Against Amazon: Seven Arguments, One Manifesto
"Amazon appropriated our books. We will appropriate Amazon logic."
Because I don’t want to be an accomplice to symbolic expropriation.
For 55 years that building in Barcelona, one of city’s few examples of modern industrial architecture, was the head office of the publishers Gustavo Gili. Now, after a refurbishment costing several million euros, it has become Amazon’s local center of operations. Thanks to the technology of efficiency and immediacy it houses, Barcelona is now one of the 45 cities in the world where the company guarantees delivery of products in an hour. The Canuda bookshop that shut in 2013 after over 80 years’ of existence is now a gigantic Mango. The Catalònia bookshop, after over a hundred, is now a McDonald’s with a kitsch modernist decor. Expropriation is literal and physical, but also symbolic.
If you enter “Amazon bookshop” on Google, dozens of links appear to Amazon pages that sell bookshelves. As I will never tire of repeating: Amazon is not a bookshop, it is a hypermarket. Its warehouses store books next to toasters, toys or skateboards. In its new physical bookshops books are placed face up, because they only display the 5,000 best-selling books most sought after by their customers, a lot less than the number on the shelves of genuine bookshops that are prepared to take risks. Amazon is now considering whether to repeat the same operation with a chain of small supermarkets. As far as it is concerned there is no difference between a cultural institution and an establishment that sells food and other goods.
Jeff Bezos has a history of lengthy, symbolic expropriation. He plumped for the sale of books rather than electrical goods because he saw a niche in the market: all available titles couldn’t fit in bookshops and he was in a position to offer every single one. In the 1990s there were few large-scale competitors (mainly Barnes & Noble and Borders) and distributors had already adapted their catalogues to the digital age, with ISBN numbers incorporated. That was why Bezos followed a course offered by the American Booksellers Association and in record time appropriated the prestige that books had accumulated over centuries.
Even today, when Amazon produces television series, offers music online, stocks spare parts for cars and motorcycles and is considering whether to become a mobile-phone operator, everybody continues to associate the brand with the object and symbol that we call a book. Kindle, from its launch in 2007, has imitated the form of the printed page and the tone of the ink. Fortunately, for the moment they can’t reproduce on screen the vegetable feel or the smell of lignin. Whether we like it or not, we still cannot remember with the same precision what we read on paper and what we read in an e-book. Architectural transitions happen quickly; mental transitions, less so, fortunately.
“As far as Amazon is concerned there is no difference between a cultural institution and an establishment that sells food and other goods.”
Because we are all cyborgs, but not robots.
We all carry implants.
We all depend on that prosthetic: our mobile phone.
We are all cyborgs: mainly human, slightly mechanical.
But we don’t want to be robots.
The work Amazon employees have to do is robotic. It was ever thus: in 1994, when five people were working in the garage of Jeff Bezos’s house in Seattle, they were already obsessed about being quick. It has been like that for 20 years, with stories galore of stress, harassment, and inhuman conditions at work to achieve a horrendous efficiency that is only possible if you are a machine.
The Amazonians are now helped by Kiva robots capable of lifting 340 kilo loads and moving at a speed of a meter and a half per second. Synchronized with the human labor-force via an algorithm, they keep themselves busy lifting shelves to facilitate product collection. Once they have gathered the items a customer has purchased, another machine, by the name of Slam, with its huge conveyor belt, sees to the scanning and packaging.
Kiva and Slam are the result of years of research. Amazon commissioned robot competitions within the framework of the Seattle International Conference on Robotics and Automation to perfect the processing of orders. One year the machines designed by MIT or the Technical University in Berlin had to collect up in the shortest time possible a rubber duck, a bag of Oreo biscuits, a toy dog and a book. For Amazon there is no substantial difference between those four items. They are equivalent commodities.
But not for us.
Amazon has gradually eliminated the human factor. In the early years it employed people to write reviews of the books it sold; now there isn’t even mediation in the process of making up and placing a self-published book on the network. It has robotized the chain of distribution and wants us, the consumers, to perform similarly.
But we won’t.
Because for us a book is a book is a book.
And a read—choice or present—is a rite, the echo of an echo of an echo of something that was sacred once.
Because I reject hypocrisy.
The great shame of Barcelona, a city with many, excellent bookshops, was the existence for 24 years of the Europa Bookshop, run by the neo-Nazi Pedro Varela, an important center for the diffusion of anti-Semitic ideology.
Fortunately, it closed down last September. Amazon sells a huge number of editions of Mein Kampf, many of them with highly dubious prologues and notes. In fact, the World Jewish Congress alerted the company to the dozens of negationist books it makes available with no obstacle to purchase. In other words, the Europa Bookshop was closed down for inciting hatred, amongst other crimes, but Amazon isn’t. Even though it is a crime to deny the Holocaust in many of the countries where it operates.
Amazon defends its opposition to censorship. That’s why it kept selling, despite the hue-and-cry raised, The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct, by Phillip R. Graves, although they had to withdraw it in the end. Something similar happened with Understanding Loved Boys and Boy-lovers, by David L. Riegel. Amazon defended giving its customers the opportunity to access those books promoting the sensual love of children, just as it did with books promoting Nazi ideas, because supposedly it doesn’t want to censor. However, the truth is it censors or privileges books to suit its own interests. During its dispute with the Hachette publishing group a couple of years ago, the writer Ursula K. Le Guin denounced the fact that her books were more difficult to find on Amazon while the conflict lasted.
Apparently the only thing that matters is the speed and efficiency of the service. Seemingly there is no mediation. Everything is automatic, almost instantaneous. However, a large economic and political structure exists behind all those individual operations. A structure that puts pressure on publishing houses in order to maximize Amazon’s profits from their products, just as it does on manufacturers of skateboards or producers of frozen pizzas. A macro-structure that determines visibility, access and influence: that is shaping our future.
“Amazon censors or privileges books to suit its own interests.”
Because I don’t want to be accomplice to a new empire.
There are no booksellers in Amazon. Human recommendations were eliminated because it was inefficient. Because it torpedoed speed, the only value the company recognizes. Recommendation is in the hands of an algorithm. An algorithm represents the height of fluidity. The machine transforms the customer into the prescriber. Customers who bought this product also bought. Self-publishing puts the process in the hands of the producer. Amazon eliminates intermediaries or makes them invisible (equivalent to robots). It’s like an ordering machine. It wants to be so streamlined it will seem to be invisible. By eliminating dispatch costs and haggling with its big clients so it gets the lowest possible price for the individual customer. Amazon seems cheap. Very cheap. But by now we know that cheap means expensive in the long term. Very expensive. Because that invisibility is mere camouflage: everything is so quick and streamlined that there seems to be no mediation. But there is. You pay for it with money and data.
Order, items, price, and dispatch: individual processes dissolve in the non-material logic of the flow. For Jeff Bezos—as for Google or Facebook—pixel and link can have a material correlative: the world of things can work like the world of bytes. The three companies share the imperialist wish to conquer the planet, by defending unlimited access to information, communication and consumer goods, at the same time as they force their employees to sign contracts with confidentiality clauses, hatch complex strategies to avoid paying taxes in the countries where they are based and construct a parallel, transversal, global state, with its own rules and laws, its own bureaucracy and hierarchy and its own police. And with its own intelligence services and its own ultra-secret laboratories.
Google [x], the research and development centre for that company’s future projects, is located in an indeterminate place not so far from the firm’s central headquarters. Its five-star plan is to develop stratospheric globes that within ten years will guarantee access to the internet of the half of the world’s population that is currently disconnected. Amazon’s parallel project is Amazon Prime Air, its drone-based distribution network, drones that are currently 25 kilo hybrid devices, half-airplane, half-helicopter. Last August the regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States were changed to facilitate the flight of drones for commercial purposes and to make it easy to qualify for a drone-pilot certificate. Long live lobbying! Let our skies be filled with robotic distributors of Oreo biscuits, cuddly toy-dogs, skateboards, toasters, rubber ducks and . . . books.
Unlike Facebook and Google, that have to wrestle with the possibility that your name and data may be false, and do all they can to get your telephone number because they didn’t request it when you opened your account, from the very start Amazon has all your data—real, physical and legal. Even your credit card number. Perhaps they don’t have such ease of access to your emotional and intellectual profile as Google or Facebook do, but, conversely, they do know almost everything about what you read, eat or give as presents. It is then simple enough for them to deduce the profile of your heart or brain from the goods you buy. And this empire was born from the items that enjoy most cultural prestige: books. Amazon appropriated the prestige of books. It built the world’s biggest hypermarket behind a huge smokescreen shaped like a library.
Because I don’t want them to spy on me while I am reading.
In the beginning was one piece of data.
In 1994 Bezos read that the world wide web was growing at a monthly rate of 2,300 percent new users, he left his Wall Street job, moved to Seattle and decided to start selling books on the internet.
Ever since, data has been multiplying, has been piling up organically in the form of a monster with tentacles, a storm cloud or second skin: we have been changing into data. We leave them in thousands of everyday operations that trace our fingerprints on the internet. The sensors on our mobiles send them out. We are constantly delineating our autobiography with our every act or tap on our keyboards.
On the last World Book Day Amazon revealed what were the most underlined sentences in five years of their Kindle platform. If you read on your device, they find out everything about your reading habits. On which page you give up. Which page you finish. How fast you read. What you underline. The great advantage of a print book is not its portability, durability, autonomy or close relationship with our processes of memorizing and learning, but the fact that it is permanently disconnected.
When you read a print book, the energy and data you release through your eyes and fingers belong only to you. Big Brother can’t spy on you. Nobody can take that experience away or analyze and interpret it: it is yours alone.
That’s why Amazon launched its world campaign, the “Kindle Reading Fund”: supposedly to encourage reading in poor countries, but in reality to accustom a new generation of consumers to read on screen, and to be able to study them and have the five continents on its database. That’s why the Planeta Group—a multimedia corporation that welds together more than a hundred companies and is the sixth biggest communications group in the world—is investing in business schools, academies and university institutions: because it wants to maintain high levels of literacy to ensure future sales of the novels that win the Planeta Prize. We’ll see who wins out.
And in particular: we’ll see if we all win.
“The great advantage of a print book is the fact that it is permanently disconnected.”
Because I defend being slow yet quick, and relatively closeness.
Our moment has come.
Amazon appropriated our books. We will appropriate Amazon logic. First, by convincing other readers of the need to keep time on hold.
Desire cannot be fulfilled immediately, because it then ceases to be desire, and becomes nothing at all. Desire should last. I must go to the bookshop; look for the book; find it; leaf through it; decide if the desire was warranted; perhaps abandon that book and cherish the desire for another; until I find it; or not; it wasn’t there; I order it; it will come in 24 hours; or in 72; I’ll be able to give it a glance; I’ll finally buy it; perhaps I’ll read it, perhaps I won’t; perhaps I’ll let my desire go cold for a few days, weeks, months or years; it will be there in the right place on the right shelf; and I will always remember in which bookshop I bought it and why.
Because a bookshop gives you a memory of your purchase. If you buy on Amazon, on the other hand, the experience is the same as the one before and after. The aura around each book you read becomes diffuse and blurred.
Once we have tamed time and desire, perhaps the moment will come to go one step further and put a bit of everything on the shelves. Let’s not be afraid of mixtures—it’s what makes us human. Let there be coffee and wine in our bookshops. Let there be bottles of Argentinian wine next to the complete works of Borges, Gotan Project CDs, The Eternaut, the filmography of Lucrecia Martel, the books published by Eterna Cadencia, a vinyl of Mercedes Sosa, Hunger by Martín Caparrós and three Carlos Gardel biographies (even though he wasn’t Argentinian).
Or, better still, let’s forget national categories as we have forgotten Aristotelian strictures. Unities of time or space no longer exist. In the 21st century frontiers make no sense. Let’s organize the shelves according to subject, let’s mix up books and comics, DVDs and CDs, games and maps.
Let’s appropriate the mix that exists in Amazon warehouses, but create meanings. Itineraries of reading and travel. Because we might depend on screens, but we aren’t robots. And we need everyday bookshops so they can continue generating the cartographies of all those distant things that allow us to situate ourselves in the world.
Because I’m not ingenuous.
No: I’m not.
I’m not ingenuous. I watch Amazon series. I buy books I can’t get in any other way on iberlibro.com that belongs to Abebooks.com that Amazon bought in 2008. I constantly look for information on Google. And I am constantly giving out my data, spruced up in one way or another, to Facebook as well.
I know they are the three tenors of globalization. I know theirs is the music of the world.
But I believe in necessary, minimal resistance. In the preservation of certain rituals. In conversation, that is the art of time; in desire that is time turned into art. In whistling, when I walk from my house to a bookshop, melodies that only I hear, that belong to nobody else.
I always buy books that aren’t out of catalogue in independent, physical bookshops, ones that I feel a bond with.
Which is what I did the other day, for example. I went to Nollegiu (Don’t read!), the bookshop in my neighborhood and bought On the City, by the architect and thinker Rem Koolhas. And while I was drinking a cup of coffee, right there, I read: “Sometimes an ancient, unique city, like Barcelona, when it over-simplifies its identity, becomes Generic.” Transparent, he adds. Interchangeable: “like a logo.”
The book, by the way, was published by Gustavo Gili in this same city, when its head office was not what it is now.
Translated by Peter Bush.
This essay was originally published this April in Spanish as “Contra Amazon. Siete razones, un manifesto,” in Jotdown magazine.