Christian Ulrik Andersen & Søren Bro Pold a.username? – Plotted by Amazon.com
Amazon has grown from being an online book store to an everything store. The integration of user-monitoring into platforms and numerous devices, from Kindle e-reader, to tablets and TV devices, voice interfaces and security devices has become an increasingly important part of their business strategy as the leading online store. It has been argued, that Amazon and its e-books threaten the printed book, and while Amazon certainly has killed a great number of physical book stores and enforced its business models on the publishing industry, it is nevertheless more interesting to consider Amazon as a continuation of book trade than a break from it (Striphas 2011). Amazon is just the latest incident of the “technologizing of the word” (Ong 1988) and several artists have critically explored Amazon and the Kindle as a publishing platform, including how it reads its readers and their reading in a process of controlled consumption. For instance, in Dear Jeff Bezos, Johannes Osterhoff sends automated emails regarding his Kindle reading habits the Amazons’s CEO, and in The Project Formerly Known as Kindle Forkbomb Ubermorgen.com have made a ‘forkbomb’ attack on Amazon by automating e-book publishing based on YouTube comments (Andersen and Pold 2014).
Joana Moll’s The Hidden Life of an Amazon User contributes to this exploration of Amazon’s reading of readers, but unlike others, she does not focus on the content of Amazon’s platform or how Amazon through its Whispernet reads Kindle readers’ readings. Instead, she draws attention to the first thing a user meets when buying a book: The Amazon web-interface. As Moll presents her work herself, it looks into what happened when she purchased Jeff Bezos’ book The Life, Lessons & Rules for Success. Moll does not read the book, despite its promises to “learn from the richest man ever”. Instead, she reads the twelve different interfaces that she has to go through in order to buy the book. More specifically, she focuses on the large amounts of code, normally invisible to the user, that organizes the site and records the user’s activity. To order a probably rather banal 65 pages paperback, 8724 pages of code is downloaded and executed by her computer, which hints at the fact, that what is printed on the pages of this book is probably the least interesting text distributed here. In fact, throughout the 87.33 MB or 8724 pages of printed code, she records 1307 different requests to scripts and documents that presumably contribute to the profiling of the user.
The title of Joana Moll’s work sounds like the title of a modernist novel about a contemporary ‘man without qualities’, and its many pages suggests that life under Amazon has become even more absurd than in Robert Musil’s Kakanien. If we could only read the many pages that our computers execute, we would realize that Moll’s work is the scripted story of current readers and how they are read by big data and big software corporations such as Amazon. As Wendy Chun argues, online readers are currently controlled in their reading and, similar to how characters are controlled by the author in novels, readers become “characters in a drama putatively called Big Data” (Chun 2016, 94).
Consequently, and in a literary understanding, The Hidden Life of an Amazon User makes sense as the story about how we all become characters in Amazon’s drama; but it is a much harder read than Musil’s 1700 unfinished pages of The Man Without Qualities, and even for a code reader it is barely readable in its fragmented totality. Whereas it was once possible to largely understand webpages through reading their code, this code refers to an entire infrastructure that we do not even have access to. As already Susan Leigh Star pointed out in relation to technical infrastructures, “It takes some digging to unearth the dramas inherent in system design creating, to restore narrative to what appears to be dead lists” and it might be “stiflingly boring” (Star 1999, 377, 378). The functioning of infrastructures mainly gets noticeable once the infrastructures break down and normally we do not want to deal with them but just want them to work. In other words, in order to hide their effects on us and function in the background, infrastructures are hidden by purpose, and in the case of Amazon, it is hidden how we as users are endlessly profiled. It seems fair to argue that Amazon does not want us to know the extent to which we become characters in their big data drama. We might enjoy Amazon’s ability to recommend Franz Kafka to the readers of Musil, but we are not necessarily in acceptance of all the tracking the company does to make such a recommendation (which could be done by any slightly knowledgeable book seller), nor do we accept whatever else they do with our data. In fact, we do not even know what they are doing and we have no way of knowing; we can only look at the 8724 pages of code gibberish. Let us call the main character of this Big Data drama, “a.username?” since this variable is found 18 times in the script. This is consequently a name for what we become in the big data drama, a character without qualities, other than what is filled in to it by Amazon’s profiling of us, while we are even more clueless than Ulrich, the main character of Musil’s great novel.
However, as in Musil’s novel and in its portrait of a European reality on the brink of World War 1, shit happens and the nonsense is executed while we grasp for sense when entering our lives into “a.username?”. Books get sent, we read and are read, we pay and Amazon’s business is growing. As the counters of Mb, Watt and kcal in The Hidden Life of an Amazon User demonstrate, we do not just pay for the books and other goods, but also for the download and running of the extensive code on our device. Besides grapping our data, Amazon also grabs our electricity and both our consumption and Amazon’s consumption produces carbon pollution. In fact, Amazon Web Services (AWS) are among the worst polluters with only 17 % clean energy and 30 % coal consumption and “continues to remain among the least transparent in revealing the energy footprint of its rapidly expanding global infrastructure” (Cook 2017, 47). Does this make sense, dear “a.username?”, character of the big data drama? To quote the Amazon reader Angus M. Kennedy’s review of Musil, Joana Moll’s work is a “stupendous creation of insights and introspection”. Next time we click on Kafka.
Andersen, Christian Ulrik, and Søren Bro Pold. 2014. Post-digital Books and Disruptive Literary Machines: Digital Literature Beyond the Gutenberg and Google Galaxies. Formules 2014 (18):164-183.
Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. 2016. Updating to remain the same : habitual new media. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
Cook, Gary. 2017. Clicking Clean: Who is winning the race to build a green internet? Washington D.C.: Greenpeace Inc.
Ong, Walter J. 1988. Orality and literacy - The Technologizing of the Word. London & New York: Routledge.
Star, Susan Leigh. 1999. The Ethnography of Infrastructure. American Behavioral Scientist 43 (3):377-391. doi:10.1177/00027649921955326.
Striphas, Ted. 2011. The late age of print : everyday book culture from consumerism to control. Paperback edition. Aufl. New York: Columbia University Press.
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