Wednesday, June 24, 2015 and art

In my once-yearly reading of the New Yorker that I discussed in a recent post, I also ran into an interesting article about, and its model of making books cheap.  Obviously Amazon sells a lot more than just books now, but it got its foothold and became the success it is today based on books.  The article is long, but basically it discusses the tensions between Amazon's business model of cutting costs, automating processes, and strong-arming suppliers, and the artistic process of writing (and then publishing and promoting) quality books.  There are a lot of good insights in there, but the central thesis is that quality writing is favored in part by the gatekeepers of editors and publishers, who separate out the dross from the gold, and offer new and challenging products to readers.  Amazon's big data approach, of compiling customer tastes and suggesting similar things based on algorithms, is much better at making sales and perhaps at providing short-term customer satisfaction, but it is inherently unsuited to the creation of new, quality writing.  Ironically given Amazon's focus on innovation, all its disruptive and streamlined processes in fact favor intellectual stagnation for readers, who are fed a steady diet of what they already like, instead of a varied diet that may push them in new directions.  The article closes with the following quote:
Bezos is right:  gatekeepers are inherently elitist, and some of them have been weakened, in no small part, because of their complacency and short-term thinking.  But gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths.  When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?
And this question of efficient retail overriding art doesn't even take into account the bad-faith, rent-seeking tactics employs to extort more money out of publishers, like disabling sales if they don't pay certain arbitrary product placement fees.  The article has lots of detail on this aspect of's business model.

It occurs to me that Amazon is an extreme case of something I hinted at in a prior post on plant breeding.  When you streamline any process, and especially when you make it more responsive to short-term customer tastes, you tend to become very efficient at rehashing and recombining things that already exist.  But the creation of new things, the real genesis of original thought or products, come from processes that are hard to streamline or automate:  contemplation, patient observation, artistic inspiration, even quirky ways of looking at everyday things or things totally unrelated to the final idea.  Just as truly new apple varieties arise from hundreds of years of farmers patiently observing rare mutations in their orchards, and modern plant breeders can only recombine the fruits of this inherently slow process, new art or literature can't be made by algorithm.  We see a dystopian proof of this in the modern film sector.  The vast majority of films you hear about these days are simply remakes of older films, books, or comics, or sequels thereto.  Movie executives have very clearly opted to earn lots of cash in the short term as opposed to investing time and effort in creating enduring art.

This article contrasted with another in the same issue, about how consumer brand loyalty is fading in the age of the internet, when instant communication with strangers has made it possible to rapidly gauge the real quality and customer satisfaction of a particular product instead of relying on the reputation of a brand.  I don't know how I feel about this.  On the one hand, I think that most consumerism is silly, and have never held much to brands myself.  My shopping habits tend to focus on low price and decent quality, and the internet certainly does favor me in my pragmatic, unceremonious way of looking for what I want.  But on the other hand, a brand is one of the few links between producer and consumer in a modern mass economy, so ignoring brands means eliminating one more shred of humanity from the purchasing process, one more reminder that behind this thing I want there are people who make their living and take pride in making it.  And when you use no other criterion than cost and product quality to shop, you squeeze those producers, and get rid of any price premium that could potentially reward companies and people that you think are doing good things in the world.

Between the Amazon article and the twilight of the brands, one can envision a future in which all people, liberated from the tyranny of brands, can now fully devote themselves to seeking absolute customer satisfaction through constant online shopping.  And since no one cares about brands anymore, people won't even notice that they are enriching, and their tastes controlled by, the handful of companies that house and channel all this online commerce--Amazon, Facebook, Apple Store, etc.  What a great future that would be!

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