We’ve seen the fun and games between Amazon and the Big 5 publishers, most notably Hachette. The ‘old guard’ of the publishing world derides Amazon as a ‘monopolistic’ enterprise (which is clearly not true, as anyone with a dictionary can tell you after looking up the definition of the word ‘monopoly’). The pro-Amazon lobby (of which I count myself a member) derides the Big 5 and their hangers-on (agents, ancillary businesses and all those who are on the ‘other side’) as dinosaurs opposed to progress.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There really are serious concerns over where our current technological revolution is taking us, particularly as regards entertainment. Books are only one part – and a relatively small part – of the entertainment spectrum. Movies, games, music, theater, etc. also fall under the ‘entertainment’ umbrella. We have to accept that in this day and age, where digital access to any and all of these elements is a mouse click away, we’re competing for the same audience and the same dollar.
What’s more, we have to understand that technology companies (including Amazon) are out to monetize their customers. If we offer a means for them to do that, they’ll help us because we’re helping them. If we don’t, they’ll drop us like hot potatoes, because we’re less of an economic asset than other forms of entertainment. Think about that for a moment. As authors, as writers, we are dispensable. The only thing that matters is the product we sell through Amazon and other companies. If that product can be produced more cheaply by other means – the classic ‘roomful of monkeys with typewriters’, for example – you may be sure Amazon and others will stand in line to get it from them, rather than from us. Amazon uses our product, our output, not just to make money from selling it, but to make more money off other products as well. Its recent launch of the Kindle Unlimited subscription lending library is a classic example. KU makes money for Amazon, not so much by selling subscriptions to it, but by keeping customers coming back to the Amazon.com Web site, where they can be persuaded to buy other things as well. I know some authors are afraid they’ll make less money by participating in KU. I agree – they will – but so what? Amazon isn’t in business to keep authors happy. It’s in business to keep its customers happy. If we help it do that, we’ll share in the benefits, even if at a lower level. If we don’t, we’ll be eased out in favor of others who will. It’s as simple as that.
The same applies to social media such as Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, etc. They all offer purported ‘benefits’ to their members, but in fact their members are the product for sale. They ‘monetize’ each and every one of them, and invade their privacy to an extraordinary degree in order to do so. (That’s why I don’t belong to any of them, and have no intention of joining them.) An article in Salon recently examined this from a liberal/progressive perspective. Here’s an extract.
These corporations are monopolists – and much more. They’ve quickly assumed extraordinary influence over our lives. They control what we know, what we see and how we spend our time. They decide who knows our most intimate secrets. They are acquiring the kind of power totalitarian governments of the past could only dream about.
Why have we been so quick to idolize the tech economy? Why have we accepted their claims so uncritically and paid so little attention to what they were actually doing? There’s the excitement of the new, and the cachet that comes with great wealth. There may also be an element of the phenomenon South American educator Paulo Freire called “the internalization of the oppressor consciousness,” where it becomes more comfortable to accept the values of the powerful than to confront the fear and sense of responsibility that arise when you challenge them.
Whatever its causes, our credulous embrace of the tech culture has left us vulnerable to its seemingly endless appetites and ambitions. Those ambitions, as expressed by everyone from its pundit and economist supporters to its own leading executives, add up to nothing less than the remaking of our economy and culture in their own neolibertarian image.
If that pink dolphin city is anything like the society the tech corporations are creating, then things we take for granted – things like privacy, competition and a thriving middle class – may not exist there. Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil,” and by its own lights these tech entrepreneurs probably aren’t.
Still, Silicon Valley represents a set of values that is amoral by commonly held standards. It’s rapidly taking control of the distribution systems for music, literature and arts. And it’s increasingly manipulating our access to information, even as it absorbs an ever-increasing share of our economy.
Scoff at the word “monopoly” if you like. But if these developments don’t concern you, you’re not paying attention.
We tend to scoff at such fears when they’re expressed by progressive moonbats . . . but there’s at least an element of truth to them. We’d be blind not to admit that. The question is, what can be done about it? I freely confess that I don’t know.
At the moment I’m in a sole-outlet relationship with Amazon, due to the economic benefits of their Kindle Select and KU programs. I’m therefore collaborating in Amazon’s efforts to become the primary one-stop entertainment outlet (among other things) for consumers. In that sense, I’m part of the problem – but can I also be part of the solution? Can I help to find a way forward that allows us all to earn a living as writers, allows our readers to enjoy our work without becoming economically dominated by hi-tech resellers and retailers, but also respects individual privacy and related issues? Consider, for example, Facebook’s deliberate manipulation of its customers’ emotions by selectively controlling their news feeds. Is this even remotely ethical or moral? From my perspective, it certainly isn’t: but Facebook will doubtless argue that it’s not a matter of ethics or morality at all – it’s just business. What if Amazon were to try to do something similar by manipulating its reading and viewing recommendations to customers? Would that not be just as unethical or immoral? And if I’m selling through Amazon, doesn’t that make me at least an accessory to the (moral) offense?
Over to you, readers. Do I have a point, or am I merely waffling fitfully in the breeze? Let’s hear from you.