Is Amazon making us better people?
Stay with me on this one.
Amazon’s reputation has recently taken a major hit, or perhaps I should say, they’ve gotten a new reputation.
We’ve always felt like Amazon was socially awkward with its customers. It would sometimes do or say clunky things, like removing an illegal book from our Kindles without asking us (which they then more than compensated people for having done it, and mea culpad all over the place).
We’ve known they were secretive, not revealing numbers of books or devices sold.
Recently, though, they’ve gotten a reputation for acting with evil intent. They sent out an e-mail
which clearly misrepresented George Orwell (ironically, the author involved in the book removal above), quoting out of context to use, well, Orwellian double-speak to rally people against their “enemy” in the Hachazon War (publisher Hachette).
It’s very hard to believe that it was simply an error, and that the person who wrote the e-mail didn’t know it was the opposite of what Orwell would have intended to say. I do, by the way, find it likely that people higher up in the organization didn’t know what was happening with that e-mail…I don’t believe Jeff Bezos would have signed off on the strategy.
I think the fact that it was pretty much unprecedented in that way was part of what has made it so impactful for so many people.
I always look for the good in the “bad”…that’s just my nature.
I had to say to myself: what is good about Amazon placing hurdles in between readers and the books they want (which has been one of their tactics in the Hachazon War)?
What if, by denying customers the “People Magazine books” they want to read, they get people to read things they wouldn’t?
Suppose people always ate steak and potatoes, and you took it off the menu and offered them a variety of food from other cultures instead. Would that make them appreciate those other cultures more?
If we assume that Amazon has a goal of cultural change (and that is not a safe assumption), they seem to have a primary strategy: when it comes to reading, quantity is more important than quality.
I have sympathy for that concept.
I would rather somebody read ten books of questionable quality from ten different points of view than read one book which “everybody agrees is a great book”.
I think that reading always puts you in someone else’s cognitive and emotional shoes**…even if it might do it very imperfectly. I also believe that tends to make you more understanding of other people’s positions.
Now, of course, this is largely the opposite of what you’ll get in school. Tell a teacher that you read twenty comic books or ten science fiction “popcorn books” instead of reading To Kill a Mockingbird or Romeo and Juliet, and they won’t think you’ve helped your development.
I can also see that…if you always read comic books or science fiction adventure.
I think for me, the key is to read different things, diverse things.
Arthur C. Clarke supposedly said, “Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.”
Well, I’ve always felt is should be that politicians read all three…and romance, and non-fiction, and children’s books, and…
Amazon’s models encourage that.
If you join
you can read from a choice of close to 700,000 titles.
I guarantee you that there are ones there that come from a viewpoint different from yours.
There are also books which have been imperfectly edited and/or proofread.
You also won’t have many of the books I called “People Magazine” books above…the ones you’d read about in that publication.
Let’s say someone would have read the new J.K. Rowling…and instead, reads five other books. We’ll further say that none of them are as good as Rowling’s writing…but they present a variety of perspectives on the world (and the people in it).
Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? Would that make them a better person at the end of it…or might it just turn people off reading?
I think we are going to see this trend growing. Less quality control, more quantity focus.
Of course, one can argue the other side…and I love to argue both sides. One of my favorite things we did when I was a professional actor way back when was they had us improv a scene where we were on a talk show, taking two diametrically opposed positions as characters. Then (and we didn’t know this was going to happen), they had us switch roles and positions and keep going.
In high school, we were going to do a debate. I chose to debate in favor of drunk driving…even though I didn’t drink then, don’t drink now, and believe alcohol does more damage in the United States than any other drug.
I actually won that debate. One of the points, as I recall, was something like they said that, oh, forty percent of driving accidents involved alcohol. I said in rebuttal that meant that 60% didn’t…so you were safer driving drunk than not drunk.
Of course, that was ridiculous, and I knew it. There are mechanical factors and other issues, but they didn’t respond, so I got that point.
So, one response to what I’m saying about Amazon’s subser (subscription service) is that people will also feel it’s more reasonable to simply abandon an “unpleasant” book…since it costs nothing to do so. If you spent $20 for a controversial book, you might feel like you’d better read the whole thing. If you get part way into a Kindle Unlimited book and hit a concept you don’t like, you could just dump it and go to something with which you are more familiar.
Anyway, my basic suggestion here (and I want to hear your responses): Amazon is encouraging people to read a greater variety of works by, in part, denying them easy access to blockbuster mainstream titles…and that will make them better people by having them exposed to a more diverse set of viewpoints. It will also make society better, by having less homogenization in what is read.
What do you think? Feel free to tell me and my readers by commenting on this post.
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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. Shop ’til you help!
** I forget who said it, but I love this line: “Never criticize someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes…because that way, if they get mad, they’ll be a mile away and barefoot.”
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.