Looks who’s back

Or maybe isn’t.

Yet more mysterious Aphex Twin-related artwork has popped up
Aphex often emerges briefly only to disappear back into the acid-lashed shadows, a ginger mystery, leaving little behind except a string of deeply weird, often brilliant records. We think he might be about to drop another one. Possibly. Maybe.

Less phones, more books

Ofcom have published research into just how far our internet and smartphone addiction has grown over the last ten years.

A decade of digital dependency
2008 was the year the smartphone took off in the UK. With the iPhone and Android fresh into the UK market, 17% of people owned a smartphone a decade ago. That has now reached 78%, and 95% among 16-24 year-olds. The smartphone is now the device people say they would miss the most, dominating many people’s lives in both positive and negative ways.

People in the UK now check their smartphones, on average, every 12 minutes of the waking day. Two in five adults (40%) first look at their phone within five minutes of waking up, climbing to 65% of those aged under 35. Similarly, 37% of adults check their phones five minutes before lights out, again rising to 60% of under-35s.

We’re not all hooked, though. Here’s an interesting look at a (dwindling) demographic.

Meet the 11% of Americans who don’t use the internet
“We bought the first family computer in 1998, and the kids would sit around all day, tinkering on the internet,” she says. “I watched them go from playing outside with friends, riding bikes, talking to each other, to being obsessed with the machine. It was like a switch flipped in their heads.”

While her children and husband became accustomed to the internet, Simpson brushed it off as an “unnecessary evil.” Aside from an unfruitful and frustrating attempt to find a local plumber using Ask Jeeves 19 years ago, she’s completely refrained from logging online.

For the majority of us, though, the internet and its devices follow us everywhere we go. To be deliberately offline — our default position not that long ago, remember — is starting to feel contrary and unnatural, even in our own homes.

IKEA have a plan for that, though.

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IKEA and the Man Booker Prize create reading rooms for relaxation
The initiative is designed to help alleviate stress and help make the home a haven again. Over half of workers (59%) feel they are under pressure to respond to emails even when they are home and have finished official work hours — which suggests that preventing the trials of workplace from entering our homes has never been more important. Sitting down and disappearing into a good book is a way to do just that.

IKEA ‘Reading Rooms’ to celebrate Man Booker longlist
Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, added: “If you associate reading with holidays then you probably associate it with indulgence. And – it’s true – reading fiction can be, at its best, a form of escapism. But that doesn’t make it a guilty pleasure. It’s more like a fast route to better health. Our homes are filled with devices that allow the digital world to encroach on our private lives.”

She urged people to “reclaim your privacy, and your imagination” through reading a book.

It seems crazy that we need a furniture store to remind us that putting the phone down now and then and picking up a book is a good thing.

Design Museum’s political exhibition gets political

It was supposed to be an exhibition about politics …

Design Museum to exhibit political graphic design from past decade
An exhibition at London’s Design Museum will present the most poignant political graphic iconography from the past decade, created in the wakes of events such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Brexit, and Donald Trump’s presidency.

… but the Design Museum’s Hope to Nope exhibition is caught in a political controversy of its own. Here’s a post from one of the groups of artists involved, BP or not BP.

Artists say ‘Nope’ to arms
This morning, we’re part of a large group of artists, designers and activists who have written to the Design Museum asking that our work be removed from the current Hope to Nope exhibition of political art. […] Why are we demanding our stuff back? Because last Tuesday, 17th July, the museum hosted an arms industry event as part of the Farnborough International arms fair.

They’re not the only ones unhappy with where the Design Museum gets its funding from.

30 artists have requested their work be removed from Design Museum exhibition
The letter states that, “We refuse to allow our art to be used in this way. Particularly jarring is the fact that one of the objects on display (the BP logo Shakespeare ruff from BP or not BP?) is explicitly challenging the unethical funding of art and culture. Meanwhile, many of the protest images featured in the exhibition show people resisting the very same repressive regimes who are being armed by companies involved in the Farnborough arms fair. It even features art from protests which were repressed using UK-made weapons.”

The letter and full list of signatories are published in full on Campaign Against Arms Trade website.

Design Museum – Campaign Against Arms Trade
It is deeply hypocritical for the museum to display and celebrate the work of radical anti-corporate artists and activists, while quietly supporting and profiting from one of the most destructive and deadly industries in the world. Hope to Nope is making the museum appear progressive and cutting-edge, while its management and trustees are happy to take blood money from arms dealers.

The Guardian quotes a statement from the Design Museum in response to this.

Design Museum challenged over private ‘arms industry’ event
“The Design Museum is committed to achieving its charitable objective to advance the education of the public in the study of all forms of design and architecture and is thus a place of debate that, by definition, welcomes a plurality of voices and commercial entities. However, we take the response to Tuesday’s event seriously and we are reviewing our due diligence policy related to commercial and fundraising activities.”

They’ve acknowledged (kind of?) the controversy on their exhibition webpage …

Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18
As of 1 August, some artwork has been removed from the exhibition, before the exhibition closing date of 12 August, at the request of the lenders. As a result, and until the end of the run, the exhibition will now be free to visit. […] ‘We are sorry for any disappointment caused for visitors. We believe that it is important to give political graphics a platform at the museum and it is a shame that the exhibition could not continue as it was curated until its original closing date’.

… but have not made their peace yet with the artists and designers involved.

Design Museum attacks its own exhibitors, defends working with arms dealers
We were shocked to see the Design Museum’s latest statement about our request to remove our art from the Hope to Nope exhibition. Rather than engaging with the issues we and other exhibitors have raised, the museum has instead made the bizarre (and offensive) suggestion that over 40 artists and groups featured in its exhibition have all somehow been duped by some mysterious ‘professional activists’.

We all need to be data literate

This article from Harvard Business Review doesn’t mention schools once, but I think it fits perfectly well in that setting.

The democratization of data science
Intelligent people find new uses for data science every day. Still, despite the explosion of interest in the data collected by just about every sector of American business — from financial companies and health care firms to management consultancies and the government — many organizations continue to relegate data-science knowledge to a small number of employees.

That’s a mistake — and in the long run, it’s unsustainable.

It goes on to outline the three steps necessary to create a more data literate organisation; share data tools, spread data skills, and spread data responsibility. Couldn’t agree more. It’s well worth a read.

Years ago and years away

I’m getting impatient for the future, it’s not coming quick enough.

Microsoft has been dreaming of a pocketable dual-screen Surface device for years
The Verge revealed last week that Microsoft wants to create a “new and disruptive” dual-screen device category to influence the overall Surface roadmap and blur the lines between what’s considered PC and mobile. Codenamed Andromeda, Microsoft’s project has been in development for at least two years and is designed to be a pocketable Surface device. Last week, Microsoft’s Surface chief, Panos Panay, appeared to tease just such a machine, built in collaboration with LG Display. We’re on the cusp of seeing the release of a folding, tablet-like device that Microsoft has actually been dreaming of for almost a decade.

That was earlier this month, but here’s something from 2015 — concepts from years ago and still years away.

Microsoft obsesses over giant displays and super thin tablets in future vision video
While everyone is busy flicking and swiping content from one device to another to get work done in the future, it’s nice to see there’s still a few keyboards laying around. Microsoft also shows off a concept tablet that’s shaped like a book, complete with a stylus. The tablet features a bendable display that folds out into a bigger device. If such a tablet will exist within the next 10 years then I want to pre-order one right now.

But consider this:

Imagining Windows 95 running on a smartphone
Microsoft released their Windows 95 operating system to the world in 1995. 4096 created an amusing video that imagines a mobile edition of Windows 95 running on a Microsoft-branded smartphone. Move over Cortana, Clippy is making a come back.

It’s all very amusing to think of such old technology in this new setting, but we’ll be laughing at how old-fashioned the iPhone X is soon enough, I’m sure.

Before they were famous

Some uncommon views of very well-known structures.

Famous landmarks, before they were finished
It isn’t always possible to find an unusual perspective on famous landmarks, but photos taken during their construction can often provide one. In black-and-white or grainy color, they’re filled with promise but not yet substance—scaffolding around a skyscraper skeleton, pieces of a sculpture in a workshop, the foot of a tower reaching into nothing.

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Blame typewriters?

I love typewriters. I used to own quite a few old ones, including a stupidly heavy Underwood. So I found this Medium article quite difficult to read at first.

Death to typewriters

What are you talking about, they’re amazing machines!

You see, I blame typewriters for double-handedly setting typography back by centuries. Type before typewriters was a beautiful world filled with hard-earned nuance and richness, a universe of tradition and craftsmanship where letters and their arrangement could tell as many stories as the words and passages they portrayed.

The article’s author, the typographer and designer Marcin Wichary, sets out a very compelling case and illustrates very clearly the influence typewriters have had on typography.

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Those habits wouldn’t matter that much, originally; books and newspapers during that time proceeded with more sophisticated machinery and largely excellent typography. But, typewriters transmuted into teletypewriters, then into teletypes, then into “glass teletypes” (teletypes with actual “glass” computer screens), and eventually into computers. … And thus typography of early personal computers was essentially typewriters, realized in pixels.

He outlines in the rest of the article the ways he’s working with Medium to improve on-screen typography and reverse the damage caused by bad typewriter habits. These are set out in detail in Matthew Butterick’s book, Practical Typography.

Typewriter habits
I’ve claimed through­out this book that many bad ty­pog­ra­phy habits have been im­posed upon us by the type­writer. Here, I’ve col­lected them in one list. … 2: Two spaces rather than one space be­tween sen­tences. … 7: Pre­tend­ing that ac­cented char­ac­ters don’t exist. … 13: Ig­nor­ing lig­a­tures. 15: Be­liev­ing that mono­spaced fonts are nice to read.

Whilst I still love typewriters as objects, as word machines, I can absolutely see their point. I’m not sure about a typewriter revolution, but I can definitely see the need for a typography one.

Looking up

There’s a bloody lunar eclipse this evening, although the thunderclouds that are accompanying our unusually warm summer may get in the way. But whilst we’re on the subject:

Figures in the stars: How cultures across the world have seen their myths and legends in the stars
Let’s compare 28 different “sky cultures” to see differences and similarities in the shapes they’ve seen in the night sky. Ranging from the so-called “Modern” or Western constellations, to Chinese, Maori and even a few shapes from historical cultures such as the Aztecs.

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And as we can see here, attempts to map and explain our place in the universe go back a long way.

Cosmography manuscript (12th Century)
This wonderful series of medieval cosmographic diagrams and schemas are sourced from a late 12th-century manuscript created in England. Coming to only nine folios, the manuscript is essentially a scientific textbook for monks, bringing together cosmographical knowledge from a range of early Christian writers such as Bede and Isodere, who themselves based their ideas on such classical sources as Pliny the Elder, though adapting them for their new Christian context.

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What’s in a name? #3

I mentioned earlier, in a post about the first map to include the name America, that people should be more aware of the names of places used by the first people to live there. Well, here’s a map that can help with that.

Indigenous geographies overlap in this colorful online map
For centuries, indigenous peoples and their traditional territories have been purposefully left off maps by colonizers as part of a sustained campaign to delegitimize their existence and land claims. Interactive mapping website Native Land does the opposite, by stripping out country and state borders in order to highlight the complex patchwork of historic and present-day Indigenous territories, treaties, and languages that stretch across the United States, Canada, and beyond.

People are strange

The Cut, a style and culture website that’s part of the New York magazine, have a very odd set of articles tagged What it’s like, with titles such as What it’s like to be married to a very attractive man, What it’s like to crave amputation, What it’s like to be allergic to wi-fi, and What it’s like to date a horse.

It’s quite a collection, but don’t read too many at once, you’ll go mad.

Now that’s what I used to call music

I was 11 in 1983. I’m now 46. A milestone has been reached.

Now That’s What I Call Music! just turned 100
Phil Collins’ cover of the The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” is the first song on the very first Now That’s What I Call Music!—or “Now,” as it’s popularly known—released in the UK in 1983. Yesterday (July 20), the 100th UK volume of the series was released; its first song is Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa’s electronic dance hit “One Kiss.” Listen to both tracks and you’ll see that we’ve come a very long way, baby.

As ever, the It’s Nice That team has a great take on it.

Now That’s What I Call an oddly important document of British visual culture: Now releases its 100th CD
As objects, and as ideas, the Nows that litter charity shops and the glove compartments of seen-better-days people carriers up and down the country are primarily functional. End-of and mid-year money savers, they are cheap and cheerful. And they look it, too.

The series is an interesting record of the shifting musical tastes of our young people (including me, once upon a time), but it’s visually important too.

You’ll notice that after rather anodyne first and second editions, the team decided to inject a bit of personality into proceedings. Which, for Now’s three, four, and five they did with a pig. In sunglasses. This, for reasons that are probably best left kept in the matte black confines of a mid-80s record label HQ, was the big idea. This was how they were going to sell yet another chart compilation to the nation. With a pig in sunglasses.

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I’d forgotten all about that pig! Needless to say, it didn’t stick around, and before long the cover we all know and love appeared. And stayed.

Like the Little Chef logo or the Nike swoosh, the solid sameness of Now provides a moment of calm in an epoch marked by hysterical atomisation. You’ll probably never buy another Now compilation again — because why would you —but that isn’t the point. Like cockroaches at Armageddon, Now will always sit there on supermarket shelves.

I, for one, am glad of that. Buying and listening to music these days is getting far too complicated.

How spammers, superstars, and tech giants gamed music
On a website with more than 100 million active daily users, there are plenty of ways to game the system, be it for attention, or, if the streams pile up enough, profit. And the frauds cashing in on the latest hot single are hardly alone. A bevy of unknown artists have found ways to juice their streaming totals, whether it’s covering songs from artists who don’t allow their songs on Spotify, or uploading an album of silent tracks, each precisely long enough to generate a fraction of a cent for the artist.

We’re doomed! Don’t panic!

The Brexit deadline’s getting nearer, and the situation looks as intractable as ever. Should we be getting worried yet? I mean, what’s the worst that can happen?

Flights stop, supermarket shelves empty, and NHS supplies dwindle: Britain after a no deal Brexit
I really do wish all of this could just be dismissed as Project Fear, but, honestly, when the government has no strategy in place for leaving the European Union, and when I ask repeatedly what happens on 30 March 2019 if it’s a “no deal” which means “no transition” the silence is terrifyingly deafening.

No-deal Brexit risks ‘civil unrest’, warns Amazon’s UK boss
Doug Gurr, the retail giant’s UK manager, reportedly made the comment during a meeting between Raab and a group of senior business executives on Friday. Amazon declined to confirm whether Gurr had made the remarks, reported in the Times, but admitted it was planning for a wide range of outcomes.

Take fright on Brexit: even the civil service head is telling us to panic
Everyone will take fright at the government’s own warnings to businesses and households. John Manzoni, the head of the civil service, told MPs last week that a no-deal break would be “almost unimaginable”, and have “horrendous consequences”. Already the government warns that the M26 in Kent will be a “holding area” for 1,400 trucks to ease gridlock as 10,000 lorries a day are potentially delayed by new EU customs checks.

It’ll all be worth it in the end, though, right?

The Brexit con
Brexiters told us that leaving the EU would be quick and easy and would save us £350m a week. With a chaotic no-deal looking a real possibility, however, Jacob Rees Mogg now tells us it could take 50 years to reap the benefits. What he’s doing here is something con-men have always had to do – stopping their victim going to the police when the goods they have charged him for fail to arrive.

Oh well, at least the postal service will still be working.

Are these Dad’s Army stamps inspired by Brexit?
The Royal Mail insists not, but it is quite a coincidence.

The fabulous future of work awaits

Following on from that article about what it might be like to work until we’re 100, here’s another example of over-optimistic, blue-sky, work-based astrology, this time from Liselotte Lyngsø, a futurist from the Copenhagen-based consultancy Future Navigator.

This is what work will look like in 2100
Human potential, according to Lyngsø, is not best cultivated in today’s workplace structure, and many of the changes she predicts revolve around the ongoing effort to maximize the abilities of individuals. To that end, many of today’s workplace structures, such as the 9-to-5 workday, traditional offices, rigid hierarchies, and the very concept of retirement will change dramatically.

“I don’t think we’ll have work hours like we used to. Likewise I think we’ll replace retirement with breaks where we reorient and retrain, where the borders [of work] are blurred,” she says. “It’s also about creating a sustainable lifestyle so you don’t burn out, and you can keep working for longer.”

Oh great, thanks.

Simon Stålenhag’s sci-fi to hit our screens

I was happy to read that the work of sci-fi illustrator Simon Stålenhag may be on our screens, in the not-too-distant future.

Simon Stålenhag’s dystopian art to come to life in a new Amazon sci-fi TV series
Its eight-episode run will tell the tale of the town of people who live above ‘The Loop’, a machine built to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe. A cast hasn’t been announced, but we do know Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Know) will be directing the pilot, while Legion‘s Nathaniel Halpern and Planet of the Apes sequels director Matt Reeves are on board as executive producers.

They’re talking about his book Takes From The Loop, but my money’s on his other work, The Electric State, being the bigger winner. As I mentioned before, this one may also make it to the big screen, if the Amazon page for its Kindle edition is to be believed.

Iconic icons

Via kottke.org, here’s a great write-up of the contribution Susan Kare made to the success of the Macintosh. She started as a typeface designer but is best remembered for much more iconic work.

The sketchbook of Susan Kare, the artist who gave computing a human face
Inspired by the collaborative intelligence of her fellow software designers, Kare stayed on at Apple to craft the navigational elements for Mac’s GUI. Because an application for designing icons on screen hadn’t been coded yet, she went to the University Art supply store in Palo Alto and picked up a $2.50 sketchbook so she could begin playing around with forms and ideas. In the pages of this sketchbook, which hardly anyone but Kare has seen before now, she created the casual prototypes of a new, radically user-friendly face of computing — each square of graph paper representing a pixel on the screen.

[…]

There was an ineffably disarming and safe quality about her designs. Like their self-effacing creator — who still makes a point of surfing in the ocean several mornings a week — they radiated good vibes. To creative innovators in the ’80s who didn’t see themselves as computer geeks, Kare’s icons said: Stop stressing out about technology. Go ahead, dive in!

All these years later and her designs are still seen as culturally significant.

London’s Design Museum announces 2017 exhibition programme
“‘Designed in California’ is the new ‘Made in Italy’. … This ambitious survey brings together political posters, personal computers and self-driving cars but also looks beyond hardware to explore how user interface designers in the Bay Area are shaping some of our most common daily experiences. The exhibition reveals how this culture of design and technology has made us all Californians.”

Can’t stop, won’t stop

I’ve mentioned before that, when it comes to our time here, we don’t get long. But perhaps our lives — and our working lives, especially — will be longer than we think.

What if we have to work until we’re 100?
Retirement is becoming more and more expensive – and future generations may have to abandon the idea altogether. So what kinds of jobs will we do when we’re old and grey? Will we be well enough to work? And will anyone want to employ us?

A new dark age

James Bridle’s essay about those horrible YouTube videos went viral last year. It formed part of his new book, New Dark Age.

James Bridle on why technology is creating a new dark age
Bridle is already well-known for his creative critiques of modern technology, including the 2012 drone-tracking project Dronestagram, a salt circle that traps self-driving cars, and last year’s influential essay about creepy YouTube kids’ videos. New Dark Age integrates these critiques into a larger argument about the dangers of trusting computers to explain (and, increasingly, run) the world. As Bridle writes, “We know more and more about the world, while being less and less able to do anything about it.”

And, as he explains in this piece for The Observer, the problem with those YouTube videos has not gone away.

How Peppa Pig became a video nightmare for children
As a result, while many videos have since been removed from the website, uncountable numbers still remain. In March, Wired catalogued a slew of violent accounts and demonstrated that it was possible to go from a popular children’s alphabet video to a Minnie Mouse snuff film in 14 steps, just by following YouTube’s own recommendations. As of last week, Googling the title of one of the now-removed videos mentioned in the New York Times article (“PAW Patrol Babies Pretend to Die Suicide by Annabelle Hypnotized”) results in a link to a near-identical video still hosted on the site (“PAW PATROL Babies Pretend To Die MONSTER HANDS From MIRROR! Paw Patrol Animation Pups Save For Kids”), in which the adorable pups don a freakish clip-art monster mask to terrify one another before being lured off a rooftop by a haunted doll. Is “Save For Kids” supposed to read “Safe For Kids”? Either way, it is not, and it’s obvious that just playing whack-a-mole with search terms and banned accounts is never going to solve entangled problems of copyright infringement, algorithmic recommendation, and ad-driven monetary incentives on a billion-view platform with no meaningful human oversight.

[…]

The weirdness of YouTube videos, the extremism of Facebook and Twitter mobs, the latent biases of algorithmic systems: all of these have one thing in common with the internet itself, which is that – with a few dirty exceptions – nobody intentionally designed them this way. This is perhaps the strangest and most salutary lesson we can learn from these examples, if we choose to learn at all. The weirdness and violence they produce seems to be in direct correlation to how little we understand their workings – and how much is hidden from us, deliberately or otherwise, by the demands of efficiency and ease of use, corporate and national secrecy, and sheer, planet-spanning scale. We live in an age characterised by the violence and breakdown of such systems, from global capitalism to the balance of the climate. If there is any hope for those exposed to its excesses from the cradle, it might be that they will be the first generation capable of thinking about global complexity in ways that increase, rather than reduce, the agency of all of us.

The end of cinema as we know it, and I feel fine

Following on from yesterday’s post about the precarious position of our independent cinemas and picture houses, here’s David Cronenberg’s views on the matter. He thinks cinema-going is on the decline, and he’s… not that bothered?

‘If movies disappeared overnight, I wouldn’t care’: David Cronenberg on the death of cinema
But the important distinction he wants to make is that filmmaking isn’t “dead” – it is just that cinema is no longer “the cathedral that you go to where you commune with many other people.”

Instead, you watch on your laptop, TV or handheld device. He suggests that watching a film on an iPad is closer to reading a novel than it is to the old cinema-going experience.

Pictures of the picture houses

Nice to see photos of one of our local cinemas* in the Guardian recently.

The Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds
The Hyde Park Picture House, the world’s only surviving gas-lit cinema, opened in 1914. The owners of the Grade II-listed building have now been granted planning permission for redevelopment, to improve accessibility, restore the gas lights and ornate plasterwork and incorporate a second screen in the basement.

They’ve now been given planning permission for their renovation, but the grant they got to fund it was awarded almost two years ago. Patience is a virtue, I guess.

Gas-lit Leeds cinema among sites to receive heritage lottery cash
In its earliest years Hyde Park showed morale-boosting patriotic films including An Englishman’s Home, and newsreel of the war in which 6,000 local men had enlisted. The gas lights were turned down but kept on during the screenings, to combat reports of disgraceful carryings on in the back rows of darker cinemas.

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Not all of these places are so lucky. Here are some of the saddest photos I’ve seen in a long time.

9 haunting abandoned cinemas & picture houses of England
In our modern world of multiplexes, it can be easy to forget the grand cinemas of yore. Not so long ago, ornate picture houses stretched over every corner of England. Each one offered something more than a simple screen. It offered a unique viewing experience, a perfect way to while away a rainy afternoon by settling into another world. Today, many of those old picture houses stand in ruins, their projectors shut off for the final time.

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And it’s sad to see the one I grew up with is suffering the same fate.

* What others call a movie theater, we would call a cinema. A picture house sounds very grand (as is appropriate for Hyde Park), but when I was young, we’d refer to these places as the pictures. A singular noun, as in: “Is there owt good on at the pictures, or shall we go round to John’s and play on his Atari?”

Buyer (and seller) beware

Happy Amazon Prime Day, everyone!

Make of that what you will, but there’s no getting away from the fact that shopping is not what it was. It feels far riskier — and creepier —both for customers as well as vendors.

Who makes those insanely specific t-shirts on the internet?
One site, Sunfrog, implores a user to enter a range of my data (name, city, birth month/year, hobbies, job), and then generates hundreds of customized t-shirts — “just for you!” — in seconds. Another company boasts more than 10k variations of a single t-shirt phrase, with personalized names ranging from Aylin to Zara. Its catalog includes classics like “Never Underestimate A Woman Who Loves Stephen King And Was Born In April,” and “I’m a Tattooed Hippie Girl Born With a Mouth I Can’t Control.”

But as it turns out, the key to these operations (huge volume) can also be its curse — and oftentimes, these “algorithmically-generated” products can go terribly, terribly wrong.

That’s an understatement…

As it turns out, Fowler’s algorithm had served as a sort of demented Mad Libs, generating phrases like “Keep Calm and Rape Them,” and “Keep Calm and Grope On.”

If only that was the only one.

Last year, an Amazon retailer by the name of “my-handy-design” made an unwelcome splash on the internet over its questionable iPhone accessories. A series of cases featured a seemingly random (and, consequently, NSFW) variance of images, including old men suffering from diarrhea, heroin spoons, toenail fungus, and “a three year old biracial boy in a medical stroller.”

As well as being potentially upsetting for the shoppers that might stumble across them, these not-quite-real-but-existing-nonetheless products and the algorithms behind them can have disastrous effects on the businesses involved.

The bad things that happen when algorithms run online shops
“It almost felt like somebody broke into your house or your personal life and started to take things away from you,” says Richard Burri, whose office stationery store was affected by the error. He and his wife estimate that the various computer algorithms working together would have cost the business between $100,000 and $150,000. Fortunately, the majority of the firm’s human customers who had bought one penny items agreed to return them when contacted.

Others found that buyers weren’t always so obliging. Shamir Patel sold pharmaceutical products via Amazon. He also asked customers to return one penny products, but he says about half of them refused to do so. The cost to his business, he calculates, was around £60,000. “You were a bit powerless to do anything about it,” he recalls. “You were literally just watching your money flush down the drain.”

But, of course, it’s not entirely the fault of the machines. Sometimes this is all deliberate.

The strange brands in your Instagram feed
What Ganon does is pick suppliers he’ll never know to ship products he’ll never touch. All his effort goes into creating ads to capture prospective customers, and then optimizing a digital environment that encourages them to buy whatever piece of crap he’s put in front of them. And he is not alone.

What a time to be alive.

Jenny Odell’s special investigative report for the Museum of Capitalism: “There’s no such thing as a free watch”
One interesting detail about this mystery company (in its many iterations) is where it draws the line in terms of deception. While the entire business model is obviously misleading, their FAQ sections sometimes include reassurances following the question “Is this a scam?” and always take care to mention that credit card details are handled by Shopify. The sites often include icons for Norton Secure and McAfee Secure, as if to provide even greater assurance. On a Reddit thread in r/Scams, in which people complain about the watches and discuss finding $1-2 versions on Amazon and Alibaba, Soficostal butts in only once, in response to a poster speculating whether it might be a credit card scam. Soficoastal writes, “We don’t have our customers Credit Card numbers. They are safely processed through Stripe or PayPal.” The negative posts then continue – “it’s just some lookalike from China worth peanuts … they gib you on shipping,” says one user – with Soficoastal remaining silent.

At the end of the day, you get what you pay for.

The problem with buying cheap stuff online
Reviews of Wish suggest that many customers have indeed had bad experiences. The 512 customer reviews of Wish on Hiya.com are mostly negative, with one-star reviews and customers calling the company a “scam” and a “rip-off.” They tell stories of the site sending rings that turn fingers green, products paid for and never received, and requests for returns and refunds ignored. “Yes, you save money, if you actually get your stuff! Never again will I ordered [sic] from Wish,” one customer, Regina Ashley, wrote.

Happy shopping!