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!

Not sure where the ‘smart’ is anymore

Smart speakers. Smartphones. They, and the world they belong to, feel less and less smart each day.

Underpaid and exhausted: the human cost of your Kindle
In the Chinese city of Hengyang, we find a fatigued, disposable workforce assembling gadgets for Amazon, owned by the world’s richest man.

[…]

Talk in the factory is of agency workers being laid off without pay during quiet periods: 700 in April and May, and 2,700 in January and February. Yet among the workers there is no great simmering anger, no burning resentment. Few have heard of Amazon or Bezos. They aren’t expecting very much and aren’t particularly disappointed when not very much is exactly what Foxconn and Amazon give them.

One 32-year-old married man says he can earn a basic 2,000 yuan (£233) a month making Kindles, but even with overtime taking it up to around £315 it is not enough.

It’s crazy to think that they work such long hours for such low pay, without being aware of how much money these companies are making, as a result of their work.

And it’s crazy to think that not joining in with this is now seen as outlandish and controversial.

This is what it’s like to not own a smartphone In 2018
Four years ago, I wrote about having no regrets for being a “dumb phone” user. At the time I was an anomaly: 58% of Americans, according to Pew researchers, owned a smartphone; that figure was around 80% for people in my age demographic. Now, I’m a clear oddity: 77% of U.S. adults are smartphone users, as are around 90% of my peers.

But, oh well. I don’t plan on changing tack anytime soon. Here’s why. …

My life without a smartphone
The problem is, divided out like that, we are left as partially everywhere and fully nowhere. We live with a constant Fear of Missing Out; but in need to fill the moments documenting life and making sure we don’t miss an email or update, we miss out being present in life, a sentiment beautifully illustrated in the viral “I forgot my phone” short film from last year.

I forgot my phone

I wonder if those Foxconn workers have any idea what that video’s on about.

Just because you’re paranoid…

Alexa’s been caught out again.

Amazon’s Alexa recorded private conversation and sent it to random contact
Although Amazon maintains this was a malfunction rather than proof Alexa is always listening, the company has filed patent applications in the past for functionalities that involve always listening, such as an algorithm that would analyse when people say they “love” or “bought” something. The patent included a diagram where two people have a phone conversation and were served afterwards with separate targeted advertisements.

Not to worry! Let’s buy more of these things, one for every room!

George Orwell predicted cameras would watch us in our homes; he never imagined we’d gladly buy and install them ourselves
By appealing to our basic human need for connection, to vanity, the desire for recognition, and the seemingly instinctual drive for convenience, technology companies have persuaded millions of people to actively surveille themselves and each other.

It’s fine, it’s all fine.

Computers, smartphones, and “smart” devices can nearly all be hacked or commandeered. Former director of national intelligence James Clapper reported as much last year, telling the U.S. Senate that intelligence agencies might make extended use of consumer devices for government surveillance. Webcams and “other internet-connected cameras,” writes Eric Limer at Popular Mechanics, “such as security cams and high-tech baby monitors, are… notoriously insecure.” James Comey and Mark Zuckerberg both cover the cameras on their computers with tape.

Big deal, right?

The thing is, we mostly know this, at least abstractly. Bland bulleted how-to guides make the problem seem so ordinary that it begins not to seem like a serious problem at all. As an indication of how mundane insecure networked technology has become in the consumer market, major publications routinely run articles offering helpful tips on how “stop your smart gadgets from ‘spying’ on you” and “how to keep your smart TV from spying on you.” Your TV may be watching you. Your smartphone may be watching you. Your refrigerator may be watching you.

How on earth did we get here?

A bookshop, but not as we know it?

The novelist Chuck Wendig visited an Amazon Bookstore for the first time recently. It was an unsettling experience.

My trip to an Amazon Bookstore: a review
Now, stepping foot into a physical Amazon bookstore is immediately surreal, in part because Amazon has for so long been a purely digital entity — so, when you enter this space, you become momentarily concerned that you have just shoved your Meatspace Body into a Cyberspace Realm, like you’ve broken some critical rule of reality. “WAIT IS THIS THE MATRIX. IS THIS THE OASIS. IS THIS REAL. ARE MY FINGER-TOUCHES ANALOGOUS TO MOUSE-CLICKS. IF I TOUCH A BOOK DO I BUY IT. AM I JUST TALKING IN BINARY CODE NOW.” (“Sir, you’re being weird,” one of the booksellers helpfully whispers into my ear.)

The other aspect of surreality comes from the fact that all the books are face out.

The trip left him a little cold, and not just because of that strange shelving choice.

What’s so funny, Alexa?

Amazon has a fix for Alexa’s creepy laughs
As noted in media reports and a trending Twitter moment, Alexa seemed to start laughing without being prompted to wake. People on Twitter and Reddit reported that they thought it was an actual person laughing near them, which is certainly scary if you’re home alone. Many responded to the cackling sounds by unplugging their Alexa-enabled devices.

A little too convenient?

I’ve had Kindles for years and think they’re great. But you could say you don’t really own the books you’ve bought on your Kindle, you’re just leasing them for as long as Amazon lets you. (See You don’t own your Amazon Kindle eBooks and One more reminder that you don’t own the books on your Kindle.) But that’s ok, because buying and reading books on your Kindle is just so convenient, right?

Here’s a great article on another of Amazon’s really convenient products.

Amazon owns my Echo; I’m just feeding it
Obviously, Amazon’s comfort in 2018 in building and shipping a Trojan horse like this is all my fault. I should’ve protested more a decade ago when Apple decided it was the king of iPhone software. When it decided what apps are allowable, which retail activities in those apps are allowable, and how much of a cut it gets from every microtransaction. I feel complicit and guilty, too eager to have a phone that works well to protest Apple’s obvious infringement on my rights to self-determine how my technology works.

The App Store was a trade, some might say a fair trade: Apple controls what software can be on your phone, and you get some safety and quality. When Amazon started making consumer hardware, it chose the same path. After all, people don’t want choices, they want simplicity and ease of use. Amazon started off closed with the Kindle, and it never opened up from there.

How did we get here? Where did this continual search for the most convenient option come from? And how something that was supposed to liberate us end up restricting us?

The tyranny of convenience
Americans say they prize competition, a proliferation of choices, the little guy. Yet our taste for convenience begets more convenience, through a combination of the economics of scale and the power of habit. The easier it is to use Amazon, the more powerful Amazon becomes — and thus the easier it becomes to use Amazon. Convenience and monopoly seem to be natural bedfellows.

[…]

So let’s reflect on the tyranny of convenience, try more often to resist its stupefying power, and see what happens. We must never forget the joy of doing something slow and something difficult, the satisfaction of not doing what is easiest. The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity.

I wonder what Alexa would say about that.

Why we may soon be living in Alexa’s world
This is not the best outcome for the future; it would be better for all of us if the next computing platform didn’t come from one of the current tech giants, and if start-ups didn’t have to rely on Amazon or Google for this key piece of tech. But that seems unlikely. If Alexa is headed for ubiquity, it’s good that Google may be, too.

Amazing Amazon Mr Men reviews

mrhappyreview

The Amazon Mr Men reviews
Hamilton Richardson (London) likes reviewing Mr Men books on Amazon – these are the highlights so far.

I remember as a kid reading these books and through them learning the phrase ‘for instance’. That was about my level. I certainly didn’t pick up any of these issues. For instance,

“For indeed, what does he come face-to-face with at the foot of these stairs but his own repressed sadness? This comes in the form of his miserable alter ego – physically identical, polar opposite in mood. It is only through this confrontation with the shadow that his unsuitable persona can find authentic resolution and true integration of the self can be achieved. These archetypes are quite literally brought to light as Mr Happy coaxes Mr Miserable up to the surface and into view of the conscious mind in a climax of now genuine peace and bliss.”

Books, future tense

Kindle v Glass, apps v text: the complicated future of books
It’s yet another way that our digital footprint is commercialised, marketed and analysed. Nothing is private anymore. Curling up on the couch with an e-book is not a solitary act but instead a way for corporations to learn about your habits and then sell you items you’ll think you need.

[…]

Despite it all, the book will survive and perhaps thrive, though our understanding of what a book can do and how it relates to the reader must change. Amazon remains a behemoth and yet a recent New Yorker feature on the company painted a picture of multinational disinterest in building a quality collection of books and literary culture (perhaps because they’re too busy selling garden tools, dildos and toys on their website).

 

The book man with bite

Andrew Wylie advises you “pick the plague!” over Amazon
It’s probably only an urban legend that if you work in publishing, and you die, an apparition of Andrew Wylie floats above you in your final moments of consciousness to judge your contributions to the literary canon. Imagine his face floating just above you in the dark, then his lips moving softly to say, “Nothing you published is worth reading.” Or, “Your list was no better than a third-rate hotel in Cincinnati.” Now imagine him saying it in German.