Monday, May 8, 2017

Slaves to Algorithms, Addicts of Small Screens

Annamaria on Monday

Are we all becoming slaves and addicts?

Internet companies are manipulating us.  You knew that.  But here are a couple of schemes, vastly different from one another, that concern me:

Pricing tricks

I learned this from an article in the Author’s Guild Bulletin.

We all know that Amazon took global hegemony over book retailing by underselling everyone else.  When it comes pricing these days, however, it seems that Amazon is pricing books at what it thinks customers might be willing to pay.

Roxana Robinson, President of the Authors Guild, writing in the organization’s recent bulletin, recounted her experience trying to buy an out-of-print book from Amazon as part of her research.  She has a research assistant who also buys such books for her.

Amazon has a lot of sub-contractors when it comes to used books.  Depending on who you are, they may not show you the cheapest price.  Instead, your search will produce choices priced at how much Amazon’s algorithm thinks they can get you to spend.  Here is what Robinson discovered.
·      Depending on whether she or her assistant logged onto Amazon to buy a particular book and when they asked for it, they were offered the book at wildly different prices.
·      Since she had paid quite high prices in the past for difficult-to-find books, Amazon started off by offering her used copies of the book at  prices ranging from $37.50 to $44.58.  During that same time period, her assistant bought her own copy of the book for ten bucks.
·      A week later, Robinson checked the price again, and they offered a new copy for $56.97.
·      After another week, the used book was up to $47.74 on Amazon.
·      On week three, she bought a used copy for $3.88.

Having written this far, on Saturday afternoon, I decided to see what Amazon was now asking for my books.  I got a dizzying array of prices, that seem to have no relationship to anything.

Invisible Country Hardcover only

$34.99, or $6.99 for Amazon Prime customers!
$44.03 used

City of Silver Paperback

$55.96 Used, for a USED paperback
$19.69 Used in a separate offering.

This for a book that is in print and that the publisher offers for $14.95, full price!

Strange Gods
$55.76 Hardcover Used
$34.76 Paperback Used

Again, this for a book that is in print and that the publisher offers in paperback for $14.95, full price.

It is not against any law for Amazon to charge whatever they can get for the products they sell.  Nor is it illegal to sell a book to you for one price and to me for another.  However, for writers, who more than anything want to have their works read, Amazon’s behavior is daunting in the extreme.  Globally, with their cut rate pricing, they have—forever it seems—reduced what writers can earn from their work.  At the same time, they attach ridiculously high and discouraging price tags on works that should sell for a lot less.


There seems to be no question that electronic devices are addictive.  What feels sinister to me is that developers are mining neuroscience research in order purposely to make them even more so.

The why of this is easy.   Companies make money by selling our eyeballs.  The longer they can get us to stare at the screen, the more money they can make.   They do this by making us more and more addicted to our own brain chemicals.

Long before there was the Internet, I began to see how such an addition worked.   As a corporate consultant, I noticed that many executives and ordinary employees seemed addicted to their own adrenalin.

Adrenalin junkies are generally thought to be people who participate in extreme sports—like skydiving.  They don’t have to be parachuting off the roof to be found in any office building.  They do one of two things:  They put off working toward a deadline until it is almost impossible to meet it, and then hyped on their self-produced anxiety hormones, work in a frenzy.  The real junkies I knew all had clever, unconscious ways  of producing crises so they could get their adrenal gland to give them an adrenilin fix whenever they needed one.

The Twenty-first Century, it seems, has brought us another drug we don’t have to buy:  Dopamine.  It’s a neurotransmitter that our brain produces all on its own when we anticipate pleasure.   Releasing dopamine is what makes cigarettes, cocaine, and gambling addictive.  So dopamine addiction has been around for a long time.  But you used to have to go to the casino to get your gambling fix or the pusher to get your coke.  Now we carry the means to feed our habit in our pocket.


My phone—in my pocket—just dinged while I was typing this.  A message!  The anticipation of pleasure—a note from a friend?  A positive answer to an invitation I had sent?  In this case, my phone just told me I have two new followers on Instagram.  So?  If I had not been writing about the dangers of dopamine addiction, I would have looked at the message, felt a minor pleasure, and put my phone back in my pocket.  Given my subject matter today, I turned off the sound on the phone.  I doubt that will cure me of my junkiehood.

Current estimates are that about 10% of Internet users are obsessed enough to undermine their family life, love life, or productivity at work.

It seems it will get worse.

Those companies that sell our eyeballs have a powerful incentive to mine neurological research so they can purposely make their software as addictive as possible.  Some see such efforts as unethical and say they will not do such a thing.  But if their competitors become the electronic equivalent of drug cartels, the moral choice will become a one-way street to the bankruptcy courts.

Like all wars on drugs, this is one we will have to fight individually.  And the first step is to admit that you are a junkie.

Tonight I am going to try to leave my phone and iPad in another room when I go to bed.

At least that’s what I hope I can do. 



  1. I admit that I am a chocoholic, and addicted to the New York Times and Internet news and crime fiction blogs.

    But I'm very frugal on spending, trained by Depression-era parents.

    One more source of book buying: The Book Depository, which is owned now by Amazon, often charges less than the on-line monopoly and offers free shipping and no taxes.

    So when I occasionally want to buy a book, I check there first. And then I check with Abe Books which offers remaindered or used books, often with free shipping.

    1. I buy out of print books from time to time and ALWAYS use ABE Books. Once you factor in shipping it's almost always cheaper than Amazon.

    2. Kathy and Sue, for many years now, I have bought out-of-print books from Alibris--excellent prices and sources from around the world. I focused on Amazon because I fear their algorithm is doing monkey business, had read Robinson's piece on the subject, and Amazon reportedly is responsible for 80% of book sales worldwide.

  2. The only electronics that get carried into our bedroom is our I mean, our e-readers. But then self-control has always been one of my primary character traits, or perhaps more accurately phrased as "primary driving forces." I know, I know, it's hard to believe. Cue Jeff...

    1. EvKa, My bed is in a very large space that is also my home office. I spend a majority of my hours at home in here. I thought it over at bedtime last night. My e-reader is allowed in bed with me, as is my iPad, which also serves as an e-reader, and more importantly has an Audible app, which reads me to sleep each night. Like any kid who needs help getting drowsy, I prefer favorite stories. I set the sleep timer and almost invariably am in dreamland before the time is up. This week's choice is Michael Kitchen reading The African Queen. I do not consider this an inappropriate use of a gadget.

    2. EvKa, I shall not cue up for that. AmA, and here I always imagined you fading off to the voice of Michael Bublé.

  3. I suspect that most of the odd prices for your books are from dealers rather than from Amazon. The high prices are probably for books with your invaluable autograph! As for the variation on pricing from one person to another, I'd be surprised if it didn't happen. When I've been browsing for airline prices, I alway clear my cookies before finally buying so they don't know I've been checking and checking back - and hence offering an inflated price.

    1. Stan, if you are right (as usual) Amazon is not offering my books except from other dealers. The prices I show above are all the ones that were available. I can understand that for Invisible Country, which is now out of print, but I am not sure why that would be the case with books in print. Maybe I am just too small a potato for them to stock my work.

      One day you will show me how to clear cookies. The only ones I now know how to clear are the ones one takes with milk. I prefer chocolate chip.

  4. fascinating blog, as always, Annamaria! i've heard the same thing about any selling website -- that they know how many times you've been back to look, and up the price a little accordingly. the only exception i've found to this was recently renewing my car insurance, which was actually £25 cheaper than the initial quote when i went back to buy it.

    i also heard that, sneakily, advertisers could pay for page loading speed. in other words, have you ever noticed that sometimes when you click on a website, the ads come up a second or so before the rest of the page loads. and for that brief period, your hijacked eyeballs have nothing to look at except the advert. cunning, no?

  5. I have browsed at websites for particular items and then for weeks, whenever I went to any web site totally unrelated to the aforementioned ones, ads for those products would pop up.

    And in an eerie incident, I was involved in an email conversation with someone I know, who is a published writer. After our email exchange, an email from Amazon advertising her book showed up in my email.

    I asked her if she had an arrangement with Amazon to do that and she said "no." So I emailed Amazon and asked the company not to track my email, but was told I couldn't request that unless I blocked all Amazon email.

  6. Zoe and Kathy, thank you for your reports. I find it very useful to know what they are up to. Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes. If we know that we are being lured into something and especially how, I think it will make it easier for us to resist. I don't think there is any chance we will ever get them to desist. The invention of advertising put a stop to that forever. If we find another planet to live on, I imagine billboards (or the moral equivalent thereof) will greet the first settlers.

    1. And advertising is nothing new. It was certainly around in Roman days, and probably LONG before that. :-(

  7. Well, Jeff Bezos is now the second richest billionaire on the planet, second only to Bill Gates. In his pursuit of monopolization, he owns not only Amazon, but the Washington Post, Book Depository and many other entities.

    It's astonishing to see what can be purchased from Amazon from bathrobes to cookies from Australia.

    I heard a woman say that she orders food delivered from the company as she's homebound.

    So, I imagine the company will stoop at nothing to grow its fortune.