The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

Bezos Buys the Post

with 2 comments

Introducing the Patron Saint of Journalism

The Beatification of Jeff Bezos has begun!

I want to sound a note of caution.

Bezos, the billionaire founder of the giant online shopping mall, Amazon, is now the owner of the Washington Post, and to read the second-day analyses of this event is really depressing. I haven’t been inclined to maintain this blog, but this story is close to me.

Jeff Bezos in an interview with the Berliner Zeitung

Jeff Bezos in an interview with the Berliner Zeitung

The news media herd charged after the story and got down to it quickly, wondering aloud what it all means, if Bezos is their savior or a devil bent on further perverting the political establishment or just another superrich dilettante with a trophy possession.

Beats me if any of those fit Bezos’s hopes and dreams, but what gets me is the drooling about how the supernatural powers that Bezos’s success as an online retailer represent a great hope for newspapers.

Here’s the key paragraph in today’s Washington Post, whose staff will be the initial beneficiary or victim of Bezos’s whims:

Technology analysts said that the kind of predictive analytics perfected by Amazon could be used to provide Post subscribers with personalized news feeds based on where they live and what they have read before. People browsing The Post’s Web site or tablet app could be served ads tailored to their past purchases, and then could buy products with a single click, media industry experts said. Reader voices could be integrated into online storytelling, with the community voting on the most valuable comments.

The headline for this read, “Bezos Could Use Amazon Model of Customer Targeting to Reboot Newspaper Industry.”

No! I don’t want more of this hustle.

It’s obnoxious and unnerving to be constantly tracked, your every move recorded, and analyzed. To me it’s worse that this snooping is being done by corporate bureaucracies in search of greater profits than by the N.S.A., whose stated mission is to keep people who hate Americans from killing any of us.

Let’s get this straight. Corporate data-mining does not have consumer “experience” as a goal — whatever that may be. Corporate data-mining is done solely to increase sales. Corporations don’t care if you get what you need or want; they are hoping that you get what they sell.

The only saving grace in all this is that Amazon’s recommendations are nonsense, just like Netflix’s, and anyone else who thinks that a machine can read minds. In fact, no matter what Ray Kurzweil or any technology writer in the media says, machines are not on the verge of becoming smarter than human beings. I’m talking about the recommender systems that predict what you might buy, to Siri who talks to you, to Google Glass and whatever it does. This, by the way, is my subject, artificial intelligence, and I would argue that I know how it goes wrong, but that’s not the issue here.

Suffice to say, the intelligence of Amazon’s recommender is a fine counter-example to outlandish predictions of machine ascendancy.

I’m a long-time customer of Amazon’s and I like the service. It’s convenient, and often cheap — though not as often as in the past.

Recently, I bought a wallet from Amazon. After decades of use, my old one is falling apart, so I found one on Amazon. Atop my recommendations for more stuff are bunches of other wallets. That’s not really very smart for someone with access to years of my buying history. One wallet suffices.

I also looked at toy handcuffs for a 7-year-old. I didn’t buy them, but there they are. I bought a watch recently, and there is a watch-winder (huh — it’s a battery watch). I looked at two books, and there they are. I’ve recently watched an old-television show, and they recommended two more for instant viewing. I’m waiting for the DVD on one, and not at all interested in the other.

Do you see the pattern? If I bought one, maybe I’ll buy another. This isn’t completely dumb, but it’s not so bright either.

The issue is quite a bit more difficult in news. I am much more than what I read yesterday. I am more than what I happen to search for. What is the value of this endless echo of what I did before?

It’s absurd that people who promote innovation come up with nothing better than endless repetition. Where will new ideas come from? At some point, no one ever saw a wheel previous to the first rudimentary one. If a free press is essential to democracy, how can the press tout limiting itself to this endless repetition, unless the goal is unyielding gridlock?


Written by theunbiasedeye

August 7, 2013 at 2:38 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I agree with you that machine intelligence has a long way to go… but then again, most of the successes have sprung from aping nature, and given the remarkable intelligences displayed by creatures with brains much, much smaller than ours, there is certainly room for more intelligent behavior from our dumb machines.

    The thing that creeps me out about the Bezos/Amazon/Google data-mining-and-prediction approach to news is a manufactured desire to see more of the same. In other words, when it comes to, say, politics, which is essentially livestock management for your average drunk-but-stupid American, all you need provide is more repetition!

    John Kurman

    August 7, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    • I just wrote a longish comment on your comment and WordPress ate it. Its interface is impossible now. But I’ve to to run out.

      Earlier, I looked at my rather inactive Facebook page and there is a list of movies I’ve watched — but the only trouble is that I didn’t see more than half. Not to mention bunches of stupid ads appearing all over the place.


      August 8, 2013 at 11:49 am

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