAR (Specific Absorption Rate) level at well over 1 W/kg. The FCC has set the maximum SAR at 1.6 W/kg. Google recently filed documents with the FCC, revealing a 1.34 W/kg SAR for Project Glass. That’s more radiation than the iPhone 4S. But unlike the smartphone, which is only placed near the head when answering a call, Project Glass will be constantly on the head. Which means that Glass users will be exposed to more constant radiation. Additionally, according to healthcare advocate Camilla Rees, companies often report SAR values differ from the real number. Will Google Glass lead to an uptick in brain cancer? In 2011, a World Health Organization report (PDF) suggested one remedy to the carcinogenic risks from smartphones: “it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands-free devices or texting.” Unfortunately, Google Glass pushes “hands-free” back to the head.
It may increase violations of doctor-patient confidentiality and attorney-client privilege.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintains a list of confidentiality breaches which affect 500 or more individuals. There are presently 556 records of large scale breaches. Countless thousands have had private health information disseminated beyond the seemingly secure confines of a hospital. These breaches, in turn, cost healthcare providers money. While the HHS doesn’t lag behind tech as much as Congress does with the SCA, it has only just introduced measures four months ago to protect patients when using mobile devices. Present research indicates that only 44% of healthcare providers encrypt their devices. This leaves one to wonder what fresh hell Google Glass will unleash. Will doctors become hooked on Glass in the way that they are presently reliant on smartphones? And, if so, will the images and records that doctors collect be secure enough for the HHS? Can Google really be entrusted to protect all this data?
And then there’s attorney-client privilege. In 2009, an attorney exchanged text messages with his deponent client. The subsequent case, Ngai v. Old Navy, ruled that surreptitious text messages were not privileged under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 30. This does lead one to wonder if an attorney who is wearing Google Glass during a deposition will be subject to similar disclosures of “unprivileged” communication.
I bought into the Apple account system originally to buy songs at 99 cents a pop, and over the years that same ID has evolved into a single point of entry that controls my phones, tablets, computers and data-driven life. With this AppleID, someone can make thousands of dollars of purchases in an instant, or do damage at a cost that you can’t put a price on.
Given how Google has erected an eclectic empire on the bones of search, what’s not to suggest that something as ostensibly straightforward as Glass will bulge with similar spectacle? Will some future Mat Honan find a video simulacrum of himself constructed from long pulls at a Google Glass feed? And will he will have to spend years of his life contesting it? Hacking typically happens because we unthinkingly keep devices on without considering how they can be invaded. As “virtualization evangelist” Mike Foley expressed in a blog post about data sensitivity, “What if I was streaming my Glass feed via a MiFi?” It’s a good question. And we haven’t even considered how News of the World-style phone hacking could develop with these new devices.
It will discourage anonymity.
In an August 2011 blog post, Danah Boyd called “real name” policies an abuse of power. Decrying guidelines in effect at Google+, Boyd observed that vulnerable people or political dissidents were clearly at risk through mandatory outing:
What’s at stake is people’s right to protect themselves, their right to actually maintain a form of control that gives them safety. If companies like Facebook and Google are actually committed to the safety of its users, they need to take these complaints seriously.
In the aftermath of the nymwars, Google+’s policy is still highly prejudicial against pseudonyms. The only way someone can obtain a pseudonymous Google+ account is “by providing links to other social networking sites, news articles, or official documents in which you are referred to by this name.” And for someone with limited Internet access in a country with a suppressive regime or for someone who fears for her life, this policy is a needless hardship for someone hoping to pass along invaluable information to the outside world.
Sam Ford, a 26-year-old Navy petty officer, says he signed up for Google+ on his smartphone because it would let him automatically upload new photos to a Google+ folder—one that he kept private. Later, he says, he was surprised to see that his Google+ profile page—which includes his name—was tied to a software review that he wrote recently on the Google Play online store.
So Google wants to out you. It wants to make it very difficult for you to procure an anonymous account. And it wants everything you do on any of its devices — on your computer, on your smartphone, on your Google Glass — to be united publicly for anyone with enough grave tenacity to see. And even though anonymous speech is protected by the First Amendment, if you don’t abide by these terms, it’s Google’s way or the highway:
We understand that your identity on Google+ is important to you, and our Name Policy may not be for everyone at this time.
It isn’t distinct enough from the body.
People were permissive of smartphones and the cameras that came before because these tools were clearly distinguishable from the body. For all my plaints leveled in Argument Two about the United States turning into a surveillance state, we can at least see that the Youth Ball partygoers are photographing the Presidential dais with discrete devices. But if we’re going to wear something, shouldn’t it communicate something back to other people? Is this not the purpose of fashion?
Enter Kate Hartman, an eccentric and affable artist and educator who has been investigating the issue of “wearable communication.” Hartman has proffered such innovations as the Talk to Yourself Hat, in which the wearer speaks into one end of a long tube leading back to his ears, and The Boundary Belt:
The Boundary Belt is provides the wearer with the ability to produce a spontaneous boundary marker in the event of an ambiguous or misconstrued situation. With a press of the emergency release button (located on the belt), the boundary is immediately launched, clearly indicating to the approaching party where they are or are not welcome.
So if Google is going to encourage rampant alienation and elitism, there seems to me a fundamental design flaw. Wearable communication needs to make a distinct and highly visible impression to count. There’s still hope, of course, that Google will equip later versions of Glass with light weaponry, turning these chichi specs into ground-level drones that will massacre anyone who hasn’t yet swallowed the Kool-Aid. Should not Glass become a fashion statement that kills on the platform? If we’re going to push technology to the limit, why not take the phrase “killer app” more literally?
It could give the police far more details about you than you can possibly know.
If police departments are collecting a smartphone’s geolocation points (or other data on your phone), then what is to stop the cops from confiscating every single video that you ever made with Google Glass? (For that matter, what is to prevent Google+ from offering some Glass Archive answer to Facebook’s Graph Search?) How long will Google archive videos or make them accessible through Glass? That drunken sex video you made while you were wearing Glass could be used to incriminate your character or, at the very least, give the police some glimpses of your posterior you never thought they would see.
It will discourage kindness and respect.
Sometime last year, an unidentified man began taking videos of people around Seattle without their permission and posting this to YouTube. He became known as “The Creepy Cameraman,” although he later adopted the moniker “Surveillance Camera Man.”
“I’m taking a video,” says the mumbling voice behind the camera when people ask why he’s taping them. But this is the only reason he offers as he approaches people with his camera as they are trying to have private conversations or enjoy their meals or have a quiet moment after a long day of toil. Surveillance Camera Man could be performance art. It could be some kid’s idea of Candid Camera. Whatever the case, it’s one of the most mordant commentaries on 21st century life I’ve seen in the last six months.
Surveillance Camera Man’s justification is that, because various establishments have surveillance cameras, his ground-level camera isn’t any different. And to get a sense of how dehumanized Surveillance Camera Man is (or, at least, presents himself to be), watch in the above video as he films a young woman screaming as she is being arrested near the 2:19 mark. He doesn’t ask if the young woman is okay. The young woman is there merely for his photographic non-purpose.
If this isn’t a harbinger of what Google Glass could serve up as a parallel to Kitty Genovese, I don’t know what is. We’ve already seen soldiers posing before humiliated and tortured prisoners with the Abu Ghraib photos. If, as Susan Sontag argued in one of her last essays, “the photographs are us” and brutality has come to dominate the visual and digital culture of American life, then what will happen when those who surrender kindness and respect put on a pair of glasses?
Artists will be held more accountable for material that “offends.”
Last year, Patton Oswalt was called an asshole because he deigned to call out an audience member who was taping one of his new routines with her cameraphone. Despite the fact that Oswalt asked her politely to not tape his routine with her phone, she continued to do so. As Oswalt wrote:
For starters, whatever camera phone she was using had a piercing, distracting light on it which she merrily aimed right into my eye.
Worse, here’s when she started taping: halfway through a new, longer joke that I’m working on — a very embarrassing recollection from my younger years that I’m very nervous about performing and still very unsure of how to unspool. This was only the fourth time I’ve ever performed it, as well as the fourth time I’ve ever admitted this incident in public. So it still feels like a very nervy high wire walk for me. There’s times when I lose the audience and have to get them back, freeze up, and wonder if I shouldn’t have just kept this whole incident to myself. I’m walking into new territory with this one, and it’s scary and I feel very raw and dry-mouthed when I do it.
Oswalt would own up to not keeping his cool. On the other hand, if risk is essential to expression and creativity, isn’t strong opposition against those who wish to hinder creative progress the sanest possible response? What effect will Google Glass have on standup comedians or other artists? Will the performing arts deliquesce into some tepid shell of its former self because all on stage can be recorded at all times? If every moment we have is taped with Google Glass, and we know that we are always being watched, how will future artists take risks? (See also Argument Eight.) And how can art build and evolve when risk and originality is discouraged?
It may kill off what remains of the moviegoing experience.
First, there were talkers. Then smartphones disrupted the moviegoing experience. It is now almost impossible to go to a movie theater (save for the Alamo Drfthouse) without contending with bright LCDs flashing in the dark because some spectators have a pressing need to text pedantic messages during a gripping scene. Glass will push this obnoxious behavior to new levels. Not only will Glass encourage more talking (after all, some will need to multitask during a movie), but it could lead to an unprecedented wave of piracy.
It’s quite surprising that the MPAA has stayed mum about Google Glass. Because Glass threatens the film industry’s livelihood far more than a smartphone. The entertainment industry has certainly duked it out with Google in recent months over the latter’s failure to crackdown on copyright infringement. But why fight Google on torrents showing up in search results when Google is about to unleash a device that can record a first-run movie projecting on a screen at 720P?
If you’ve attended an all-media screening for an advance movie in recent years, you’ve probably encountered the wands and the peers into reticules and backpacks and the requests to check in your phones because of piracy concerns. But Google Glass will be available with prescription lenses. And what this means — especially if Hollywood wishes to enforce equally stern security at everyday screenings and Glass is the only pair you brought to the theater — is that Glass wearers could be turned away at the door.
It will create problems with consent.
Twelve states in America legally require that all parties consent to the recording of a telephone call. Most of these state laws were devised when telephones were landline only. (For example, California Penal Code § 632(a), which regulates one party consent for telephone recordings, was legislated in 1967 as the Invasion of Privacy Act.) It never occurred to California state legislators in 1967 that phones would be cordless or that conversations would occur more frequently in cafes and restaurants outside of private corded lines. Much like the Stored Communications Act described in Argument One, this is another example of legislatures simply not acting fast enough to account for rapid technological advancement.
Unfortunately, consent can no longer be regulated in the old way. In the last few months, Google asked users to permit Google Search on Android-powered phones to record audio and take pictures and video with a new update. If Google can do this with the Search app, what’s to stop Google from seizing your consent with Glass?
This goes back to the passive-aggressive ultimatum in Argument Twelve. Google realizes that waiving consent “may not be for everyone at this time.” But since Google is the one unveiling the fancy glasses, it will be more than happy to strip you of rights you didn’t know you had through a sneaky permissions acceptance.
Cool places will be outed by boors.
In 2010, Brent Cox wrote an essay for The Awl, bemoaning the notion of publicizing a fried dumpling joint in Chinatown that offered him a fast, delicious, and affordable way to live. Before Foursquare’s constant check-ins became a febrile pastime practiced by wired youth too taken with tagging and before Yelp unleashed a ceaseless horde of would-be Pete Wells types excoriating restaurants, it was a common practice to stay silent about a happening place, lest it be “discovered” by members of the public or be denuded of charm once everybody found out about it. Cox opted to stay mum about the dumplings: a commendable decision for a Brooklynite that deserves several hugs and a few pints of lager. But for every Brent Cox, there are several dozens who will blab.
Oversharing has been thoroughly sent up by Please Rob Me. But Carnegie Mellon researchers have also used Foursquare data to pinpoint a neighborhood’s area and character. So if video information is piled atop geotagging and we continue to encourage a culture in which the Brent Coxes of our world become as rare as polar bears, it’s possible that the quiet establishment you now enjoy won’t, as David Yee tweeted above, be your favorite place anymore.
It will discourage people from paying attention.
When a small window can pop up anytime with a “more desirable” friend, even as a friend in the real world sits before you trying to have a conversation, we have a problem. We have all experienced the phenomenon of people checking their smartphones for messages in social situations. But when Google Glass creates a new visual overlay with emails, IMs, or video messages from friends during a meal, it ushers in a new wave of continuous partial attention in our culture. The problem with this is that humans aren’t very good at multitasking. (This infographic offers some helpful stats, including the startling figure that only 2% of people can actually multitask effectively.) Multitasking costs us more time and reudUces our productivity by 40%. As Cornell professor Zheng Wang put it, “They seem to be misperceiving the positive feelings they get from multitasking. They are not being more productive – they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work.”
Glass will probably make many people feel good, which is precisely what one expects from an alluring narcotic. But it will come at the expense of focus. Teachers will contend with distracted students as they pass along essential knowledge, even though learning and multitasking can’t work at the same time. If you’re very good at paying attention to people right now, you may find yourself an unexpected specialist in about five years.
It will turn more strangers into stalkers.
One of Glass’s big features is the ability to track another person’s location down to the very foot. This will certainly create additional pressure for people to walk faster or be on time to social engagements, but I’m concerned about how this will encroach on our geographical privacy. Should the world really know our precise coordinates at all times? Don’t we have the right to disappear for a few hours into whatever location we desire without being hassled by some guy we politely endured at the party last Friday and who added us to his Google+ Circle before we could gently let him down? Could those who are barely acquainted with us turn into stalkers?
Before Glass, this was already a very legitimate concern. In 2010, The Daily Beast‘s Lisa Riordan Seville reported on how Foursquare inspired strangers to stalk people. Seville describes how social media strategist Carri Bugbee checked into a restaurant on Foursquare. The hostess came over to Bugbee, telling her that she had a telephone call. Bugbee answered the phone and was greeted with a male voice who found her Foursquare check-in and told her that she shouldn’t use the service because people could learn where she lived. Then he called her a “stupid bitch,” among other insults.
With Google Glass, these casual threats will be ratcheted up, thanks to heightened visual information more available to the public. Not only will a potential stalker be able to track you through your geotags, but he may be able to discover the exact table you are sitting at through another Glass feed. From all this, he could inspire his peers to deliver a full-scale assault in the real world.
After the creep called, Bugbee slept that night with the lights on. What would the creep have done if he had Google Glass to work with?
It will create more cyberbullying and stress.
On September 7, 2012, a brave Canadian girl named Amanda Todd uploaded a video that went viral. She held up a series of flash cards to describe her experiences of being bullied. When Todd was in seventh grade, a creep asked her to bare her breasts through video chat and the creep used this to blackmail her. Amanda had turned to drugs and alcohol and suffered from depression and panic disorder because of this experience. And because the Internet is a medium that invites cruelty as it does warmth and wonder, Todd suffered more abuse through social media. She was bullied at school. A little more than a month after the flash card video, Amanda Todd killed herself.
As Ars Technicadetailed in a lengthy investigation earlier this week, hackers have installed remote administration tools that permit them to spy, scare, and enslave people into doing what they want. From the comfort of his ranch home, a bitter 32-year-old paraplegic can now let his enmity devour him, using his computer to ruin the lives of teen girls. (Because of this man’s ongoing threats, one young woman didn’t leave her dorm room for a week.)
So who will Glass’s “ratters” be? Because of the theft issues I described in Argument Four, Google will have to include some form of remote administration on Glass. But RAT works both ways. And if Google can’t prevent China from hacking into its site, how will it stop hackers from taking Glass by remote?
It could make you more willing to believe lies.
In the 1950s, a social psychologist named Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments in which subjects were shown two cards: one featured a vertical line, the other showing three lines (one the same length as the first one). Asch asked his subjects to identify which line on the second card matched the line on the first card. But he enlisted other people to stand next to the subjects who blurted out the wrong answer. What Asch discovered was that three out of four of his subjects agreed with these incorrect answers. In 2005, Gregory Burns updated the Asch experiments using functional MRI scanners. He discovered that social conformity was rooted in brain areas oriented around perception. Five decades after Asch’s experiments, subjects gave into group pressure, with 41% of the subjects going along with the group on wrong answers.
Berns discovered that his subjects felt judgment in brain areas associated with emotion: the amygdala, which is associated with fear of rejection. In her book Quiet, Susan Cain points out that the social fear identified in the Asch and Berns experiments not only makes our world harmful for introverts, but threatens the very fabric of our culture and institutions. People who are “slow” with their opinions, who wish to think about a topic from several angles before responding, could be drowned out by the noisome crowd. And if a group can outright alter our perceptions through social pressures, then how can we stand for the truth? The question we now ask ourselves is whether Glass, which stimulates perception by adding another layer and which may encourage the user to go along with the views of those who chatter in our screen, will cause us to believe in more lies. Could Glass could prove so seductive to some that there won’t be any need to Google anything for veracity again?
It will create more needless distraction.
Anyone who has attended a wedding in the last five years knows how smartphones have altered the nupital landscape. Enthusiastic amateurs not only become feverish about documenting the day, but they often get in the way of the professionals. The problem has grown so large that some couples have created “unplugged weddings,” in which the bride and the groom ask their assembled guests to clamp down on their smartphone use. But what happens when the wedding guests all wear Glass? Will they all mutter “Okay, Glass, record a video” or “Okay, Glass, take a picture” at the same time and talk over a quiet moment that isn’t theirs to pollute?
And what effect will the Google Glass light, signifying that it is recording something, have on the way we revere the wonders of the dark? The recording light will have to be bright enough for us to know that someone is taping us. But if a stranger comes up as we’re enjoying a candlelight dinner with our lover or observing the beautiful stars from a dark open patch with friends, how will these distractions kill the moment? Jane Brox’s excellent book on the history of artificial light, Brilliant, describes how our inner courage has dimmed as we have craved more illumination. As Brox puts it, “The more light we’re accustomed to, the more we feel the need for security.” But what about the human security built without technology? Will focus and fortitude be so easily surrendered as we accumulate more distractions? It would seem that the people at Google watched They Live and wildly misinterpreted what Carpenter’s sharp-edged satire had to say about human awareness.
It will expand the Streisand effect to an unprecedented level.
In 2003, before social media and YouTube even existed, Barbara Streisand’s attorney sent a cease-and-desist letter to a website in an attempt to get an image of her Malibu home removed. This resulted in the image being distributed further. Techdirt‘s Mike Masnick called this the Streisand effect, wondering how long it would take lawyers to “realize that the simple act of trying to repress something they don’t like online is likely to make it so that something that most people would never, ever see is now seen by many more people.”
But is there a reportorial defense for the cyberbullies and other assorted ghouls? Last month, Gawker‘s Camille Dodero revealed how a band of trolls cyberbullied a six-year-old girl with progeria named Adalia and her mother. Here’s what the ringleader had to say:
After Adalia’s passing, he said, the only online trace of her existence would be these cruel images. “You know whose fault it’s gonna be? It’s not gonna be the millions of people on the Internet who looked at them. It’s gonna be yours for letting these pictures escape,” he stammered, as if Adalia’s baby photos were leaked documents. “You are a sick woman. You are more disgusting and horrible than my fat disgusting ass could ever be.” He was nearly spitting. “You are one stupid bitch.”
The parallel that Dodero draws between “baby photos” and “leaked documents” is especially perspicacious. Journalism typically reports on something. It doesn’t resort to cheap abuse.
If this type of video vitriol expands with Glass, there could be legislative repercussions against how we express ourselves online. More likely, expression will carry on as it has before. And anyone seeking grievance could find themsleves immune from sociopathic jackals seeking vigilante-style restitution. And it’s all because of the Streisand effect.
It could prevent people from discovering themselves.
In her wonderful book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit was guided by a question that a student posed to her, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is unknown to you?” Some people need to find themselves by becoming lost, by not knowing their physical and existential bearings. It is often the accidents and the side quests in life — Archimedes jumping from the bathtub to discover gradual displacement or a Japanese sword falling from W.S. Gilbert’s wall, inspiring him to write The Mikado — which point us in the right direction. But if we are constantly wearing a device in which our adventures are constantly interrupted by messages, we could very well be discouraged from the grand acts we’re meant to play out in life.
In a recent essay for The New York Times, Evgeny Morozov argued this point from another angle, bringing up Leszek Kolakowski’s “In Praise of Inconsistency,” which argued that inconsistency was the way to avoid being a obdurate idealogue. Unfortunately, unquestioning idealogues are the very types who will leap onto Glass like fat and unfunny cats with suction cups.
It will discourage people from seeking unfamiliar viewpoints.
Last November, I argued against the block button, pointing out how blocking someone simply because you disagree with them (as opposed to legitimate harassment) often leads people to write off figures who tell us something wise that we don’t want to hear. This, in turn, leads social media users to become hostile to outside-the-box thinking. I have learned in the last few months that Eli Pariser has referred to this phenomenon as “the filter bubble” and has written a book on the subject. Pariser calls the filter bubble “a prosthetic solution horizon”:
It provides you with an information environment that’s highly relevant to whatever problem you’re working on. Often, this’ll be highly useful: When you search for “restaurant,” it’s likely that you’re also interested in near synonyms like “bistro” or “cafe.” But when the problem you’re solving requires the bisociation of ideas that are indirectly related — as when Page applied the logic of academic citation to the problem of Web search — the filter bubble may narrow your vision too much. What’s more, some of the most important creative breakthroughs are spurred by the introduction of the entirely random ideas that filters are designed to rule out.
Now that Google Hangouts make it effortless to block people who are talking — even before they have a chance to explain themselves — Parisier’s worries about false application and people who inure themselves to wild and random ideas are evermore justified. Hangouts were an instrumental part of Sergey Brin’s 2012 Glass presentation. And when Hangouts are rolled into Glass, the filter bubble will prove evermore irresistible.
It could create another place where advertisement takes over our lives.
While Google presently has no plans to add advertising to Glass, how long will the company hold out? It’s worth pointing out that Amazon, in an effort to encourage more adoption, eventually introduced the ad-supported Kindle Fire. When the $1,500 specs market dies out, there is no reason not to believe that Google will roll out a low-cost version of Glass: perhaps one in which the user must contend with more irksome ads. Fortunately, one innovator has offered a solution.
It will create needless competition over who has the most worthwhile life experience.
This underlying philosophy was there in the “One Day” video, but it reached new heights (literally) with the “How It Feels” video, where Google Glass users were shown recording video while sky diving (pictured above), performing on the trapeze, flying a jet plane, and ice skating. All the video needed was a Richard Wagener soundtrack. Will someone who lives a fascinating quiet life feel bad because she lacks the guts, the training, or the physical acumen to measure up to this? Will the quotidian life be discouraged in our culture? Will mean people use Google Glass videos to demean or humiliate those who don’t live these “larger” lives? How does it feel indeed to be on the other side of “How It Feels”?
It will discourage people from striking up conversations with strangers.
Near the end of its run, the TV series Fringe depicted a future in which humanity was enslaved by pale men called the Observers. The Observers had the ability to read other people’s minds. (Ironically enough, they were also revealed to be technologically augmented versions of human beings.) In “The Bullet That Saved the World,” Peter enters a shop to purchase a necklace and, just as he’s striking up a conversation with the guy behind the counter, his experience is completely disrupted by an Observer who reveals exactly what Peter wants.
“It will look good on her,” continues the Observer. “The young blonde woman. What is baseball? You’re thinking of the Red Sox.”
Peter becomes understandably rankled. Of course, since the Observers control Earth, Peter can’t exactly kick the Observer’s ass.
Now human beings don’t have the ability to read minds. But the Observer here does sound an awful lot like a guy who has surgically implanted Google Glass into his skull. And Glass, as it stands right now, isn’t really that far away from this. Imagine some creep overhearing a conversation in a store and using the details he overhears to Google you on Glass. Because the conversationalists know they are being observed and they know that the creep can indite more data about you, the promising banter becomes stillborn.
The “One Day” video prides itself on the user asking Google Glass, rather than a Strand Books employee, where the music section is in the store. As someone who has entered into several jocular conversations with the wonderful employees of the Strand (and who has been recommended interesting books and informed of news that I would never have thought to look up), the idea of abandoning that part of my life because a few insensitive technicians who aren’t even interested in books would rather spy on me fills me with the kind of violent fury I usually reserve for rapists, Jay Leno, and union busters.
It could discourage companies from hiring people.
I’ve already touched upon needless prejudices against potential employees in Argument Three, but there’s another problematic future ahead for labor. When the national unemployment rate continues to hover around 8%, and well-qualified candidates are humiliated by an employer’s quest for perfection, companies could decide not to hire professional greeters or retail employees if they know that people can get the information for free through Google Glass. I’ve already discussed the assault upon conversations in Argument Thirty. But imagine the further erosion of customer service. What if you can’t have a face-to-face conversation with a store manager to get a refund or explain why a product is bad? What if you’re directed to a faceless form-style interface where not a single person can be held accountable? This will be bad for the future of labor and customer service.
It will create unfair advantages for online retailers.
In late 2011, Amazon committed one of the most dastardly iron-to-the-knees acts in its history: it sent around a promotion link urging people to go into brick-and-mortar stores and scan books using a price check app, where the customer could then get a better deal at the online retailer. The novelist Richard Russo took to the New York Times:
The fickle gratitude of people who will have about as much loyalty to Amazon tomorrow as they do today to Barnes & Noble, last year’s bully? This is good business? Is it just me, or does it feel as if the Amazon brass decided to spend the holidays in the Caribbean and left in charge of the company a computer that’s fallen head over heels in love with its own algorithms?
The assaults on showrooming have been well documented. GetElastic’s Linda Bustos has pointed out how Google’s mobile Search app supports image capture search. Just like Amazon’s Price Check app, this means that if you aim the camera at a book’s barcode with your phone, Google Search will bring up an option to search Google Shopping or to view the book in Google Books. This also allows Google Search to produce the “nearby” vendor results so you can search for a better deal elsewhere. For struggling independent bookstores, a customer donning Google Glass with built-in ISBN capture search could be a greater threat than the Amazon Price Check contretemps. But if Glass users get more accustomed to using brick-and-mortar stores as a showroom for a purchase they can make online, this could have a devastating effect on retail outlets, especially the small ones.
It could usher in a new form of vertical integration and that does not compensate talent.
In the early days of motion pictures, studios not only made all the movies, but they also owned most of the theaters. During the first half of the 20th century, there was a good chance that you frequented a house owned by a studio which played nothing but studio movies. This was one of the most famous examples of vertical integration, where a business controls both the suppliers and buyers. Adolph Zukor came up with the idea of block booking, which allowed Paramount to sell its films in packages. If a movie theater wanted a big ticket picture, then the theater would also have to buy countless dogs. This meant that studios could get away with flooding the theaters with inferior pictures and securing a market. Many independent producers couldn’t get their movies into theaters.
But United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948) put a stop to this practice. The Supreme Court ordered studios to split their production and exhibition companies and/or sell off any theaters they owned. This resulted in many “art house” theaters filling screens with independent and foreign fare.
All this is happening again with Google. It is quite likely that you have a Gmail account, that you use Google to search the Internet, that you are using a smartphone running Android (an open-source operating system backed and owned by Google), and that you are uploading videos to YouTube. Google is so good at eluding antitrust charges that, only a few months ago, the Federal Trade Commission was forced to abandon a sweeping antitrust investigation after 18 months.
Perhaps what we’re really talking about is a new form of vertical integration. Google survives by controlling the services while its users create the content. Google will profit from Glass sales. It will rake in cash through advertising on the “theaters” it owns through YouTube. But Glass wearers are ultimately the ones who are generating these new movies. Don’t these new auteurs (or the random strangers who end up “starring” in these videos) deserve a take of the profits? While it’s true that YouTube extended revenue sharing to viral videos a few years ago and that the “Charlie Bit My Finger” video earned Howard Davies-Carr more than $158,000, one must legitimately ask if this is enough reimbursement for a video that has been viewed half a billion times. Or how about Psy’s “Gangnam Style”? Is $870,000 fair compensation for a video seen by nearly 1.5 billion people? (To get a real sense of how YouTube cheaps out, consider that Robert Downey, Jr. earned more than $50 million for The Avengers, which has grossed $1.5 billion worldwide.)
YouTube is clearly underpaying its talent. And Google hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about how much it collects from a viral video. But YouTube did make $50 billion in revenue last year, or more than 33 times the total gross on The Avengers. The irony here is that Hollywood has been more munificent towards its talent than Google. Hollywood has to pay scale. Why shouldn’t Google?
We can expect more of the same stinginess with Glass as more viral video stars are proliferated and Google rakes in a greater share than it deserves.
It will make driving dangerous.
In 2011, the Governors Highway Safety Association conducted a study revealing that smartphones were responsible for 15 to 25% of all traffic accidents. Yet David Pogue — arguably the most unimpeachable journalist who has ever worked at The New York Times — was quick to point out that “the tiny screen is completely invisible when you’re talking or driving or reading.” But will Google Glass have something akin to an airplane mode for these activities? Indeed, why does one need to wear the glasses all the time? Would not a driver have a temptation to chat with a friend while driving? And could that continuous partial attention cause more collisions?
It could attempt to erase people in need from existence, as well as serious problems that we cannot ignore.
There was another helpful lead buried in Morozov’s New York Times essay, and it came from Ayesha Khanna. In the above interview with Brian Lehrer, Khanna identifies the forthcoming period of human history as “a hybrid age”:
The idea is that reality is no longer dominated by humans, but now we coexist with technology. Every single action, even emotional relationships that we have, are going to be mediated by technology. Let’s talk about a couple of examples. One example is augmented reality. Augmented reality allows you to have software that superimposes information on objects that you see. So if you take a camera of the Eiffel Tower, it will actually give you information of the history of the Eiffel Tower. Now in Germany, they’ve devised software that will actually allow you to delete that information as well. So if you decide you don’t like homeless people in your city, and you use this software and implant it in your contact lenses, then you won’t see them at all. So now we have enhanced our basic sense by using technology.
There is nothing “enhanced” at all in pretending that a homeless person doesn’t exist. It is bad enough that many of us live out our lives often pretending that a bedraggled man desperate for help and approaching us for spare change is invisible, but imagine a piece of software that would erase the homeless from your perceptual existence. I cannot think of a more inhumane and crassly automatic manner of living. What if Google (or some other authority) decided that other people or other viewpoints that we needed to hear should be erased? Is this really a life that we want mediated by technology? Morozov identifies this pathology as “solutionism,” whereby problems are solved in a pristine and roseate technological haze.
This sounds an awful lot like Jane McGonigal’s remarkably naive and insensitive vision of a world rooted around gamification, which I strongly condemned in a January 2011 essay. Judging from the early apps revealed at South by Southwest, Glass’s emphasis will revolve around the constant confirmation of one’s saccharine existence. In a story filed on March 11, 2013, Google “developer advocate” Timothy Jordan raved to The Verge about Path, an application that will flummox you with endless affirmation. “Path sends me pictures from the people I know really well and the people that I love,” gushes Jordan. “I can tap on any one of them to comment or choose an emoticon without breaking my stride.”
But what about the people you don’t know very well and need to learn from? Why the need for childish stimulation and constant multitasking? I’d like to see smug bastard select an emoticon without breaking his stride during an evening walk through northeast Detroit. That is, if he bothers to notice or give a damn about the very real people surviving near the edge of 8 Mile Road.
* * *
“This is a day I’ve been looking forward to for two and a half years. Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” — Steve Jobs, January 9, 2007
When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone six years ago, he ignited a true revolution. He took three separate ideas (“Widespread iPod with touch controls,” “revolutionary mobile phone,” and “breakthrough Internet communicator”) and merged them into one device. Watching Jobs’s Macworld 2007 keynote today, it’s spellbinding to see Jobs place the iPhone into Apple’s legacy, demonstrate a clear historical trajectory of progressive invention, and clearly delineate how other competitors have gone wrong. Most importantly, everyone watching Jobs’s speech knows they can be a part of this revolution. Jobs is a digital Henry V rallying his troops. It’s San Francisco’s answer to St. Crispin’s Day. But in order to change the world, Jobs had to push his engineers to their breaking points, remain fastidious beyond reason on the design details, anticipate all problems in advance, and truly empower his consumers in terms they could easily understand.
Sergey Brin wants to change the world, but he doesn’t share any of these qualities. He is an unrehearsed man, awkward before a crowd, who invites nervousness rather than awe. He cannot explain in cogent terms how Glass can and should alter your life. What is Glass’s answer to Multi-Touch? What is Glass’s revolutionary UI? The fact that you can wear it? In his 2007 keynote address, Jobs articulated ten very specific iPhone functions that everyone could use. But in 2012, Brin warbled before the crowd, with a bunch of skydiving pals beaming back video on a screen in an auditorium. Jobs didn’t need skydivers and guys on mountain bikes to sell the iPhone. The proof was in the concept.
The difference here is palpable: Jobs believed that the iPhone was for everyone. For Brin, Glass is for a privileged elite. But if you want to start a revolution, then you need to know how to speak and appeal to the people. And you should really work out the kinks before you speak out.
Just hours before Amazon announced that it was gobbling up independent publisher Avalon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author addressed booksellers on how they could help save the industry, reminding them why they mattered while he and his interlocutor Lynn Sheer referenced many New Yorker cartoons. Neither Richard Russo nor his audience had become a mundanely ironic punchline quite yet. But Russo knew that he wouldn’t be standing in front of the audience if independent booksellers hadn’t given his first novel, Mohawk, that essential admixture of faith and attention. Most in the room agreed that Amazon’s threat to independent bookstores was comparable to a bully, perhaps even more insidious than the paperback revolution that had made books affordable for the mass population.
The kernel for Russo’s ABA talk had come from an op-ed for The New York Times published last December. While Amazon had been good to him over the years, what pushed Russo over the edge was when Amazon encouraged its customers to go into a brick-and-mortar store and scan items with a price-check app. All Amazon shoppers had to do was scan a bar code and they would earn a 5% credit on Amazon purchases. “Is it just me,” wrote Russo, “or does it feel as if the Amazon brass decided to spend the holidays in the Caribbean and left in charge of the company a computer that’s fallen head over heels in love with its own algorithms?”
Now Russo, dressed in a black shirt, khaki pants, and a dark jacket, was before a crowd of booksellers who were loyal to him as an author and, perhaps more importantly, as a man who had their backs.
Russo’s talk went further than his op-ed piece, suggesting that Amazon was killing off what remained of humane business practice. “What really frosted me about all this,” said Russo, “was how cruel it was. They wanted to fill brick and mortar stores with people. So if you looked out, you’d see all those people out there. And you’d get the sense that commerce was taking place. The cruelty of it was so shocking, so stunning, so cold.”
It was an independent bookseller that had helped Russo garner his early reputation. “At Barbara’s Books, I remember they optimistically set up six or seven chairs,” said Russo of a vital appearance at a now defunct bookstore for Mohawk, which had then been released in a then daring paperback original format. “I got the sense that the employees at Barbara’s Books had read the book and they seemed to like it. Those people who filled those five to seven chairs, they were going to be hand selling that book. They were going to be hand selling that book and my next book and the next book after that. And as disappointed as I was, they weren’t disappointed at all strangely enough.”
This early crowd of adopters had more faith in Russo than he did. Russo pointed out that his daughter, Emily Russo Murtagh, had carried on in this proud tradition by writing a review of a Ron Rash book. Rash viewed this as one of the central tipping points of his career and has only just received his first New York Times Book Review. Russo insisted that there was a whole crop of young fiction writers worthy of recognition and wasn’t sure if a world with only Amazon would permit similar waves of face-to-face enthusiasm to help future generations of authors.
“There have been significant changes as a result of Amazon,” said Russo. “B&N is hanging by a thread. There’s nothing like Walden Bookstores. The Amazon threat is real.” Russo pointed out that Amazon has 75% roughly of the online market for both print and electronic books. “And if the Justice Department wins,” continued Russo, alluding to the recent ebook collusion suit, “Amazon will be able to go back to the practice they had before all this. And they will again be able to sell certain frontlist books for less than it costs them to buy. Because they know that they already have the backlist basically cornered.”
So how could the indie bookstore fight back against this threat? For the independent bookstores that have survived, Russo suggested that “what didn’t kill them made them stronger.” He compared indie bookstores to “curated shows” and suggested that the superstore days of yesteryear were done. “We’ve passed the point now where you’ll find everything.”
But while Russo remained opposed to the word “boutiquey” and wanted bookstores to thrive rather than merely survive, Russo had little more than instinct and accepted wisdom to uphold these views. While he copped to owning an iPad, he confessed that he didn’t really comprehend social networks (“You’re speaking to a dinosaur”) and that his love of physical books was perhaps generational (“The generations do react very differently”), noting that kids today are being trained to sit before a screen for twelve hours.
He didn’t understand why publishers simply accepted the manner in which online booksellers dictated the $9.99 price point when they offered the hardcover for $27. “Why would they have agreed to do that? It was like allowing Netflix to stream The Avengers on the weekend it comes out. Why would they have conceded the most important point?”
He received the greatest applause when he said, “What publishers need to do more than anything else is just find a spine.”
But how can independent booksellers stand up against a force when realtors (Russo’s wife is a realtor) are now encouraged to tell their clients to get rid of their books when they’re selling their homes? Or when Amazon can send an email telling people who have previously bought Richard Russo books and dramatically alter the ranking of the latest Russo volume?
Russo argued that bookstores had physicality and people as hard advantages. “You’re hoping to discover what you never knew existed,” said Russo, expressing a distaste for search engines. “When you go to the customer service desk, you’re not going to the engine.”
Russo remained cautiously optimistic about the future of publishing. But while hope made the crowd feel good, the unity he had inspired in being more explicit about Amazon suggested that these troops needed a hell of a lot more than a pep talk.
As widely reported, Amazon has removed all Macmillan titles from its site. This means that you won’t be able to buy new print or digital books from Paul Auster, John Scalzi, Richard Powers, or countless other authors bundled inside Macmillan’s many imprints through the Amazon website. The dispute, according to Macmillan CEO John Sargent, arose from a Thursday meeting Sargent had with Amazon, in which Sargent proposed new terms of sale for eBooks. Sargent desired to set the price for eBooks on an individual basis and under an agency model, sidestepping the austere $9.99 price point that Amazon has long insisted on for its Kindle titles. It is safe to say that Amazon, feeling particularly smug after reporting a profitable fourth quarter, felt compelled to not only have its cake and eat it too, but to throw numerous books beneath its oily guillotine. By the time Sargent returned to New York on Friday afternoon, the buy option for Macmillan’s books — both print and digital — had disappeared from Amazon’s website.
Bookstores have often refused to stock individual titles. (In 2004, Amazon.co.uk refused to carry Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud.) But it’s important to understand that not a single bookstore chain has ever discriminated against a publisher like this before. It’s also important to understand that the laws of vertical integration — most famously ruled on through United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., in which motion picture studios, who produced the movies and owned the theaters that they played in, were ordered to break up their monopolies — don’t necessarily apply. Amazon may not be owned by the publishers, but there are some indicators that the company controls 90% of the eBook market, effectively securing a monopoly.
But these developments have caused some authors, viewing Amazon’s aggressive pricing as a grave threat to their livelihood, to take umbrage. John Scalzi writes, “If Amazon is willing to play chicken with my economic well-being — and the economic well-being of many of my friends — to lock up its little corner of the eBook field, well, that’s its call to make. But, you know what, I remember people who are happy to trample my ass into the dirt as they’re rushing to grab at cash.” Charles Stross writes, “Amazon, in declaring war on Macmillan in this underhand way, have screwed me, and I tend to take that personally, because they didn’t need to do that.”
UPDATE: I’ve just received word that the Amazon Kindle Team has addressed the situation in a forum, stating that “we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books.”
(This is the fifth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Other installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.)
(A podcast interview with author Ellen Ruppel Shell will follow this afternoon. Thanks to all the roundtable participants for their input, Penguin Press for providing us with the books, and for Ms. Ruppel Shell for her time and generosity.)
I thought one of the most stunning aspects of our conversation was how emotional many of us became over a fairly straightforward work of nonfiction. It just goes to prove what I’ve always believed: money is a character in each of our lives. It has a point of view. It reacts to how you treat it. Just like pets and their owners so often look alike, a person’s money is imbued with their persona. When anyone starts talking about how we spend it or how we should spend it, we take it personally.
Now for a few musings:
The tighter you hold your money, the more you poison it.
To a man waist deep in quarters, fifty cents means nothing. To a thirsty man standing in front of a vending machine, it means everything.
Each one of us participated in this exercise freely and without compensation. We didn’t even have to shell out $25.95 for the book, which Penguin sent to us for free.
Think of a dollar bill. In your pocket. Slipped under a coffee cup on a diner counter. Floating in a filthy puddle. What does it mean to a Chinese laborer working to produce little plastic pink flamingo key chains or a shrimp farmer in Vietnam?
Now imagine that bill was a one hundred dollar bill. In God We Trust.
If there were a followup work of fiction for all this, my recommendation would be Frank Norris’s McTeague.
To close, I offer an image. Behold the looooong underwear rack at the Unique Thrift Store on Lorain Avenue in Cleveland. Although I did not purchase any of the used underwear, I dare say I felt at once obliged and uncomfortable taking a picture of it. For more on this subject, see the following blog post.
I believe that at the heart of this back ‘n forth is a shadowy sense of economic justice and environmental rationality. We have heard much about or are quite aware of the beast we are up against. Remember even in the mid-19th century, while he was way off about communism, Marx’s analysis of capitalism was pretty acute.
The recent spate of microeconomic analysis books promulgate strategies and tactics employed to advance the moneyed class’s interest(s) — which is the increase/accumulation of capital. So if most of us are exploited and alienated along the way, well, we have, uh, freedom. I’d place more value on these books if I could tease out a viable call to action — which I haven’t to date.
It occurred to me, since there was some discussion of bookshelves — meaning most of, if not all of us, are book “consumers” — that there was no mention of one of the most valuable community resources found in most Western communities — the library. Why do we saddle our selves with these bulky weighty objects that have little monetary value? Particularly in a mobile society. Books are a burden when we exercise that mobility.
It occurs to me that we have the material here to create a great mind-map from all the points brought up in this discussion, from the abstract overall theories that contextualize the analyses to great practical suggestions for how to actually do it (live cheap(ly), that is) at the ground level. Mind-maps, while not the solution to everything, can be a great tool for thinking about and remembering wide-ranging discussions.
This whole discussion got me pretty wound up thinking about crappy bookshelves, the price of eBooks, well-crafted objects, and the future of publishing. How do you make books worth the price (keeping writers fed) while still accepting the inevitable, that books are now completely free to copy and distribute?
I may be way too late to get in on the conversation, but I have finally finished the book, and in the process learned just how much longer it takes me to read non-fiction!
For me personally, the book was quite eye opening. While I could certainly recognize some ridiculous consumer behavior in my life, and there have been times when I’ve had to talk myself out of poor choices because they seem like a good deal when they really aren’t, I’m not sure I ever put it all together as a national sickness with such a long history!
So all of the psychological elements about fairness and getting a good deal and the detailed history of discount stores was helpful in giving me an overall picture of the situation. I think there are probably a lot of people like me, who have some vague ideas that all of this isn’t good, but don’t nkow the complete story or rather, enough of the story to begin to understand why it isn’t good and how it’s affecting our nation and our personal lives.
In regards to what can be done, this is perhaps the most difficult aspect. So now I’ve read this book, and I can understand how the products I buy aren’t necessarily good quality or a good deal and the food I eat has serious issues. But what can I do? Maybe for a while, I’ll be hyper-aware of everything. But can I really pull out of this seeming addiction? After all, a good portion of the book seems devoted to explaining just how it is an addiction. I think it would require a series of ongoing hard choices and the surrender of choice in fact.
Finally, about books, I have often considered how Amazon (the devil to many of you!) made book ownership possible. I never bought brand new books before I bought them on Amazon. Feeling like I wasn’t paying full price certainly led me to buy more. So it always confused me when people railed against Amazon on behalf of independent bookstores. Amazon didn’t steal my business. They just created some for itself. And yet truthfully, here I sit with so many books surrounding me, many of them unread, and realize that owning books, especially the number that I do, isn’t something that I need. Maybe this is something that is actually bad…for the environment, for the economy, and for publishing. Giving up book ownership is not something I want to do. It would be a “hard choice” and it’s honestly not one I’m willing to make at the moment.
I do think it’s interesting in relation to digital books, how high the demand for “cheap” and “now” is! Especially considering the response to Sourcebooks’s decision to delay the eBook edition of a popular forthcoming title due to the low price of Amazon’s eBooks. There definitely seemed to be a mentality: “We deserve this the way we want it and at the price we want it when we want it.” After reading Cheap, I do have to wonder what the real future of books will be.
And hey, thanks for letting me share a few thoughts so late in the game.
I am humbled and honored to have such a thoughtful panel with which to discuss Cheap‘s vagaries. Thanks to Ed for inviting me. I’ll do my best to keep up with you all.
Allow me to open by clarifying a few points, beginning with Ed’s Boar’s Head meat sandwich example. Ed lives in a sort of village, where he regularly patronizes merchants whose merchandize he knows and values. So when the new deli in town undercuts competitors by a quarter, Ed can make an honest decision—and all things being equal, he is perfectly within his rights to decide on the less expensive lunch. However, were Ed to find out that one merchant was using not Boar’s Head but advertising Boar’s Head and using some inferior no-name brand, or that said merchant was abusing his employees or pouring toxic chemicals into the street each morning, there’s a good chance Ed would be willing to pay—would indeed want to pay—the extra 25 cents to avoid patronizing that merchant. My point of course is that in the era of Cheap, we are not really in our home neighborhood. Rather, we are tourists in a strange land—often we don’t know where our purchases are made or who made them or with what. So price becomes the one “objective” determinant of value—and low price trumps almost every time. But as I hope that I make clear, price is not objective. It is highly subjective, and prompts a strong emotional response. (Speaking of Amazon, which many of you do speak of, recall how pissed off customers became when they learned that Amazon was charging some of us more than others for the same book! Huge emotions were raised by this—mostly anger– yet far less anger is evoked when we pay a discount price for very bad books.)
Another point — I went to great lengths to avoid the inevitable charge of elitism. It is for this reason that I went to IKEA (which, by the way, took me a full year to get into-it is a very private company.) As you all note, I also take on Whole Foods. I hope I’ve built to an argument that the 100+ year old concept of Frugalism is a reasonable antidote to Cheap — when I quote near the end from the 1907 work of Simon Nelson Pattern of the Wharton School of Business:
The typical capitalists are lovers of power rather than sensual indulgence, but they have the same tendency to crush and to take tribute that the cruder types of sensualism possess. The discipline of the capitalist is the same as that of the frugalist. He differs from the latter in that he has no regard for the objects through which productive power is acquired. HE does not hesitate to exploit natural resources, lands, dumb animals and even his fellowman. Capital to such a man is an abstract fund, made up of perishable elements which are quickly replaced… The frugalist…stands in marked contrast to the attitude of the capitalist. The frugalist takes a vital interest in his tools, in his land, and in the goods he produces. He has a definite attachment to each. He dislikes to see an old coat wear out, an old wagon break down, or an old horse go lame. He always thinks of concrete things, wants them and nothing else. He desires not land, but a given farm, not horses or cattle and machines, but particular breeds and implements; not shelter, but a home…. He rejects as unworthy what is below standard and despises as luxurious what is above or outside of it. Dominated by activities, he thinks of capital as a means to an end.
This is very far from elitist. I’m trying to show through gradual, level headed, heavily researched and cited evidence that “cheap” undermines us by lulling us into believing that our world and our lives are better thanks to cheap goods—when reality shows that the spiraling down of prices has led to a new norm in which the “China Price” becomes the price to beat. We cannot beat the China price, we cannot even approach it and survive as a democratic nation with a functional middle class. I support this view with evidence from history, psychology, economics — and lighten it a bit with personal experience that led me to ask and seek answers for questions raised by my own self defeating behavior as a bargain maven.
As for Janet Maslin’s review — it is everything that my book is not. Maslin begins by suggesting that I am not to be trusted because I describe the same experiment differently than did another author, Chris Anderson. But had Maslin done her homework — or had she truly read my book — she would have known that the experiment I describe is not the one described by Anderson. These are two completely different experiments. (You, dear readers, should have been tipped off by her Dan/Daniel beef — are you friggin’ kidding me?) Also, I’m afraid that at least one of you seemed to have read Maslin’s review more carefully than you read my book. I have never in my life stepped foot in a Red Lobster. The scene that Maslin scares up and bungles was a birthday dinner I enjoyed with friends at a funky little place that I do not name. During that dinner, I asked the wait person where the restaurant sourced their shrimp, and she smirked — telling me that, like most restaurants, the shrimp there was imported from Thailand. I had just learned where and how Thai shrimp is “farmed” — and could not stomach the idea of eating it. But as I say, my friends ordered it — and loved it — and I’m trying to show how difficult it is to know — to truly know — what goes into what we buy. I was attempting a bit of irony here…but perhaps it fell flat?
Finally, I’m sorry, but the charges of “We already know this” ring hollow to me. Yes, you may have had some strong ideas that cheap goods were problematic — but did you know how the invention of the shipping container, the bar code, and the price tag made “cheap” possible? Did you know the history of the shopping cart? Or how and why it snuck into discount stores? Or that its very presence makes us buy on average, one more thing per trip to Target? Did you know how very little we spend on consumer goods, and how the percentage of income we spend on fixed costs has skyrocketed in recent years — making said cheap goods all the more seductive? Did you know that low price per se had become a lens through which so many of us make our buying decisions? Or understand the high/low problem of cheap goods making quality goods so much more expensive? Did you know Gresham’s Law of bad money pushing out good — of Americans no longer being able to determine the quality of what we buy — and therefore spending too much on low cost goods, thinking we’re getting a “good deal?” Did you know that we spend 80 percent more in outlet malls than in regional malls, that IKEA designs to price and does whatever it takes to get to that price, and that the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai lobbied against workers rights in China? Did you really know how low price works to trigger the hedonic response in the brain? Did you know, for example, what agricultural economist Michael Morris said in the book — that no matter how the “slow food” movement romanticizes the abstract notion of “the good peasant,” the planet cannot survive without agribusiness? Yet at the same time, we need more small farms. We need both small farms and huge farms to survive. On a planet that is on its way to 9 billion souls, the idea that we can all sing campfire songs and survive on locally farmed food is a pipe dream. On page 171, I make a very clear argument about how low food prices in the West led to the food crises of 2007 and 2008 that starved millions around the world. Can you honestly say you all knew that?
Come on, we all knew that fast food wasn’t good for us, and we’d read of the horrors of the slaughter houses before. But Fast Food Nation galvanized millions around the world — especially the young. We know that local food is better food, and we have heard for decades about the dangers of agribusiness (see Mark Kramer’s excellent Three Farms, for example, published many years ago). But Michael Pollan’s message nonetheless resonates — and is no less important than it would have been had it been entirely new. The goal of this type of book is to illuminate what’s right in front of our face — to get into the guts of the thing, to analyze it and explicate it.
Like most journalists worth their nickel (and I do mean nickel), I believe that knowledge is power. If it weren’t power, vested interests wouldn’t work so hard to keep it from us and wouldn’t strive to hide the provenance of their products, for example, or work so hard to make it difficult for us to determine how they arrive at their prices. I wrote Cheap to empower consumers — which is to say everyone — with deep understanding of the history, politics, economics and psychology of low price — and what it means to us as individuals and to society at large. I offer an alternative strategy — the frugalist concept backed up with a few examples — and stand by it. I urge readers to vote both in the voting booth, and with their pocketbooks — and give some idea how these ideas have changed my life for the better.
I’m going to attempt to address as many of these interesting points as I can, even as we await Levi’s answer with book before him and take up Miracle Jones’s sensible advice on how to live cheap.
Early into the discussion, Peggy mentioned that she thought Ruppel Shell hadn’t entirely considered the idea of community-based commerce. I’d like to go further and suggest that the fault doesn’t entirely lie with Ruppel Shell, but with Nicholas Kristof’s blunt sentiment (quoted in the book) that “anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops.” For anyone who’s curious, and to partially answer Whet’s question, Kristof’s entire piece can be read here.
In her endnote, Ruppel Shell points out that Kristof’s been pro-sweatshops since the late 1990s, co-authoring articles titled “Two Cheers for Sweatshops: They’re dirty and dangerous. They’re also a major reason Asia is back on track.” (Rather interesting, this attention-seeking and extremely callous subhead appears to have been expunged from the New York Times’s archive. But it’s also worth observing that Ruppel Shell is careful to call Kristof “a generally insightful and sensitive reporter.”)
The workers who toil for long and dangerous hours in such hidden economies are very much on my mind, for I am presently doing my best to work my way through William T. Vollmann’s massive Imperial. It isn’t just a matter of time always being reframed as a monetary value. It’s the way in which we defend our lifestyles, whether it’s assuming that a book attempting to plunge deeper into an important issue is “telling us what we already know.” And it’s evident in the way Kristof writes such pat summations as:
This is not to praise sweatshops. Some managers are brutal in the way they house workers in firetraps, expose children to dangerous chemicals, deny bathroom breaks, demand sexual favors, force people to work double shifts or dismiss anyone who tries to organize a union. Agitation for improved safety conditions can be helpful, just as it was in 19th-century Europe. But Asian workers would be aghast at the idea of American consumers boycotting certain toys or clothing in protest. The simplest way to help the poorest Asians would be to buy more from sweatshops, not less.
Our enviable lifestyles would appear to trump any and all inquiry into those who toil to sustain it. We think that, if we mention a sweatshop, we can purport to comprehend what it is like to toil and suffer in that sweatshop. But how are we any better than Kristof in our assumptions? To what degree does contributing to the labyrinthine network of cheap cut-rate goods produced in exploitative situations actually help the Third World? Should we be concerned with our Faustian bargain? And did Ruppel Shell, as Peggy has suggested, not adequately represent these many labor categories by degree? No, the Walmart worker can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods. But then the sweatshop worker can’t afford to shop at Walmart. Does consumer confidence help the worker who is below us? Or is this all part of the same Shell game?
Which brings us to the issue of necessity, both real and fabricated, initially raised by Colleen and expanded upon by several others. Like Miracle Jones, I too admire Ruppel Shell’s personal honesty. And I think that understanding and vocalizing the ways in which we spend money are just as important in understanding the bigger economic picture. If such an approach amounts to “telling us what we already know,” then I would say this: If I asked each of you to publicly report the annual income that you entered into your 1040, then chances are you wouldn’t do it. That would be an invasion of your privacy. If I asked each of you to tell me precisely how you spent your money over the last week, complete with an itemization of costs and expenses for each day, chances are that you probably haven’t kept track. And yet, thanks to those dependable Gruen transfers, we’re happy to cling to a remarkably shifting sense of the deep discount deals we’re getting. To the point where Amazon consumers have been tagging eBooks with $9.99 tags because that’s the price they now want to pay. Never mind that, as Publishers Weekly reported back in May, Amazon actually loses money at that price point. Does Amazon get a fair pass, as Miracle Jones suggests? Yes and no, I think. One could make a similar case for Starbucks. On one hand, I wish that Ruppel Shell had delved into Amazon’s parasitic stranglehold on the industry. But at the possible risk of comparative oversimplification, I think it could be argued that IKEA’s ubiquity falls into more or less the same rub. As documented by Ruppel Shell, like Amazon, IKEA spends a tremendous amount of time framing the message, whether in the form of a twee Spike Jonze commercial or a slick and colorful catalog. More questions to the group: Should we look at discount culture on a case-by-case basis? Or is this all monolithic? (Yes, Amazon is online and caters to convenience. IKEA, on the other hand, is a big box store. Should it matter whether we physically or virtually participate in these Gruen transfers? The labor is still unseen, whether it’s Amazon workers being exploited, as the London Times reported back in December, or IKEA’s illegal cutting.)
To address Erin’s track suit dilemma, after thinking about this a bit, I’m inclined to agree — particularly in light of Our Man in Boston’s provocative remarks about elites and elitism. But I’m wondering if Ruppel Shell’s stereotypical descriptions are somewhat defensible, because outlet stores, discount stores, and shopping malls are, by way of their respective designs, spaces that prey upon our cognitive abilities to process numerous aesthetics. I don’t want to let Ruppel Shell off the hook on this point — and certainly Janet Maslin didn’t by suggesting that Ruppel Shell needed to “bring a professor of marketing to a Nevada outlet mall to tell her that bargains are phony,” although I think this anti-intellectual assessment isn’t entirely fair to what Ruppel Shell dug up. Much as casinos are specifically designed to keep us gambling (no clocks, no windows, lots of lights, free drinks), I’m wondering if outlet stores might be working in a similar way. Consider this 1998 article from Retail Traffic, which outlines very specific design decisions to convince the customer that she’s getting a good deal. It’s quite possible that this may be just as vital, if not more so, as brand name manipulation. And so I ask some of the pessimists in the peanut gallery this: If the book “tells us what we already know,” then just how aware are you of a store’s aesthetics when you go shopping? Bargain hunting may very well be a harmless American pastime for some, but if we’re more concerned with price and acquisition (instead of say the human souls who work at the store or the way the store is designed), then it would seem to suggest that we don’t know as much as we think.
Good Christ, I’ve been a wordy bastard. And I’ve only just begun to address all the interesting thoughts on the table. So I think I’ll stop for now, see what others have to say about all this, and return later, possibly after Levi has offered his informed answer to Colleen’s question (which I certainly look forward to hearing!).
I did want to point out one thing about bargain hunting. A lot of people bargain hunt at garage sales and thrift stores (I have seen some amazing things scored this way), which is another deal altogether and not at all related to bargain hunting at IKEA or Walmart. There can, in fact, be different types of bargain hunters and I don’t think they should all be grouped together in one large mass.
There’s one other interesting idea to think about as we consider poor in this country: how you live poor depends on where you live. Miracle’s rules would certainly not work in Alaska where poor folks eat King Crab and catch wild salmon, shrimp etc. — food that would be considered beyond the reach of the poor and/or middle class in the Lower 48.
And many middle class and rich folks love their pit bulls too. I’m just saying.
The relentless (some might use the banal modifier “24/7”) chimes of commerce create such a shitstream of noise that whatever we think we know is disabled in the face of the symphonic chord (think Mahler’s 10th): BUY THIS, BUY NOW.
Some of you all sound like you think you are immune. Good for you. I’m not. Not that I am siting on a pile of junk. But I am sitting on a pile. Did I mention the hoodies, the socks, and the caps?
The only antidote I have found effective is exhibited here:
Also, for those of you unaware of John Crowley, his new opus Four Freedoms should, if there is a modicum of reward for good works in this disinterested universe, gain him a proper audience.
(1) “Sex, conversation, art, and games are what actually make people happy.”
“Become cheap. Don’t fight it. Go so deep into cheap that you become competition for these eeeeeevil discounters. Become so cheap that you are affordable to everybody in all your favorite activities (sex, conversation, games, art), both rich and poor alike. You will have a good life.”
Miracle, I see that you are a genius like me. Remind me to send you my zucchini soup recipe. And as a side note: DO NOT purchase inexpensive marital aids. Just trust me on this one. Contact me off-list for more specific information.
A related Erinism: Buy your plates for $0.50 a piece at a garage sale. You’ll never have a matching set, but, once in a while, you may be able to afford to plop lobsters on them.
(2) Ed, regarding casinos, the poker chips are a trick as well. Your money has been subtly taken from you from the get go and you’re left with piles of inane plastic disks that go up and down with each spin of the wheel. To me, credit cards are a not-too-distant relative: a thin piece of plastic that magically gets you stuff, stuff stuff!
(3) Her Amazon comments aside, Ruppell Shell didn’t poke very hard at the implication of the Internet price comparison and the way it’s changed price shopping forever.
(4) On bookshelves:
So I’m on one of my endless walks and I pass some guy’s garbage pile. There’s two bookshelves in it.
“Shit,” I say, because they’re pretty good books shelves.
I keep walking, hoping that the bookshelves will be there after I’ve walked the 2.5 miles back home and returned with my Mini Cooper in order to heist the cast-off loot. As luck would have it, a buddy of mine is drives by and pulls up next to me to say hello. He’s in his pickup.
So, yeah, I have cheap bookshelves.
IKEA? I’ve never been to IKEA. Why would I drive all the way to Pittsburgh to go to someplace called IKEA?
I’ve now carefully reread the IKEA chapter, and I’m ready to respond to Colleen’s question from last week.
First, I think Janet Maslin scooped my answer when she wrote this in her mostly negative review of Cheap:
At the end of a chapter largely devoted to the horrors of Asian shrimp farming, she describes being in a Red Lobster restaurant with friends and being enlightened enough to eschew cheap shrimp in favor of chicken. Yet cheap chicken-farming isn’t any less ghastly. It just doesn’t happen to be addressed by this book.
I consider myself a very socially aware person. And I definitely think it’s important for me to make personal choices that are not harmful to others, or to the planet’s ecosystems. Of course, this is easier said than done. We each have our own ways of dealing with this uncomfortable truth. My own brand of social awareness places heavy emphasis on issues of global politics, war, and genocide. These are probably my own “pet topics,” and I think it’s interesting that the last time Colleen and I disagreed about a book, we were discussing Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. I felt Baker’s book presented a very powerful argument that the Roosevelt-Churchill strategy in World War II led to far greater death, destruction, and genocide than was required to defeat Hitler, while Colleen (I hope that I am remembering correctly) did not feel the book presented a solid argument.
I also vividly remember one of the biggest disagreements I’ve ever had with Ed Champion. I thought Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine presented a solid and important argument about the insidious underlying purpose of the American misadventure in Iraq, whereas Ed had nothing but criticism for Klein’s work. So it’s funny that now Ed and Colleen seem to be bowled over by the arguments in Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap, while I stand here saying, “What?”.
I don’t think Cheap is a bad book, and I like Ruppel Shell’s basic mission in making us aware of the choices we make when we shop. But her case against IKEA, like many of the cases presented here, feels underdeveloped. She writes of declining forests and environmental sustainability problems, but this is a problem for all woodworking industries. She ends the chapter by swooning over a heavy (non-IKEA) oak bookshelf, but this bookshelf was also made by cutting down a tree. And even though it will last longer, Ruppel Shell knows there are not enough antique bookshelves around to furnish the world. Sure, if IKEA is committing environmental offenses, then these ought to be addressed and stopped. But Ruppel Shell only hints (and never establishes) that these offenses take place more at IKEA than at any smaller furniture provider. She also shows us that IKEA does try to be environmentally conscious, that they “use every part of the tree”, monitor their suppliers, etc. I see innuendo weaved into these sentences. But I find no clear case, no smoking gun. And Cheap is not a book about the environment or about the problems of an overpopulated world. So the environmental points especially come off as half-baked and incomplete to me.
What I was trying to point out in my earlier post here is that IKEA has an appeal beyond dumb cheapness. It is a positive lifestyle choice for people like me — mobile adults who like to travel light. If IKEA has problems — environmental problems, labor problems, quality problems — than these problems should be addressed and solved. But nothing I read here seems to add up to a call for a wholesale rejection of everything IKEA represents. I could take Robert Birnbaum’s suggestion and build bookshelves out of spare planks and bricks — but, Robert, have you ever seen photographs from the Chinese and South Indian infernos where bricks are produced? It’s not a pretty picture.
Finally, I have to complain about some shoddy work on Ruppel Shell’s part in this IKEA chapter. On pages 126 and 127 she goes on at some length about the Spike Jonze commercial that reminds consumers that furniture has no feelings, and then points to the irony that IKEA tries to create an emotional attraction to furniture by giving its pieces pet names. Then, on page 140, she repeats the exact same point, as if we’d never heard it before. “Doesn’t a name connote intimacy? Of course it does, and IKEA knows well the power of intimacy to move us.” It’s hardly such a powerful point that she needs to fully develop it twice in two separate parts of the book.
Often, when I read Cheap I felt as if I was being filibustered. Going on about the trivial issue of IKEA giving cute names to its objects, Ruppel Shell specifically mocks the store for “naming a wok after a girl”. But, reading the notes for the chapter, I discover that the wok in question is called “Pyra”. Clearly, this wok is named after the Greek term for fire, as every consumer who sees a wok named “Pyra” will understand. Ruppel Shell couldn’t find a better example than this? I don’t understand why she didn’t at least pick a better example (say, a bookshelf named “Billy”). It’s ironic that a polemic against “cheap” should have such problems with quality control.
I also feel personally put off after reading and rereading Ruppel Shell’s lush paean to the sturdy oak bookshelf “groaning with books” that her friend bought after rejecting the IKEA lifestyle. My cheap bookshelves “groan with books” too. Ruppel Shell’s poor friend will spend the rest of her life lugging that heavy piece of furniture around. This book absolutely fails to inspire me to want to follow her example.
In response to Robert’s point about immunity to the chimes of commerce. It’s impossible to be immune; even if you’re a conscious shopper, sensitive, responsible, the siren song (or “shitstream of noise”) penetrates.
A quick example (and I’m on the side of folks who appreciated Ruppel Shell’s personal anecdotes): There was a Whole Foods located less than a 10 minute walk from my house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I passed by the store on my walk home from work. It was where I bought my food. I knew it was more expensive, but it was a matter of convenience. Time and money. It was worth it to me to spend the extra bucks to save myself some out-of-the-way trip to a cheaper spot. About three months ago, I moved to Somerville, and the closest supermarket is an expansive, always-crowded Market Basket. It’s got all the same brands as Whole Foods. My first time inside the store, buying the same combo of foods, and more or less the same brands that I would at Whole Foods, I was staggered at how much less it cost. What would’ve been $18 at Whole Foods was a little over $7 at Market Basket. Unbelievable. There is definitely a delight in that. And yet, somewhere in the back of my head, there’s been a gnawing sense that the veggies are saturated with pesticides, that the yogurt is rife with hormones, and that it’s cheaper at Market Basket because the food is poisoned (obviously a little overstated, but you get the idea). And I’ve been sort of wowed about this, in the sense that, holy shit, Whole Foods has done a pretty powerful job marketing themselves. It also speaks to the the complications of price and worth and quality and value that Ruppel Snell explores. Would I rather pay $3.49 for a pint of cherry tomatoes at Whole Foods? Or $2.10 for the same pint at Market Basket? I’d rather pay less, but it does put a doubt — a completely irrational doubt — in my head. Am I getting something that isn’t as good (or, in the case of food, something that isn’t as safe)? Is this doubt borne from the power of Whole Foods’ marketing (and my action buying into it) or the mysteries of price and quality? Or a combo that is hard to know? Whatever it is, it’s certainly interesting to consider.
(1) Maslin actually got that detail wrong. She was never in a Red Lobster restaurant with friends. I’m surprised that not a single fact checker at the supposed Paper of Record got off his ass to grab the book, flip to the “Red Lobster” entry in the index, and confirm that Maslin was indeed quite wrong. (Damn those bloggers sitting in basements in Terre Haute!)
(2) My problems with Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine had more to do with her assumptive approach to the subject — specifically, tying nearly every one of her investigations to the “shock doctrine” brand name after the fact. As Richard Flanagan suggested in his novel, The Unknown Terrorist, journalism is not a sudoku puzzle. It was not unlike Gladwell’s “tipping point” or Anderson’s “long tail.” Ruppel Shell’s book, on the other hand, demonstrates substantive journalism, as can be gleaned from the solid and often detailed endnotes. (I mentioned, for example, the fairness she gave to Kristof.) I do have problems, as others have pointed out, with some of Ruppel Shell’s quasi-elitist descriptions. But if we look to the facts, the findings, the quotes, and the data, I believe that there’s much here in this book to consider, whether you think you know where you stand or not. And as Birnbaum said a few messages back, some of you think you are immune. (I’m sure as hell not.)
(3) The many problems with IKEA, and it is all thoroughly documented in the “Death of a Craftsman” chapter (and I would suggest consulting the endnotes), is that it represents one of greatest manifestations of discount culture. IKEA’s founder is Ingvar Kamprad. He is the seventh richest man in the world, but he still haggles with vegetable vendors and he still flies coach. IKEA has single-handedly altered Western ideas of interior design, perhaps to the same degree of Postrelian plaudits rightly derided by Jackson. Let me tell you a story. When I moved from San Francisco to Brooklyn, I had to leave behind all of my bookcases. These bookcases were hand-built by a team of craftsmen in the Castro. A place I highly recommend, if you’re ever in the market for bookcases in San Francisco, called Books and Bookshelves. The guy would custom-design them for you. And these shelves were built like houses. They wouldn’t wobble or fall apart like the IKEA bookcases. I was able to store a considerable amount of books, while ensuring that I had some wall space in my apartment that wasn’tt occupied by books. When I moved cross-country, I was forced to get rid of these shelves. I initially put up a Craig’s List ad for $50 a pop, which was a little less than one-third of the price that I paid for them. Very few people wanted them. And some people emailed me thinking they were IKEA bookcases. They literally hadn’t experienced bookcases built out of real durable wood. When I couldn’t get any buyers for the last few, I gave them away on the street. And again, people came up to me — in a seemingly civilized city like San Francisco, no less — asking where I had obtained these bookcases. They pounded the sturdy wooden sides. And I told people that they could store their DVDs in there if they wanted to.
The upshot is this. These people were mystified by real oak bookcases. Yes, the bookcase was made by cutting down a tree. But the difference is this. These bookcases last decades. An IKEA bookcase, by contrast, falls apart within a few years (at best) and the amount of wood is wasted. Furthermore, the discount culture keeps IKEA running around the world and engaging in illegal and decidedly non-eco friendly cutting practices. You tell me how that’s a positive lifestyle. Would you rather spend $200 on a sturdy bookcase that will hold thick Vollmann books and last a lifetime? Or $90 on a Billy bookcase that will fall apart because its not made to hold anything other than thin mass-market paperbacks (at best)? If your main complaint, Levi, is that Ruppel Shell’s poor friend is going to be lugging around a heavy piece of furniture every couple of years, well, that’s a specious position to take, given all the interim years of sturdy quality. But if you’re happy with your paper-thin particle boards, Levi, by all means, sing a song to IKEA. At the end of the day, we’re all singing hymns to the corporate empire.
A quick question: Are the IKEA shelves actually made of wood or particle board?
By the way, in between Eddie’s elitist custom book shelves (suitable also for CDs) and the IKEA items, are the inexpensive unfinished pine shelves that I’m sure are available in every city in the mainland USA. You can even paint them colorfully so as to distinguish your self as artsy. Or is it craftsy?
“But her case against IKEA, like many of the cases presented here, feels underdeveloped.”
And when you consider that some event references in Cheap happened just a few months ago, it’s obvious that book was turned around at lighting speed. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it as I read it, but Cheap felt dense and rushed at the same time, perhaps because Ruppel Shell is very smart and Penguin wanted her to write very fast. I suspect Penguin didn’t want to wait around too long only to see the recession cool its heels, along with the sales of this book.
I will have to strongly disagree with the voices who argue that books like this are hypocritical luxury items, preaching to the converted readers who have enough disposable income that they can indulge themselves in a little passive system-bashing before bed. I disagree. The work of demystification is lengthy, heterogeneous, and necessary. And it has taken, and will take, many books, many websites, and a significant amount of talking so that we can see clearly what we are dealing with. This work does not take the place of social/economic activism, but doesn’t delay it or prevent it. Demystification runs parallel to activism, and is just as necessary. Empowering people without a clear analysis of exactly where they are in the system only paves the way for greater misery, and perhaps does more harm than good as people become discouraged, decides that the culprit is greater awareness itself.
I have been trying to stay abreast of the economy and our respective places in it, ever since I was a labor activist in the late ’80s. But there are still things I do not know — for example, the historical trajectory of retail commerce, its philosophy, and its pervasiveness — that I learn from books like this one. Cheap doesn’t go as far as some other books, either in reportage (like Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed) or in systemic analysis (like Rushkoff’s Life, Inc.), but it does occupy its role well. My only qualm was the book jacket. That fast-food yellow is repellent. I know it’s about cheap, but does having it look cheap further its aims?
In terms of Kristof’s pro-sweatshop arguments, we heard a lot of those arguments in my union days too. “Well, they’re better off than they were.” Or words to that effect. This was not made to justify a $12 hoodie purchase, but as part of a global labor discussion. Should we be reaching across national borders to organize? (Yes.) And did we? (No.) (I was with the UAW organizing clericals during that time.)
I think that this is a difficult argument to combat within the framework of a growth economy. Companies need to get bigger. Companies need not only profit, but profit that’s greater than the last quarter, and a profit rate that’s continually increasing. Buy more, spend more, acquire more, consolidate more, grow more, more, more. This philosophy of “More” (maybe that’s the next catchy title in this series!) does not align itself well, if at all, with other values — like preserving and maintaining limited resources on the planet — and accommodating, perhaps even promoting, other types of values, such as community, creativity, being loved, and playfulness (with kids or just generally).
I credit the environmental movement with giving this analysis greater scope by demystifying systems on Planet Earth, including global and regional and micro, and showing not only the interconnectedness of natural systems, but the interconnectedness of natural, economic and cultural systems. Without a general framework of sustainability (instead of “More”), I think the way out is not possible. But within sustainability, I think discussions like this can be actively fruitful. Levi, you are right in pointing out that, despite following the IKEA supply chain back to China and Romania, Ruppel Shell does not fully explore or incorporate the environmental angle here, and that she needs to. I think that’s part of her not addressing the larger overarching points, as I’ve mentioned before. Even smaller, more spotlight-style books like Cheap need to set themselves up correctly in relation to the larger themes, indicating where they fall within a larger spectrum of analysis and action.
(Re: my personal experiences with IKEA. I too move around a lot and don’t want some giant antique monster as a bookshelf. But I also dont’ want to support clear-cutting even in places I can’t see. I’m going to have to do some investigating of my own when it comes time to get my stuff out of storage again.)
Ed, you’re correct that Janet Maslin slipped up in describing Ruppel Shell in a Red Lobster when she decided to solve the problems of the world by ordering chicken instead of shrimp. It was a seafood restaurant, not a Red Lobster. BUT … the spirit of Janet Maslin’s point remains completely valid. The only reason Rupell Shell was able to feel comfortable ordering chicken instead of shrimp is because she had been studying the problems with shrimp instead of studying the problems with chicken.
And, Ed, that’s nice that you like heavy furniture so much. I also know that you like heavy hardcover books, and that you don’t mind lugging around heavy video equipment book conferences. Milan Kundera wrote eloquently of the choices we make between “heavy” and “light” lifestyles. I am decidedly a “light” person, and I will indeed continue to sing songs of love to IKEA. We haven’t even talked about the great Swedish meatballs and lingonberry jam yet.
Well, apologies for my strident tone. Ed has a way of managing to time these roundtables to my mood and frame of mind rather ruthlessly. Last time, with the Human Smoke roundtable, I was literally in the process of losing my last family link to the era described in the book with the death of my grandmother. This time, I’m essentially living with my parents off in the hinterlands after finally drowning under the cost of living in San Francisco and figuring I needed to get out of the pool long enough to let some invoiced checks arrive for a breath of fresh financial air. (Good news. It seems I’ll be selling microwaves for General Electric soon, if a tad indirectly. But I digress.)
I think what I was trying to get across is that in a book like this, which attempts to elucidate a history to explain contemporary reality, a teleology is implied. In this case, the implied argument is this: In a society where everything is easily commodified and competition becomes one of quantity over quality, invariably there will be a race to the bottom in terms of both pricing and marginal profits. Environmental and social degradation hijinks ensue.
This is, in Ruppel Shell’s estimation (and many of our estimations), a bad thing. Of course, there was a guy way back in the industrial revolution, a student of capitalism if you will, who also noted the trend. What was his name again? Something German. Got a lot of people worked up. Led to some bloodshed (though, of course, not nearly as efficiently as that wrought by capitalism). Now he’s pretty much persona non grata in the wake of a bunch of nationalist revolutions that ended in autocracy, but cloaked their intent in his ideology.
Hence, like the Kristof example above, there are those who would defend the depredations of a sweatshop because they believe, “Hey, at least it ain’t feudalism!” (And of course, they’re not the ones sweating.) This is a sentiment which, oddly enough, the likes of Lenin, Friedman, Trotsky, and Rand would agree. It’s like the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers getting together on the issue of gun control. Counterintuitive, but true.
The problem is, when an industrial capitalist society bent on growth at all costs essentially runs out of room to grow — as it has now that it is truly global — then what’s next? Well, for starters, it seems that wages stagnate even as productivity grows. Because “sweatshops for all!” really means just that — an equilibrium in which which the working class works for crappy wages to produce cheap shit to sell to the rest of the working class, with the difference accruing to the owners of the means of production.
But in America we still have the luxury of sitting on the fat side of the trade balance, meaning our working class can maintain the delusion that they’re actually middle class because just look at this sweet bedroom set I just bought on my credit card even though I’m underemployed and lack health insurance. A delusion that we’re only too happy to perpetuate, to misquote Dick Cheney as Malcolm X, by any means necessary. Again, Ruppel Shell lays this all out (and succinctly so). I’m just paraphrasing.
In all this aspirational class alienation, however, a petit bourgeois strain of thought persists. And I felt that this impulse formed the crux of Ruppel Shell’s concluding arguments. Namely, that if we return to the somewhat sentimental capitalism of our forefathers (and they were all fathers), we can turn back to a Jeffersonian ideal of libertarian utopia. The argument goes something like this: “Capitalism isn’t bad, per se. Just industrial capitalism. And if it weren’t for the state colluding with certain corporations to corrupt the market, we wouldn’t be in this unsustainable clusterfuck that we’ve now found ourselves in.” Also: Sex slaves.
The funny thing is that my homelessness brought me to the family cabin as very much the prodigal son. I’ve actually found myself in what I imagine to be something near the image of postindustrial capitalist utopia that Ruppel Shell and her peers seem to be pining for — a small scale organic paradise with broadband Internet. A sort of info-agrarian mash-up of self reliance, sustainability, and all the free porn you can stand. For those who’d like to stay in the cities, well, you’ll be making the porn (natch) and selling the advertising in order to pay for the delicious goats and tomatoes that rural types bring to market.
To go back one last time to my original entry, the question that’s bedeviling me (and, to Ruppel Shell’s credit, it would probably not be so damn devilish if I hadn’t read her book and instead was rubbing myself sore with the porn and such) is whether there are enough cabins to go around, or whether this enlightened and entrepreneurial information age that our best and brightest are so eagerly striving for will simply be crushed under the weight of peak oil and slums and drought and war and all the sins of the industrial age which we (and I mean we, us here, and presumably Ruppel Shell’s intended audience) love to hate.
But I think trying to answer that is my book to write, in which case I may milk the middle class for my piece of the pie and buy a garden of my own to tend. And maybe a shotgun to keep the hungry hordes off my garden. The freeloading Commie bastards.
(This is the first of a five-part roundtable discussion of Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Other installments: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.)
Since present economic developments have caused nearly all of us to reconsider just how we spend our money, I selected Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap for our latest roundtable discussion. For those readers who aren’t familiar with the roundtable discussions, this website will be devoting the entire week to discussing Ruppel Shell’s book, and we’ll be serializing the conversation in five chunky installments from Monday through Friday. The discussion, as you’ll soon see, got quite spirited at times. But the hidden costs of “cheap,” as it turned out, proved to be quite complicated. Be on the lookout for cameo appearances, some unexpected revelations, and a lengthy podcast interview with the author. And feel free to leave any additional thoughts or personal experiences in the comments. Your communications will help many of us to understand and rethink a very important topic.
“Remember, time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad or sits idle one half of that day, though he spends but six pence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.” — Benjamin Franklin
There’s a bodega that opened up in my neighborhood with a bright and muti-hued awning reading GOURMET DELI. But I’ve examined the goods. The owners are using the same Boar’s Head meat found at nearly every place packing hero sandwiches in the five boroughs. But what this deli has done is undercut the competition. Another deli, situated just one block south, sells a turkey hero for $4.50. About three months ago, this deli had raised its price by a quarter. The regulars still grumble. After all, everything’s going up. Metrocards, milk, beer. But they slide over their four paper George Washingtons and their two copper-nickel George Washingtons. The hero remains a “good deal.”
But the new “gourmet deli” now offers the same sandwich for $4.25. The old price. The cheaper price.
And after reading Ellen Ruppel Shell’s fascinating book, I now find myself acutely curious about whether this “gourmet deli” is making the proprietors any money. I find myself morally compromised when purchasing a hero sandwich. And I’m wondering how many of you have experienced similar feelings. I want to know if every ingredient has been obtained through equitable labor. But unless I spend a good deal of my time asking about wholesalers and suppliers in the neighborhood, I’m probably not going to get even half of the answer.
The great irony with the Ben Franklin quote (which is dredged up in the book when Ruppel Shell mentions Ben & Jerry’s Free Ice Cream Day, which I’ll get to in a minute) is that we’ve become so dependent upon getting the best bang for our buck that all other time-based considerations fall by the wayside. Ruppel Shell brings up the telltale consumer who is willing to drive 75 miles out of their way to an outlet store to buy inferior goods for a cheaper price. She even describes a personal example: a man who drove up 75 miles to check out her car (on sale), noticed a few scratches, and then drove right back home. This is a curious trade-off, running contrary to Franklin’s wisdom. (Then again, we also live in a nation in which our thrifty founding father appears on one of our most expensive dollar bills.)
While Ruppel Shell presents a number of convincing developments that partially explicate this mentality (to name just three, the fixed price introduced with John Wanamaker’s price tags, Victor Gruen’s use of social space to develop the “shopping towns” that are now ubiquitous and that keep shoppers hanging around, and the “affordable luxury” seen with Coach discount leather), I’m wondering if you folks feel that Ruppell Shell is being too hard on the consumer. I mean, we can’t all be mindless sheep, can we? Is it not possible that our trips to outlet malls or our determination to spend endless amounts of time searching for the best deal may not be entirely tied into discount culture? There is such a thing as window shopping. And maybe we want to waste our time finding odd or unusual things. (I will confess that one reason I like to check out some of these dollar stores is to marvel at the shoddy merchandise. I mean, how often do you see bubble gum from 1972 that’s still on the market? Very rarely do I buy anything.)
Before we plunge into Ruppel Shell’s IKEA Billy Bookcase example, which to my mind (and sadly my personal experience), truly reflects a pernicious reliance upon discount culture over quality, I want to first establish whether Ruppel Shell may be inadvertently suggesting that “bargain hunting” might be the new way of wasting time. Does discount culture and consumerism maintain such a hold on American culture that this is now how we spend most of our leisure hours? Should we pin the blame on corporations such as Wal-Mart for injecting capital into small towns and suburbs and establishing a town center? Preexisting local economies may not have been able to do this. Then again, how much of this is illusory? (Ruppel Shell cites a fascinating study from Emek Basker. Basker investigates the so-called “Wal-Mart effect” of prices lowering throughout community stores whenever a Wal-Mart moves into a community. His findings suggest that not all prices fall. Are there other “effects” beyond pricing that create such conditions? And should we blame Wal-Mart or the people who want a Wal-Mart?)
Citing Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage is always a good idea to explore in a book of this type – seeing as how free market advocates often dust off this 200-year-old idea and cling to its possibilities like an AIG executive braying for another government bailout. But I’m wondering if comparative advantage is a viable application when we’re talking about consumers who want more than what a local economy might be able to give to them.
I’m also wondering if it’s fair to chide customers for standing in line for Ben & Jerry’s Free Ice Cream Day. Sure, the flavor options are limited. But it’s not as if you’re lining up for melted vanilla ice milk. And, yes, you can always go to another Ben & Jerry’s, slap down three bucks, and get an ice cream immediately. But are people lining up because bargain hunting and consumerism have replaced less conspicuous ways of frittering away our time? Is it the consumer or the corporation who is guilty of letting discount culture and bargain hunting dominate our culture like this? Have we lost the ability to let time simply be time? Why most every action have a monetary value? (That last question may involve bringing up Chris Anderson’s book, which I’ll let the others bring up, for obvious reasons.)
That may be a lot to throw into the fray, but I think I’ll close this opening sally by returning back to my neighborhood. In the past nine months, my neighborhood has seen numerous mom-and-pop stores close their doors due to the economic downturn and the unsustainable rents. In fact, last summer, a bodega was forced to close its doors. It seemed highly successful. It was the place where everybody went, largely because it had more space than the other bodegas and the prices were cheaper. But as it turned out, the owner couldn’t pay the rent on the place for three months and was forcibly evicted. What does it say about our reliance on discount culture when a man will enter into default because the customer is always right, even when he insists on an unsustainable price in an unsustainable economy?
The recent spate of social science books doting on and then purporting to explain our irrationality in all manner of behaviors (especially consuming) is somewhat interesting and amusing (Gladwell excepted). The examples and case studies range from compelling anecdotes to something less. But if the intention was to blind us with science — well, no dice.
This will no doubt be viewed as simplistic. But given the preexisting gap between various regions of our cognitive faculties, the incessant message droning in the back and foregrounds of our lives to consume, to acquire, to converse about our acquisitions, write about them, devote publications and books to them and, to top it off, to be told in the midst of a national crisis that it was patriotic to shop, this very much guarantees senseless consumption behavior.
As far as I have read, I suppose the history of retailing does provides revelations but the conclusion I am heading toward is that, when retailing moved to large and then gigantic organizations, shopping became an adversarial contest in which consumers were bound to lose.
Some initial thoughts, building on what Ed and Robert have begun.
I think Ruppel Shell is trying to get at more than wasting time. I think she’s posing the stronger argument that bargain hunting blinds us to the hidden costs of bargains because of the psychological thrill (at the individual level) of getting more than what you paid for — in some sense. She’s making a two-pronged attack on the structure of discount economy and culture — that the consumers have their part of the bargain to uphold (or dismantle) as much as the corporations and the government have their part to be forced into acknowledging and changing — at the behest of the consumers, qua citizens.
I just finished Douglas Rushkoff’s Life Inc., which speaks to many of these points as well. “Big” has a market advantage in our economy; it’s not a level playing field. Big corporations have easier access to money. The corporations can get bigger loans, at lower rates, than the little guys. They can also afford big-time lobbyists, and there are any number of instances where lobbyists go back and forth between their lobbying jobs and the industries they were lobbying for. Government is, in many crucial ways, out of our hands at this point. But what remains very much in our hands is our own buying habits.
I am normally not a fan of the “pick up your own litter” school of thought. It’s not that I think that picking up your own litter is bad. I think it deflects attention and analysis from the larger and more systemic causes of trash. But in this case, I think Ruppel Shell does a good job tallying the problems on both sides of this tricky equation. There is something that the individual needs to do here.
I know that, if you make very little money as a cashier at Wal-Mart, you’re not going to be able to shop at Whole Foods. But that’s exactly part of the problem too and part of the hidden costs Ruppel Shell brings to light: discount pay scales, on both the supplier and the retail ends, are a huge cost that is not reflected in the item’s price. It’s all connected. Decent-paying, somewhat-meaningful labor, with local, community-based commerce, is more affordable than the behemoth we have now.
I think Ruppel Shell’s a little weak on this final point. She does mention it, but I think it needed a little more ink. My main qualm with this book was its overreliance on very similar studies by all these B school profs. They are not the B-all and end-all! Had she not felt the need to underline every claim with a study as a sort of preemptive strike, Ruppel Shell would have had more pages to draw out the final links in the chain a little more strongly.
Also, Ed, I think you’re making a really important point about time, and how it need not/should not always be reduced to money. There is a tendency to focus on homo economics when talking about the economy, that comes from both the right and left, that we need to guard against. You’re right to point out that we’re more than just consumers, that our habits, even in the marketplace, are about more than the bottom line. We’re more than the money!
The one thing I thought Ruppel Shell conveyed quite effectively is that “bargain” no longer equates to quality in our culture. She used the IKEA example well here when she noted that we buy the cheap shelves, knowing that these shelves won’t last more than a few years. But because these shelves are cheap, we think that’s fine. So it’s as if we’ve forgotten (in a cultural sense) what the word “bargain” truly means. It’s not just about the price; it’s about getting a good deal, if you spend money on something that won’t do the job for long. But are you really getting a good deal?
Personally, I grew up on cheap culture out of necessity. My parents just didn’t have much money and we lived paycheck to paycheck. We couldn’t see the big picture because we couldn’t afford it. Period. But what’s interesting is that, as my parents grew older and could afford to invest in things that would last, neither was able to change their thinking. My mother still struggles to spend more than $15 on a shirt even when she knows that it will likely stretch, fade, etc. She just has certain price points in her head and she just can’t let them go.
Overall, I thought Cheap was fascinating. The book provides readers with much food for thought.
Here are some preliminary preoccupations I had while reading this book:
1. The startling and unironic revelation that Ruppel Shell would rather eat horses than go without meat (taken from the “Note to Readers”). I admire her honesty, and it’s a brave assertion to make, considering the potential market for this book.
2. The startling free pass that Amazon receives from Ruppel Shell, despite Amazon being a corporation currently profiting from the economic collapse like no other and raking in ludicrous profits that look a good deal like blood to me. She mentions Amazon once when she talks about unfair pricing models, and, once again later, when she refers back to that passage. Evidently, Amazon got caught charging the old customers more than the new ones. Jjust like a drug dealer. Why wasn’t there any further analysis of this pricing impact? Ruppel Shell knows for a fact that her audience consumes the commodity of books. Doesn’t Penguin have some “most favored nation” status with Amazon? Questions abound.
3. “A similar scenario is played out by urban street vendors today who claim that the Rolex and Cartier watches lining their jackets are not counterfeits but somehow ‘fell off a truck’ on their way to Neiman Marcus.” I have not seen this “scenario” since cartoons from the 1950s. Lining their jackets? Are they also wearing Hamburglar masks?
4. I wanted to read an entire chapter about what Daniel Ariely discovered when he had male college kids masturbate and then asked them sexually charged questions to determine the exact point when their “reason” disappeared and they could no longer be convinced to wear a condom. What questions did he ask? Were the college students paid after they came? Can I do this experiment? Or do I need a degree?
5. “A psychological state known as the ‘Gruen transfer’ has come to signify when a ‘destination buyer’ shopping for a specific purchase loses focus and starts wandering in a sort of daze, aimless and vulnerable to the siren call of come-ons of every sort.” I suspect that most of America lives in a perpetual “Gruen transfer.”
6. “Two feedlots outside Greeley, Colorado, together produce more excrement than the cities of Atlanta, Boston, Denver, and St. Louis combined. Trucking the stuff off is impractical. One alternative popular among big companies is to spray liquefied manure into the air and let it fall where it may, coating trees and anything else that happens to be in its path.” What?!?
I agree with much of what Miracle said. There are no less than 21 pages in my copy of Cheap that I’ve flagged.
If anything, I thought Ruppel Shell was too soft on the consumer. The book is a dense brew of numbers and statistics, but it mostly served to prove what I already knew: that the American dream has rotted to its core. I suppose this could be globally extrapolated, but I’ll keep my comments in my own backyard.
The idea that parents worked hard because they wanted better for their children maxed out years ago, perhaps in the ’70s. Somewhere along the way, the definition of high quality life became “More More More.” We have so much stuff that our stuff has stuff. We can’t get to the stuff we need because the stuff we don’t need is in the way. We rack our brains trying to think of gifts for our loved ones because they already have everything they want or need.
People who amass the most junk are the ones filling emotional and intellectual voids. That’s always been the case. The happier and more balanced people are, the less likely they are to rely on mountains of things. And if the American Dream is reduced to “More More More” stuff, the less money you have, the harder you’ll try to get as much of the stuff as you can for it (read: The Dollar Store). And as far as the junkiness of the junk is concerned, the cliché “you get what you pay for” got old and tired for a reason.
Sure, everybody wants to do right by their dollars. But how do you really tell if someone’s cheap? Watch how they tip the waiter.
I wanted more on cheap culture’s implications from this book, more on how a two-by-four has shrunken over the years and how drywall has become thinner and thinner. Not surprisingly, the most successful parts of Cheap for me were the ones that detailed the true cost of “cheap,” wherein we visit the shrimp farms and consider the implications of China’s labor practices.
This book represents a stunning amount of work, but I must say that I thought the “slot jockeys in track suits and sneakers” on page 88 was just plain mean. Why does Ruppel Shell include this description? This sort of commentary is particularly off-putting when just a few pages later, Ruppel Shell fawns over Prof. Naylor in her “Diane Van Furstenberg-style wrap dress accented with a stunning Plino Visona handbag.” That was the sort of thing that elicited flags from me. Unfortunately, it also eroded the book’s credibility.
The other day, I saw a woman with four small children foraging through a Goodwill drop box. She was pulling out clothes and putting them on the kids, who soon all had on multiple shirts and sweaters in the summer heat. Welcome to the cheapest shopping spree of them all. But I got the distinct feeling that this woman was no bargain hunter. This was a woman doing what she had to do. Although I understand and appreciate all the studies and arguments in Cheap, I wonder how much that woman would care about any of them. Who would tell her not to shop at The Dollar Store in order to delight those kids with a silly little toy?
There are lots and lots of people on this earth. Whether they’re clothed in “track suits,” Goodwill cast-offs, or they’re toting Plino Visona handbags, they all want food and shelter, which presents us with immense and complex problems. We won’t find the answers within the inviting aisles of a Wegmans.
“She even describes a personal example: a man who drove up 75 miles to check out her car (on sale), noticed a few scratches, and then drove right back home.”
That was from one of Ed’s comments.
I found Ruppel Shell’s anecdotes weak, such as that story about selling her used car. How extensively did she interview this fellow? Is there any guarantee that he didn’t have additional business in that area? A man comes and looks at her used car. Maybe he was lying about why he declined to purchase it. None of it really matters. But when I see a writer putting forth a serious nonfiction effort, and including this type of chatty personal anecdote, it’s dodgy to say the least. At worst, it can make a reader feel manipulated. All that story told us was what one guy had to say about one used Honda. To extrapolate it as commentary on how and why people spend their money is a fool’s game.
Here is another detail I flagged: On page 133, Ruppel Shell describes an IKEA table. “It looked just the right size to host a child’s tea party.” Why didn’t she go online and find the exact dimensions and let me judge the size of the table for myself? I’m a big girl. I can decide if a piece of furniture is appropriately sized or not. I realize this is a tiny quibble, but the text is inundated with these types of brush strokes. Every one risks making me feel manipulated, which in turn dulls the sharper points in the book.
As far as your hero sandwich is concerned, Ed, I did feel morally dirty about the frozen shrimp in my freezer after reading Ruppel Shell’s description of the shrimp farms, which is why I found that section so successful. But even here, Ruppel Shell recalls a time when shrimp was a wild and expensive delicacy. There’ a bit of wistful nostalgia in her description. But as she says herself, the good old days weren’t always so good and now wild fish populations are in grave danger al over the globe. Here’s one story to that end by Johann Hari for the Independent:
The harder society cracks down on irresponsible farming, the greater the pressure on wild oceanic populations. Once again, there’s no easy answer.
Throughout all of this, I feel privileged to discuss and read about these issues. People who are cold and hungry couldn’t care less about whether or not a warm plate of food was ethically produced. If all you have is one dollar and a loaf of bread is $1.73 at the discount grocer, it ceases to be cheap. That’s the most mandatory and difficult part of this entire topic, the subjectivity of it.
I have much to say on Cheap and will do so soon. But I wanted to counter Erin’s point about the potential for manipulation when personal anecdotes are included in serious nonfiction. Part of that is publisher-driven; they want the serious medicine washed down with some degree of contextual personalization, if not entertainment. It’s not enough to be treated to the facts, backed up scrupulously (and Ruppel Shell impressed the hell out of me with her endnotes, in large part because this type of research is too often left on the cutting room floor — I’m thinking of the unclear endnotes in David Michaelis’s Schulz and Peanuts, which was a very good biography that could have been stellar with clear and comprehensible references!); the serious nonfiction writer has to have a great voice and answer the pivotal question of “Why should the reader be reading your book?” Too much of the author is a problem, but just a little bit seasons it just right.
Which is to say, I didn’t have a problem with that personal example. It passed my believability test and brought home the point that people will add needless costs in order to find the lowest price, thus negating the price reduction in the first place.
I’d like to look at the book’s great unasked question, which is the reason she was compelled to write it (and to have us read it): What to do about hidden costs? Ruppel Shell spends significant time tracing and exposing the hidden costs of “cheap”: personal, social, environmental, systemic. What if these hidden costs were incorporated into the price? “Cheap” would suddenly become prohibitively expensive.
But then what? Okay, so this plastic toothbrush from China is $47.50. Or maybe even $899.99! Well, I’m not buying it, and neither is my neighbor who doesn’t have the financial luxury of buying a nice local sustainable wooden one at Whole Foods for $26.95. But suppose there are no local small manufacturers around, no weekly farmer’s market that could serve the entire community, and no place that doesn’t depend on the vast oil-based chains of import/export.
How do we get from our current system, in which the hidden costs are catching up and twisting us into a vicious downward spiral in all areas, to a more equitable system, in which price reflects real cost, and local/sustainable is the more economical option? In other words, how do we get to Utopia? What are the practical or general steps? Do we need The Revolution? Because we all know how well that’s worked out each time.
I find myself less excited by this book than the others so far, and less convinced about its arguments. I do admire Ruppel Shell’s mission. I like the type of psychological investigative journalism this book represents. I have a feeling I’d relate to her first book (about modern eating habits) more than I did to this one.
I can’t relate to Cheap because, while Ruppel Shell writes as if every single modern American is caught up in the Kmart Syndrome, I think I’m immune to it in the first place. I don’t feel any emotional attraction to consumer goods and I wouldn’t cross a street to get a bargain. I do like stores like Kmart and Target for their practical simplicity, and I don’t think I ought to be considered part of a brainwashed bargain-hunting horde because of this.
Ruppel Shell is especially on thin ice with me when it comes to IKEA. I have tended to move every few years in my life, and IKEA furniture is exactly what I need. Long term value? Who cares! I don’t need to carry around a cherished antique. I want to pay $70 for a bunch of pressed wood with screws and pre-drilled holes and a funny Swedish name that I can put up in an hour and throw away when it comes time to move again. Maybe I’m crazy, but I always considered IKEA furniture to be an example of Zen perfection in home furnishing. Ellen Ruppel Shell’s book does not make me want to change my ways.
I’ve written in the past about why I think it’s essential for the publishing industry to give up its sick addiction to expensive hardcover publishing and begin releasing new titles in affordable paperback. Here again, my philosophy seems to head-butt directly against Ruppel Shell’s, though really it’s not the hardcover prices that I despise so much as the size. Even as I read some of Ruppel Shell’s better and more intriguing passages in this book — and there are many of these — I wonder how to reconcile Ruppel Shell’s arguments against “cheap” with my own impassioned past arguments against “expensive.” I’m simply at a loss.
What I like best about this book is its psychological contradictions — the fact that people will spend money to get a bargain and then consider that they “won”, the fact that a homeowner will cherish the memory of a couch bought on a “good deal” decades earlier, as if this really mattered at all. This is pointed stuff and I enjoyed reading it.
But it occurs to me that this kind of bargain-hunting, for those who engage in it, must be simply a sport, a hobby. Would Ruppel Shell deny people a hobby they enjoy? Sure, people can spend a ridiculous amount of time hunting pointlessly for bargains. But they can also spend a ridiculous amount of time collecting stamps, or studying baseball statistics, or posting to blogs. Maybe it’s just fun.
I remember once having an argument with a friend at an outdoor rock concert on a summer day. I was about to pay $8 for a bottle of Poland Spring water from an amateur price-gouger, and my friend said I was crazy and the price-gouger was unethical. I didn’t see the problem or the ethical violation. The price-gouger had done the work to truck a Styrofoam container of ice and water bottles into our stadium, and that effort certainly seemed to me to be worth an $8 reward.
The fact that I didn’t mind paying $8 for this water bottle probably means I’m not the target audience for this book. Or should I say the “Target audience”, if you’ll pardon the pun …
Not so with Amazon. Here’s the relevant section of the Digital Publication Distribution Agreement:
7. Rights Granted. You grant to us, throughout the term of this Agreement, a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide right and license to distribute Publications as described in this Agreement, such right to include, without limitation, the right to: (a) reproduce and store Publications on one or more computer facilities, and reformat, convert and encode Publications; (b) display, market, transmit, distribute, and otherwise digitally make available all or any portion of Publications through Amazon Properties (as defined below), for customers and prospective customers to download, access, copy and paste, print, annotate and/or view, including on any Portable Device (as defined below); (c) permit customers to “store” Publications that they have purchased from us on Amazon’s servers (“Virtual Storage”) and to re-download such Publications from Virtual Storage from time to time; (d) display and distribute (i) your trademarks and logos in the form you provide them to us, including within Publications (with such modifications as are necessary to optimize their viewing on Portable Devices), and (ii) other limited portions of Publications, in each case on and through any Amazon Properties and solely for the purposes of marketing, soliciting and selling Publications; (e) use, reproduce, adapt, modify, and create derivative works of any metadata that you submit to us for the purpose of improving categorization, recommendations, personalization features and other features of any Amazon Properties; and (f) transmit, reproduce and otherwise use (or cause the reformatting, transmission, reproduction, and/or other use of) Publications as mere technological incidents to and for the limited purpose of technically enabling the foregoing (e.g., caching to enable display). In addition, you agree that Amazon may permit its affiliates and independent contractors, and its affiliates’ independent contractors, to exercise the rights that you grant to us in this Agreement. “Amazon Properties” means the website with the primary home page identified by the URL http://www.amazon.com/, together with any successor or replacement thereto (the “Amazon Site”), any software application that is capable of supporting the electronic purchase, display and/or management of digital text, graphics, audio, video and/or other content, and any other web site or any web page widget or other web page real estate or online point of presence, on any platform, that is owned by us or operated under license by us (such as http://www.target.com/ ), branded or co-branded Amazon or with any brand we license for use, own or control, and any web site or online point of presence through which any Amazon sites or products available for sale thereon are syndicated, offered, merchandised, advertised or described. “Portable Device” means any device that is capable of supporting the electronic purchase, display and/or management of digital text, graphics, audio, video and/or other content via wireless telecommunications service, Wi-Fi, USB, or otherwise.
Not only do you give Amazon “a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide right and license to distribute” your blogging, but you also give this up to affiliates and independent contractors. So let’s say a major publisher decides to “independently contract” with Amazon. And they see a blog that they like. Well, guess what? They can take your content, publish it as a book, and collect the revenue without paying you a dime. Because Section 4 (“Royalties”) specifies that the blogger only gets paid for “Subscription and Single Issue sales revenues,” meaning any of the 30% revenue that you’re going to get with the Kindle. And I particularly love how Section 5 gives the blogger a mere six months to file a legal claim, which is “limited to a determination of the amount of monies” and not operational practices. You know, trivial concerns such as Amazon distributing your content to affiliates and independent contractors without the blogger’s consent.
I am extremely saddened to see so many of my fellow bloggers betray their interests. They have happily become corporate slaves, granting “a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide right and license” to their thoughtful essays and carefully written posts.
I sincerely hope that any authors (and the agents who represent them) who appear on blogs distributed through Kindle are fully aware of what they are giving up here. The rights for any writing you publish on a blog go to Amazon. That goes for guest blog posts, excerpts of chapters*, interview excerpts, you name it. Thanks to Section 7 of Kindle’s Digital Publication Distribution Agreement, you effectively become Amazon’s bitch.
Well, I’m sorry. But I can’t do that for the authors who have been kind enough to take the time out of their schedules to express their thoughts and feelings in both text and radio form on these pages. In addition to the reasons eloquently provided by Kat Meyer and Megan Sullivan
I cannot in good conscience sell us out.
All this could have been prevented had the bloggers who signed up for this taken the time to read and study Amazon’s draconian language. Presumably, they thought Amazon would play nice.
After multiple attempts to contact Amazon, I have at long last received the following reply from Patty Smith by email:
“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.
“Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.”
When I asked Ms. Smith about whether or not this problem represented a hack, she insisted that this was a “ham-fisted cataloging error” that had been caused by Amazon. Therefore, Amazon’s position seems to indicate that the cataloging problem came from its end. Ms. Smith did not, however, answer any questions I put forth to her about why much of this metadata was necessary in the first place.
It’s also worth noting that Amazon still hasn’t issued an apology.
It’s been called #amazonfail on Twitter, but it represents the greatest insult to consumers and the most severe commercial threat to free expression that we’re likely to see in some time. Amazon has decided to remove certain books that they deem “adult” from their ranking system. But the “adult” definitions include such books as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (Amazon link) (screenshot), Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (Amazon link) (screenshot), Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain (Amazon link) (screenshot), John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (Amazon link) (screenshot), and numerous other titles. [NOTE: These titles have now been ranked again. But please see UPDATE 11 at the bottom of this post, which contains additional links and screenshots. Amazon is still deranking many titles, but only seems to be restoring the ones directly called out by multiple sources.] Books that, in some cases, have fought decades to gain literary respectability have become second-class overnight because of Amazon’s draconian deranking policy.
To add insult to injury, such anti-Semitic texts as Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (Amazon link) and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Amazon link) remain within the ranking system while the less offensive books named above are considered too “adult.” In other words, if you’re a writer who has written openly about sex, Amazon considers you worse than an anti-Semitic writer who helped initiate pogroms and concentration camps.
As Kassia Kroszer noted, this is an offensive and unacceptable gesture from Amazon to the many readers and writers who make the publishing industry what it is. This is retail maneuvering of the most spineless and despotic form. It amounts to a store treating adults, who are informed individuals who can make up their own minds about how “adult” something is, as if they are incapable of independent decision making. It is a betrayal of the community that keeps Amazon thriving with the customer reviews. It is an insult to any author or reader who has dared to take a chance.
This decision must be responded to by a complete and total boycott of Amazon’s services. DO NOT BUY ANYTHING FROM AMAZON unless they restore the ranking system. Boycott Amazon and let them feel the sharp pincers of your wallet going somewhere else. Instead of supporting a corporate behemoth who wants to put up the equivalent of a beady curtain at a video store for many titles that don’t deserve it (including numerous GLBT and sex-positive books), go to an independent bookstore who will treat you with inclusive respect. Remove all links to Amazon from your websites. Let Amazon know precisely how you feel in these economically uncertain times, and then maybe they’ll think twice about treating you as if you are unthinking cattle.
We can make a difference in this. We made a difference back in February with the Facebook TOS snafu. We can make a difference with this needless and demeaning ranking system. Boycott Amazon. Because a retailer should never be in the position of determining what is “adult” or salable. As the old maxim says, the customer is always right.
UPDATE 2: Goddammit, that’s the last straw. Nobody deranks Jonathan Ames and gets away with it. Here are the numbers for the Amazon Board of Directors. Flood all these people with your complaints on Monday morning.
Thomas O. Ryder (914) 244-5782
William Gordon (650) 233-2750
Myrtle Potter (650) 225-1000
Alain Monie (206) 266-1000
L. John Doerr (650) 233-2750
Tom Alberg (206) 674-3000
Patricia Stonesifer (206) 709-3140
UPDATE 3: On Twitter, the Washington Post‘s Ron Charles reports that Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener has told him that there was recently a glitch in the sales rank feature and that he is working to correct the problem. I am likewise pursuing investigations to get Amazon’s side of the story.
UPDATE 4: Of course, if the glitch was only just “recently” discovered, the big question here is why Amazon told Mark Probst two days ago that the company was now in the practice of excluding “adult” material in some searches. For that matter, why did Amazon offer the same answer to author Craig Seymour? Something is fishy. I have left voicemails and emails for Amazon spokespersons. What they do not realize is that I am a rather tenacious fellow. If they do not answer me tonight, starting tomorrow, I will be contacting them once every hour until they offer a reasonable answer to these many questions.
UPDATE 7: As of Monday afternoon, I have left eight voicemails for various contacts at Amazon and they will not return my calls. Also, the main Amazon corporate number — 206-622-2325 — appears to have been disconnected. We still have nothing from Amazon elaborating on the “glitch” that they are working on.
UPDATE 8: I have sent numerous emails and left repeated voicemails to Patty Smith (Director of Corporate Communications), Drew Herdener (Senior Public Relations Manager), and Dean Falvy (Amazon’s legal representative). These are all people who should really be going on the record and answering very specific questions about the “glitch.” But these spokespersons have refused to return my calls. And I have learned that they are not returning calls from other journalists.
UPDATE 11: Amazon is now pretending as if the “glitch” appears has been rectified as of 5:30 PM EST. But here’s what’s interesting. The specific titles that I linked to offered direct links to have been ranked again. But many other books are still deranked, including such as Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage (Amazon link) (screenshot), James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (Amazon link) (screenshot), and Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger (Amazon link) (screenshot). So is Amazon only ranking those titles that people are singling out? In other words, if the “glitch” is being fixed, then why does it only apply to the titles specifically linked to on other sites, rather than an across-the-board metadata value?
UPDATE 13: Andrew Sean Greer writes in the comments: “Well all I know is the paperback of The Story of a Marriage came out last week but you can only see it by searching directly, not by looking at sales lists of literary fiction, etc. The equivalent of having it for sale only by asking the bookseller for something behind the counter. *sigh* Glitch, hacker, cataloging error, it still hits a writer where it hurts. Nobody likes their new book to be invisible except if you know where to look. Isn’t book buying all about browsing for unexpected treasures?”
UPDATE 15: The New York Times‘s Motoko Rich investigates. Shockingly, I actually agree with the smug Daniel Mendelsohn for once. But more interesting than this is that all the publishers who Rich contacted failed to comment on the record. In other words, we should be reminded by this setback that Amazon holds a needless vise-like grip on the publishing industry. But are we willing to accept such a hold when Amazon’s data can be so easily manipulated or modified?
As I pointed out more than a year ago, Amazon has been offering monthly blog subscriptions to Kindle readers, but, in some cases, it hasn’t been paying the bloggers a reasonable cut of the revenue. And as my investigation revealed, in some cases, Amazon didn’t even bother to ask permission from the bloggers. While the monthly subscription cost has gone down to 99 cents per month, as Rebecca Skloot discovered on Twitter this afternoon, Maud Newton’s site is now for sale on the Kindle. (Maud has since revealed that a nonexclusive contract she signed with Newstex gives them the right to distribute her content through the Kindle.)
But there’s a big question here. If Amazon makes 99 cents per subscription, how much of this goes to the bloggers?
I am now in the early stage of a major investigation to determine, once again, if the bloggers listed on the Kindle store are collecting any commensurate revenue or granting their permission to Amazon to have their blogs distributed. And I will be updating this site with my findings. If your blog is listed on the Kindle Store, please contact me so that we can begin to hold Amazon accountable for seizing content generously offered for free and selling it to others on the open market.
There are currently 1,280 blogs listed at the Amazon Kindle Store.
Harriet Klausner, known for many years as Amazon’s “top reviewer,” has banged out uncritical reviews for damn near any book that came her way, “writing” as many as seven reviews a day. But it appears that Klausner’s glory days are now over. Amazon recently modified the criteria that determines the rank for Amazon’s top reviewers. Here’s the first priority to becoming a top reviewer under the new system:
Review helpfulness plays a larger part in determining rank. Writing thousands of reviews that customers don’t find helpful won’t move a reviewer up in the standings.
It appears that not enough of Amazon’s customers have found Ms. Klausner’s reviews helpful. Because of this, Ms. Klausner has plummeted from #1 to #442. It is not known if there were any tears shed in the Klausner household. But everything falls eventually. The Roman Empire. Rod McKuen’s popularity. The hair on Ron Howard’s head. And now Harriet Klausner. But Amazon has been kind enough to give Ms. Klausner a consolation prize, noting her Classic Reviewer Rank of 1.
I’m unsure if “Classic Reviewer Rank” is a bit like playing the first edition of AD&D when everybody’s just getting used to the fourth edition. But perhaps Steve Jackson will develop a GURPs-like solution that will appease Amazon reviewers of both types.