Orwell Would Be Proud: Privacy, Corporations and Data Surveillance

What’s the year? 1984. Not quite, it’s 2019 despite the fact that mega-corporation Facebook is running social experiments, the government is listening, and Amazon is watching. Multi-billion dollar corporations and the government are in bed together, and they’re clearly benefiting from each other and all the information they’ve collected on us. We’ve sold our souls (private data) to the Devil (Facebook, Google, Amazon) for eternal euphoria (funny cat videos). But we agreed to it, right? It isn’t spying if we consent to it, whether we’ve read every word of the terms and conditions or not. Maybe sharing your information with one corporation would be better? Let’s combine multiple platforms and just put all the data collection in a one-stop-shop, as Mark Zuckerberg is proposing. You only need one app, one platform, one secure place. You can communicate with your friends and family, make purchases, share images, whatever you like, and it’s all private (right?). Hey, it’s working for China, so why not North America and the rest of the world.

Worst case scenario? We live in an even more Orwellian future than we do now. One single source of information with one single entity in control who is watching us inside and out. Amazon has developed camera technology which they use in their Amazon Go store that can tell the difference between each product in the store and charge the customer accordingly. The fact that these cameras can tell the difference between a soup can and a bag of trail mix isn’t terrifying, but imagine if that technology advances to the point where it can recognize one person from the next. As per usual Amazon is as opaque as ever about what they plan to do with this technology, and there has been speculation whether they’ll sell it to other companies or not, even though they claim they have no plans to. Oh, wait! They’re already selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement and the US government. Better yet, it’s not fine-tuned which leads to more problems than solutions with racial and gender biases. Can you imagine these cameras on every street, watching every move and reporting back to the government (corporations)? Google already knows where you are, but know they’ll be able to see you too.

Best case scenario? We stand up for our right to privacy and put privacy laws like the General Data Protection Regulation in place, which is a decent start to getting these companies to being more transparent. Whether we like what we see when we actually get to see it is another story, but at least we wouldn’t be blindly consenting (which is the biggest paradox) to the kinds of data collection they’re doing and who they’re giving it to. It’s not like all data collection is bad, and it can feed some algorithms (but not all) that help us with discoverability but we need to take the time to examine the ethics involved in data collection and the predictive analytics and data that result from it. There are concerns of social inequality, discrimination and privacy that data mining brings and that have very real effects outside of the digital world. As a society we need to think more critically of who is controlling the algorithms, the data collection and what they’re doing with it because every corporation has their own motives that they’re not keen on sharing with us.

All Hands on Deck: Government Intervention in Data Privacy

Capitalism is so embedded in the way in which our modern North American society operates, impacting all of the transactions and interactions that we have with companies. Big corporations worth billions of dollars have such an incredibly strong sway in what happens in the marketplace, that it seems nearly impossible for an individual or small group to lobby and influence how they do business. In order to gain hold of our data privacy and stop the momentum of surveillance capitalism, change will need to happen at the institutional level. We need to get the government involved.

The data privacy issue continues to grow as more and more details come out about the seemingly endless data that is able to be mined about us right down to our exact travel path on a daily basis (plus our search history, files of all kinds from texts, photos and voice messages, and the list goes on). Unfortunately, I am not the slightest bit surprised when confronted with the amount of information that tech giants like Google and Facebook collect about us. The technology that we use in our daily lives (phones, smart watches, apps, social media platforms etc.) is so interconnected, easily trackable and constantly backed up to servers. We appreciate these services when they help us access information that we want to store like our emails and anything we choose to put into the cloud like documents and photos. We also want instant access to the data of our friends and family (and sometimes even strangers) through our social media accounts and we willingly input data into these services on a daily basis. Our input helps these tech companies create ever more robust platforms that continually learn more and more about us.

What we are much less comfortable with is the data that we don’t see and how that data is ultimately being used. For the most part, our data is being used for capital gains. When it comes to data collection, I believe it’s important to remember that we as users are not really the ultimate customers of services like Facebook and Google. Yes, they have to deliver on some promises in order for people still want to use their services, but ultimately these tech giants are serving the needs of advertisers rather than the readers, browsers and users of their platforms. The bigger they get the more advertising dollars they can bring in.

The tech giants are out to dominate their industries and claim the lion’s share of their markets and they do so by cashing in on more new tech. Giant corporations scoop up new ways of gathering data and tracking users by investing in their own research and development or by buying smaller tech startups (see a list of acquisitions that Facebook has made here) who have tapped into something of interest. Because of their sheer financial power to dominate over other businesses and bully the market, the government is required to step in. 

It is quite interesting to note that even Mark Zuckerberg himself feels that it’s important for data to be regulated, but the big issue remains, how? There are a few examples of cases where the the government has stepped in, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act which was passed in 2018. The three major tenants are:

1. You will have the right to know what information large corporations are collecting about you.
2. You will have the right to tell a business not to share or sell your personal information.
3. You will have the right to protections against businesses which do not uphold the value of your privacy.”

It’s hard to tell presently how well this is working in the state of California, but it shows that passing this type of law is something that people are very interested in doing (even if the big tech giants strongly opposed the bill). But it is these tech giants, and their seemingly unlimited funds, who need to be stopped and the government can’t let them just throw bunch of money around to try to stop the regulations.

We still have a lot of work to do in Canada as the Privacy Commissioner stated that they don’t have the funding they need to adequately protect Canadians against privacy issues. We as citizens need to get more involved to keep pushing our law makers. A new privacy law now ensures that Canadian companies have to let their customers know when their data has been leaked, but what recourse do we have once it’s been leaked? That clearly isn’t good enough.

It’s very easy to feel disenfranchised when you see that corporate giants like Amazon are buddies with the government bodies like the Department of Justice for example, but it is still important that we continue to push law makers for better protection. In reference to this Mike Shatzkin article (via hypothes.is), SFU Master of Publishing student Jaiden Dembo stated “If law can be put in place to help these behemoths grow and dominate the market, then the opposite can be true as well.” Though there is a lot of muddy water to sift through when it comes to data protection and change will take time, it’s something that’s worth fighting for.

 

Hey Siri, What Should I Read Next?

The topic AI, as I am beginning to appreciate, is a Pandora’s Box. Once opened, it cannot be contained. And although AI promises to simplify complex things, it inadvertently contributes to adding complexity to our ‘once simple life’.

To imagine the next possible confluence of AI and Publishing, we first need to evaluate the most urgent need for publishers. What is the most persisting need?

Considering that publishing industry is going through a big shift, the fight has moved beyond two key parameters—content and availability. The age-old cornerstone of publishing—find great content and make it available to as many readers as possible, usually through extensive distribution network. Earlier, a book had to compete for shelf space. The possible field was limited to bookstores and newsstands. But the market is different now. With the innovation in eCommerce and Amazon’s hold over the market, the concept of shelf space has disappeared. Every book fends for itself now. Distribution is one of the strongest assets of publishing industry, but with Amazon in the picture, it’s no longer a unique advantage.

The publishers still hold advantage over content; but not for long. Amazon has single-handedly revolutionized self-publishing, breaking one of the strongest barriers of entry—a publishers stamp. Anyone can publish now. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the publishers.  Some really promising writers have emerged through the cacophony of indiscriminate self-publishing. There’s a low-risk opportunity for publishers.

But going forward, the fight has moved to discoverability now–It is all about the reach now. And that’s where AI can really benefit the publishers. The market can no longer be limited to geographical boundaries, or demographics for that matter. With Machine Learning and NLP, it’s becoming increasingly possible to not only track what people are buying, but also why they are buying it. This deeper, non-linear understanding of human behaviour is leading the way to behavioural marketing. With the use of AI, publishers can expand their reach with better, more focused marketing.

Publishers can benefit a lot from AI. From content curation, to SEO, user generated data (reviews, ratings, categories), to email marketing and social media reach; these tools can not only to make publisher’s lives easier, but to make them better at their jobs. The optimization of processes and faster turnaround time not only yield better results for businesses, but they also help by being relevant for the consumers, leading to better informed buying decisions and higher conversion rate.

AI has already had a tremendous impact on the way users conduct online searches and discover books. This in turn is changing the way marketers create and optimize content. Innovations like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana make it easier for people to conduct searches with just the press of a button and voice command. That means the terms they’re searching for are evolving too. The publishers need to observe this user behaviour closely. How people search of books is important to ascertain how buying decisions are made and where the actual buying takes place. With help of AI, publishers can re-establish a more efficient purchase funnel for the readers.

I think publishers need to smart here. The industry is going through a disruption right now, with the driving force in the hands of tech giants, who can’t necessarily be identified as publishers. For all the waves Amazon is making, it couldn’t have gotten where it is today, without the groundwork of traditional publishing. To me it seems quite clear that the publishers need to embrace AI, because it is bound to get them anyway. It makes sense to stay on top of the game, rather than play catch-up all the time. If there is a remotest possibility of publishers regaining the ground lost to Amazon, it is through the AI. It is the only thing that’ll level the playing field once again.

Anumeha Gokhale

Outfitting the Fittest: The On- and Offline Consuming Experience is Still Evolving

In the world of retail, things can only be thought of in terms of evolution: survival of the fittest. We cannot think of brick and mortar stores as “behind” or “inferior” (thus, a “devolution”) to e-commerce retail. It’s hard to see how Amazon’s move into the physical retail space can be seen as a step backward: 2017 US Census data showed that 90% of consumer spending still happens in physical retail. Surprisingly (or maybe not, as they never seem to do what’s expected anyway) Millennials in particular have reported preferring brick and mortar retail by 70%.
That said, just because Amazon is doing a thing doesn’t mean surviving as a brick and mortar is for everyone. Despite consumer stats mentioned above, there are a few important factors contributing to the survival or demise of a retailer that has less to do about whether the retailer started on or offline, and much more to do with how they are responding to the changing landscape of corporate structures and consumer habits.

First, a look at the businesses themselves. It’s true that having an online presence became a real and pressing need for legacy retailers (those brands or department stores that originated in brick and mortar) in the last few years to compete with the surge of e-native retailers. However, contrary to the stats above, being a native brick and mortar and simply adding a webstore to the business model is not a ticket to success. Suddenly, a legacy retailer has not just added an online storefront, they also must factor in shipping and distribution on a completely different scale. Many mid-level retailers who attempted to add e-commerce to their existing model folded in the face of competitive e-tailer prices and dealing with losses through shipping and returns. In Canada there have been many significant legacy casualties in recent years, particularly for mid-level brands or specialty department stores: American Apparel, Toys “R” Us, Payless, Radio Shack and Sears Canada to name a few.
On the other hand, brick and mortar locations have a higher customer conversion rate and higher profit margin in regards to returns for customers who enter stores compared to customers who click on items in a webstore; but small-to-mid level e-commerce retailers who decide to enter the real world are having to deal with the same ever-climbing real estate and marketing considerations as everyone else. 
It’s those legacy chains who absorbed digital natives (Wal Mart, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Hudson’s Bay Co. for example) thereby absorbing an e-commerce platform into their corporation, that seem to still be on steady footing.  

The other major factor is consumer buying habits. Increasingly, consumers are putting their disposable income towards experiences, not traditional retail goods like clothes. 50% of Millennial shoppers prefer to spend their money on dining or live events, for example. The flipside is that consumers increasingly demand transparency and fairness in retail pricing. It may have seemed, in the early days of e-commerce, that the best deals could be found online, but this did not necessarily correlate with satisfaction in the product. In this way, tech-based retailers like Amazon have the upper hand: they can apply algorithm pricing to goods sold in-store, which consumers perceive to be more fair.  Amazon is doing this for Whole Foods, who was becoming endangered by bargain chains like Wal Mart offering similar organic products at a lower cost.  

The take away for me is that e-commerce or brick-and-mortar stores do not have an inherent or conclusive advantage over the other. They are two separate experiences that each have their unique pros and cons. Online stores, for example, will always be first for research and comparison shopping as it is fast and easy to compare many similar products from various retailers at once. However, statistics continue to show that consumers value the social interaction, instant gratification (“then and there” purchasing), and tactile product testing the get from real-life stores. The future for retailers who want to compete, then, are business models that use on- and offline experiences that complement each other in the wake of changing consumer demands.

Devolving Our Way Into the Future

The only thing I see as “devolving” is the physicality of Amazon’s new grocery store, which I understand is kind of the whole argument, but I think there’s a lot more to a store than simply its tangibility. The model is very different and more advanced than a traditional brick and mortar store. With Amazon’s store, Amazon Go, you are not required to interact with anyone, nor are you required to wait in line: kind of like what we love about Internet shopping. Amazon’s goal is to provide the ideal shopping experience: a goal toward which they are constantly working, so this means that what Amazon has determined (through whatever data mining they’re doing over there) to be the next level of the ideal shopping convenience is a cashierless grocery store. I don’t think it’s far-fetched at all to say that Amazon Go is simply an Internet store in a brick and mortar manifestation. Rather than a devolution, perhaps we can think of it as a “best of both worlds” situation, and at the very least, we as consumers now have even more choice in how we decide to carry out our shopping habits.

While we know that the Amazon Go stores will come fully-equipped with cameras to document our every shopping move, it is not clear what Amazon plans to do with the data they collect. Like I touched on in a previous blog post, people are growing more and more comfortable (or maybe the right word is “submissive”?) to Internet giants gathering and using their data. For this reason I think a Big-Brother-type Amazon store plastered with cameras will not scare the public as much as we think it’s going to. It comes down to a cost–benefit analysis, and I think that the convenience the store promises may just outweigh inconvenience of sharing one’s personal information. By sharing our data we are allowing Amazon to make our shopping process even more personalized and streamlined: something that does not go unvalued by the consumer.

Just because Amazon has opened a grocery store, and just because I predict that it will be successful, doesn’t mean that this model will work in all instances. Groceries are an excellent example of something that is difficult to buy online. No one wants their bananas bumping around in a delivery truck; fresh produce, meat, and baked goods do very well sold in a brick and mortar store, despite the inconvenience of leaving one’s home. Another superiority of brick and mortars is the case of trying on clothes before buying. Currently, we do not have a perfect system in place that allows us to do this with Internet shopping alone (although try-before-you-buy retailing methods are gaining traction these days). In the cases of fresh food and trying things on before committing to a purchase, a brick and mortar store is superior, but it may not be in all cases. A cost–benefit analysis usually winds up with people doing a lot of their shopping from home in the comfort of their pyjamas. This is why Internet shopping became popular in the first place, and I don’t know if people are going to swarm to a brick and mortar store for the streamlined shopping experience alone.

Although we think of an Internet shopping model as being “the future,” that doesn’t mean we have to think that it comes at the expense of brick and mortar stores. They both have their place in the market. We shop online because we like the peace of mind that comes with not leaving the house. We shop in stores because we like our food fresh, and we like to try on clothes before committing. Amazon is doing its part to bridge these two shopping models, but for now they remain separate, and each valuable in their own ways.

From Physical Store to Online to Physical Store

People enjoy shopping online because of the convenience. You can shop from home in your pyjamas with a mug of hot tea in front of you while you have cookies baking in the oven.

People enjoy shopping in person at physical stores because of the convenience. You can flip through a book you want to buy, read a snippet of it, and feel the quality of the paper. You can try on the dress that looked so good on the rack and realize it belongs on the rack, and try on a top you’re not sure about and realize it looks amazing on you.

People are driven by convenience, whatever that means to them. Companies, however, are driven by profit margins and reaching their consumer where their consumer wants to shop. Companies like Amazon realize that their consumers shop online and in physical stores, so they want to reach their consumers in both places.

In November 2015, Amazon opened their first physical bookstore in Seattle and have since opened many more. Amazon has also bought a grocery store chain and opened stores with no checkouts. Every decision Amazon is making seems to be targeted directly at the convenience of their consumer.

The business model of catering to the convenience of the consumer is not just for big businesses, however. I work for a travelling bookstore, which would definitely be considered a small business. The owner of the bookstore (author Pat Flewwelling) opened the bookstore because she had trouble getting her books into traditional bookstores and selling them on the west coast (she lives in Ontario). The idea of the travelling bookstore is that she has no physical storefront in one location, but travels across Canada and sells books at conventions, fairs, festivals, and other events. She carries books from Canadian small publishers and independent authors and offers them the chance to have their books sold all over the country. This is convenient to the suppliers and to the consumers because books from small publishers are now available all over the country instead of just in the province and area where the publisher is located.

The biggest problem we’ve had as a travelling bookstore is the cost to ship books all over the country multiple times a year. Obviously we can’t have our entire stock list at every event (especially now that we’re selling at multiple events on the same weekends throughout the year), so we have to carefully choose which books to sell at which events. In 2018, Pat’s goal is to open an online store so when a customer asks for a book we don’t have with us, we can point to the online store and still potentially make that sale—in other words, for the convenience of our customers.

Eventually, Pat hopes to open a physical storefront. Technically, we are already an in-person shop, but our travelling method is very different from a traditional bricks and mortar store. We’re evolving from travelling to conventions, to an online store, to (hopefully) eventually a static physical storefront. Myth Hawker’s business model started from the need for convenience for small publishers, independent authors, and customers who love small publishers and independent authors, and the business model is growing and adapting to the need for convenience for our customers. While Myth Hawker isn’t growing nearly as fast as Amazon is, we’re still very much operating under the same sort of business model—sell where it is convenient for your customers to shop.

Back to Brick and Mortar: An Evolution

Brick and mortar stores evolved with the advent of the internet, and now internet business models are moving into brick and mortar stores (like Amazon). Is this an evolution or a devolution? How do you see things developing in the future?

I would say that Internet business models moving into brick and mortar spaces is an evolution, as it is the next logical step in expansion, branding, creating awareness, building customer loyalty, and changing the retail experience for customers.

By definition, devolution is a “descent or degeneration into a lower or worse state.” I would disagree that one business model (the Internet business model), is better than the other (the traditional brick and mortar model)—they both have their strengths and weaknesses. Online companies are not tossing their Internet business models in favour of traditional business models because the Internet model was no longer working; rather they are finding new ways to utilize brick and mortar locations to their advantage.

The Internet business models, which revolutionized business and the retail experience, are also revolutionizing the brick and mortar experience. While there are examples of stores that started online and then opened a traditional brick and mortar location, this is not common. And as Walsh wrote in The Gaurdian, these are usually specialty stores or clothing stores (like Casper and Birchbark). But the companies that we really want to pay attention to during this transitional time are the large, leading companies (like Amazon, which the question references), and others, like some of the big banks, who are approaching the brick and mortar expansion with intense innovation. They are finding new, streamlined ways of doing business: they are evolving.

In the case of Amazon, I agree with the points raised in class that a brick and mortar location is not the end goal—it is a means to an end. The cashierless, camera-filled stores will help the Amazon dive even deeper into the data of how people shop while at the same time training people to expect a streamlined shopping process. By getting to know us intimately (and then using that knowledge to cater to our needs) and building up our dependence on them, Amazon is ensuring that our relationship is strong so that we buy everything from them (eventually online, because that is even more streamlined than going to a store). Take the example of when a CNBC tech correspondent accidentally shoplifted a yogurt from the Amazon store. She tweeted about it, and Amazon responded telling her to keep the yogurt. The customer is happy, and Amazon carried on unconcerned about shoplifters because 1) their technology is so advanced the scenario occurring regularly is highly unlikely, and 2) once people are converted online shoppers, shoplifting will become even more impossible than it already is in their stores. I foresee other grocery stores and retailers trying to emulate Amazon’s model, but if they don’t move quickly Amazon will continue to eat up their market share.

Pivoting, I’d also like to touch on another model of brick and mortar stores that have come out of online models: pop-up banking branches. As people increasingly do their banking online and some banks exist only online, there is less need for brick and mortar locations. But occasionally, a physical location is important for improving customer service and increasing visibility. Pop-up branches, which DiGiovanni writes in the linked article, are cost-efficient and affordable.

“But what if you could just drop a portable branch off in high-traffic, populated areas whenever needed? Imagine locals buzzing about your branch, and offering suggestions on where it should be located next? Or if you could put your branch where it was needed most after a natural disaster?”

Her article touches on how customers want convenience, and how this is a great way to be where your customers are rather than having them come to you. Other service providers should be watching the banks carefully to see how this new model unfolds as it has the potential to work in many other sectors as well (such as retail and food, which have experimented with similar models but not to this extent).

A Wild Goose Chase

As I put on my soothsayer hat and predict the decline of one of the “Big Four” companies, I feel a sense of irony as I use Google search extensively to come to my conclusion—Google could be the next one to fall. As things stand now, the four companies—Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook, collectively own the virtual world that we live in. They look invincible to someone like me, who routinely prostrates herself in front of a browser window or mobile app to get through the day. If asked about the role these companies play in my life, I often flounder over the answer. Yes, I use technology on daily basis to accomplish work, socialize, explore, research, shop and express opinion. But on closer inspection I sense a measure of helplessness as my life gets documented without my explicit consent. I am left questioning the role these companies play in my life and vice versa.

I feel Google might meet their hypothetical doomsday within the next decade. Technology giants often meet their end not with a bang, but with a whimper. Take the case of Nokia, Kodak, and much closer to home—Microsoft, on its decline. These one-time market leaders are no longer the same. In the dynamic virtual world, things change extremely fast and it’s inevitable for companies to pivot in response to the winds of change. Google has been consistently investing in building its AI that intends to gather, rearrange and disseminate the collective knowledge of this world. They have set themselves a humongous task that is primarily financed by their ad revenues. Google enjoyed the first-mover advantage in the online advertising field. Ad revenue contributes to 90% of their earnings. The growth in the ad revenues has flattened over the years because of Amazon and FB in-app advertising. This exposes Google’s handicap. They have tried and failed to establish their presence in the retail or social media. Much of the ad revenue is directed through social media sites and Google is definitely feeling the pinch. They have been confined to browser window that serves as a transactional interface to connect other websites. This affords a very limited interaction between the user and Google.

Also, consider the coping mechanism we all develop to keep the noise of ads away. Advertising experts suggest that we are inevitably developing “Banner-blindness” that affords us to tune out the ads that pop-up in our browsers or mobile apps. Considering this and the fleeting affection we have for Google, which is sometimes an afterthought—a means to an end; what does it mean for Google?

The era of ruling on data alone is over. I feel that the next big move in the tech is context. How well do these companies know us? How well do the understand us? What value proposition are they offering us? What do we actually want? These are the questions all four companies need to deliberate on. But being on the back foot with their ad revenues, Google is vulnerable to becoming redundant in our lives. Unless they can provide a richer context to their searches and not merely peddle their partners, Google will lose their edge to their nearest competitor.

I agree that this theory has holes in it and can be countered in hundreds of ways. The arguments for and against are moot at this point. Because only time will tell how the cards fall. One can only predict the direction of the wind. And Google might have some turbulence ahead of them.

We’re not above this disruption heading for us either. Our interdependency on technology is growing day-by-day. Does the health of the big four companies affect us too? Maybe yes. Maybe no. It all depends on our perspective.

There’s a Zen Koan that goes like this: “If a man puts a baby goose in the bottle and feeds it until it is full-grown, how can the man get the goose out without killing it or breaking the bottle?”

The idea behind any Koan or riddle is to provoke doubt and question the status quo. The point is to sit with the sheer illogic of the situation; tearing at it with the logical part of your mind, until finally your mind surrenders further attempts to analyse and makes a leap into “pure consciousness”. In this case, the goose is your consciousness and the glass bottle is the mind. You might start with raking your head about ways to get the poor goose out of the confines of the bottle, until you realise in a moment of utter clarity that there is no goose; there in no bottle.

Similarly, we are the geese living in the shiny technology bottle bearing the label of the big four. We can either live in it or we can simply decide not to. If we stop being the goose, there will be no bottle. It’s that simple.

Anumeha Gokhale

 

GAFA isn’t going anywhere

I would like to preface my post by proclaiming that I do not think any of the “big four” will decline. Perhaps once upon a time this was a possibility, but by now they are so entrenched in society that they will never deflate. Although they compete with each other, GAFA is a starfish: there are many arms, but if one is cleaved from the body, it will eventually grow back. Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are entwined and in many ways they depend heavily on one another.

Even though I do not believe GAFA is going anywhere,  I would like to speculate on what would happen if one of its members shrivels up. Let’s go back to high school physics class and recall what the Law of Conservation of Energy says: “energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it can only be transformed from one form to another” (Wikipedia 2018). If we lose one starfish arm of GAFA, it will not die. Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple each have enough capital (physical, economical, geographical, social, etc.) that it has to go somewhere. My prediction is that if one member dies, its clout would be bought or otherwise absorbed somewhere else. I assume that it would be immediately snatched up by the one or more of the remaining members (strengthening them even more) or by one of the many companies watching from the bushes, just waiting for one of big guys to falter so something new can swoop in; take over; and profit, profit, profit.

Again, although I doubt it will happen, I still want to hypothesize on how the wheels of a GAFA decline might be put into motion. Privacy becoming more important to us is my biggest guess, although it still seems quite unlikely. As we saw in our class discussion, the majority of us aren’t too worried about what happens with our personal information gathered by big corporations. Even though our perspectives on this topic are shifting to be more complacent, there are obviously still people who oppose the blind signing away of our privacy rights as we are persuaded to do with websites such as Facebook. In 2012, “the Supreme Court of Canada [gave] the go-ahead to a class-action lawsuit against Facebook over privacy rights” (Fine 2017). If the government decides to get involved with how these websites prey on our privacy, we may see their demise, although it isn’t easy for the government to get involved in the first place. In Emerging Challenges in Privacy Law: Comparative Perspectives, the editors tell us

the core principles of data privacy law, which are aimed at limiting the collection and processing of personal data (including across national borders), are incompatible with the ‘open’ logic of the Internet. These tensions are especially apparent in Europe, where data protection is regarded as a fundamental right. It is therefore unsurprising that the current EU reform process, which is generally intended to strengthen EU data privacy law, has exposed the structural challenges applying the data privacy paradigm to the Internet, especially in relation to the definition of ‘personal data’ and the potential extraterritorial application of EU law (Witzleb, Lindsay, Paterson, and Rodrick 2014).

If we all decide that our privacy is more important than GAFA members allow for, I can see a potential uprising on the horizon as more and more people balk at what are currently typical privacy agreements. However, an uprising of this sort would have to be just that, an entire uprising, and with the attitude towards our online privacy leaning more to indifference, I don’t see anything radical happening anytime soon.


Further Reading/Articles Referenced

“Conservation of energy.” Wikipedia. January 24, 2018. Accessed January 25, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_of_energy.

Fine, Sean. “Supreme Court gives thumbs-up to privacy lawsuit against Facebook.” The Globe and Mail. June 23, 2017. Accessed January 25, 2018. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/supreme-court-gives-thumbs-up-to-privacy-lawsuit-against-facebook/article35444477/.

Ryan, Doug. “The Fall of the Titans: Why GAFA is Not Here to Stay.” The Huffington Post. July 20, 2017. Accessed January 25, 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-fall-of-the-titans-why-gafa-is-not-here-to-stay_us_59711ae6e4b0545a5c30fead.

Witzleb, Normann, David Lindsay, Moira Paterson, and Sharon Rodrick, eds. 2014. Emerging Challenges in Privacy Law: Comparative Perspectives. Cambridge Intellectual Property and Information Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Accessed January 25, 2018. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107300491.

Huzzah For the Death of Amazon!

This week’s question intrigues me because although we’re talking about the major tech companies, the question includes asking what consumer choices would need to change, not what business choices would need to change. I can’t help but focus my answer to this question on the latter, specifically from a small press perspective.

I talked a little bit about what the death of Amazon would mean to small publishers in a reply to Trenton’s comment on Andre Staltz’s article “The Web Began Dying in 2014: Here’s How,” but I’ll expand my thinking now.

Assuming the death of Amazon would result in more people buying books at their local bookstores—chain or independent—it would also likely mean the rise of small publishers. It is easy to see how the death of Amazon would result in the rise of independent bookstores, because the need for local, physical bookstores would increase if Amazon didn’t exist, but I’m going to focus on how this change could have a positive impact for small publishers.

Amazon began as an online book retailer. They were able to game the system to offer books for cheap delivered right to your door, and consumers loved it. As Amazon grew, it became more and more convenient for publishers of all sizes to sell their books on Amazon. Many small publishers that are producing good books (I’m thinking of presses such as Bundoran, Tyche, and Undertow) aren’t able to sell their books in the chain stores like Chapters because they aren’t big enough to be able to afford the discounts they demand or to go through a traditional distributor like Raincoast. These publishers have to sell their books in other avenues, such as at local independent stores and at conventions and conferences. As I’m sure you can imagine, selling books this way makes it hard to bring in enough income to survive.

When print on demand companies started rising up, small publishers took advantage of the convenient printing options and the direct to Amazon (and other online retailers) options they provided—I talk more about this in an essay for John’s class. This allowed small publishers to have an online presence more so than they could with just their own website—as we unfortunately know, the average reader / consumer does not pay attention to who the publisher is for a book and is unlikely to buy books directly from a publisher’s website. Unfortunately, this did not necessarily result in more sales as, similar to the situation in large chain stores, it was difficult for small publishers to gain visibility among the mass numbers of books available on Amazon. There are ways to trick Amazon’s algorithms into showing your books at the top of search results (you can read a few of these tricks in Alexis Roumanis’ MPub project report), but it requires constant attention and the algorithms constantly change.

Thus, it is safe to say that, for small publishers, most sales happen when they are present at events, festivals, and conferences selling their books, and at their local independent bookstores because they do not have the infrastructure to spend a lot of time tricking Amazon results or to have the finances to buy visibility in either a chain store or Amazon. Small publishers depend a lot on sales at their local independent bookstores, and these bookstores are slowly dying because of the large chain stores and, especially, Amazon.

With the death of Amazon, independent bookstores will be able to thrive and expand, which would very likely result in books from small publishers becoming more visible and available to the average reader. More visibility ultimately leads to higher sales, as long as the product is good.

In conclusion, as much as I, as a consumer, love the convenience of Amazon, I can’t help but secretly wish and wonder what a world without Amazon would be like.

Apple: The First to Fall?

After much deliberation and moderate amounts of research, I have selected Apple as the first to fall.

Compared to the other three tech giants (Google, Amazon, and Facebook), Apple, while still exceptionally innovative, is not as ahead of the curve as they used to be. Once known for boundary-pushing products consumers didn’t know they needed, they now maintain the status quo by releasing new iPhones and Macs every year. Compared to the other major tech companies, they are much more stagnant.

Apple is valued at $869bn and was founded in 1976 (a full 18 years before Amazon, valued at $566bn), and so their early starter position has been of benefit to them, notably in terms of value of their company (the richest in the world) and in consumer loyalty. So while they have some advantages that will sustain them if business begins to falter, I believe that they are still very susceptible to changes brought about by the more innovative competition and changing consumer behaviours.

The Competition
Unlike Amazon (the e-commerce company), Google (the knowledge internet company), and Facebook (the social internet company), Apple does not have a monopoly on the smartphone or computer industry. Phone brands, such as Samsung and Nexus, or laptop brands, such as Lenovo and Dell, are catching up to Apple in terms of product quality and still have a significant share of the markets (while Apple has stuck to their corner of the market doing what they do best). With Steve Jobs at the helm, Apple was didn’t just make the best products, they made products no one had ever seen before. In recent years, it could be argued that they are no longer the visionary company they once were. Instead, they make small tweaks to their products to make them even more exclusive to the Apple brand, such as different jacks for chargers and headphones.

Meanwhile, Google, Amazon, and Facebook are doing everything they can to stay at the forefront of innovation. Google has all sorts of projects going on, from self-driving cars to artificial intelligence. Amazon plans on piloting cashier-less stores and drone home delivery. And Facebook buys up the competition—including the very popular Instagram and WhatsApp companies. Instagram is more popular than the original Facebook platform with Gen Z, and WhatsApp is popular in countries outside of North America. By acquiring the competition, Facebook is not only eliminating the competition but also capitalizing on multiple growing markets.

And similarly, Amazon is also slowly encroaching on Apple’s products. As Scott Galloway said in an article about how he expects all of the four companies will disappear within 50 years, “The most innovative tech hardware of 2016, it wasn’t the Apple Watch or it wasn’t the Apple Pods, it was the Amazon Echo. If you look at where they are competing against Apple in voice, Siri versus Alexa, Alexa is putting a serious beat on Siri.”

The Customers
Younger generations, namely Gen Z and Millennials, are known for valuing personalized experiences over products. Amazon, Google, and Facebook offer exceptionally personalized services, and so long as there is not a dramatic change in consumer values, there is a good chance they will win out over Apple. Their products offer a portal to the personalized services the other companies offer, but are not personalized in themselves.

As much as Apple has cultivated a very loyal customer base (who is growing older), they have done so through their consistently reliable products—not their exceptional knowledge of their customers (rather, they tell people what they want and need). Additionally, younger generations are more price sensitive, as they struggle to balance the increased cost of living alongside jobs with little security. If there is a cheap, comparable, and unique product on the market, it will not be hard to sell to Gen Z and the Millennials (who now make up 50% of the population).

Apple is no longer doing what they do best, nor are they innovating or catering to their customers. In today’s cutthroat tech industry, there is only so long they can rely on their bank account and their loyal customers before they begin to fall.

Reading Response: Which Kind of Innovation?

Baldur Bjarnason’s article “Which Kind of Innovation?” gave a lot of credit to ebooks, in my opinion. But I think he was on the right track when he said that ebooks weren’t disruptive innovations. The problem I find within the publishing industry is that they need to be disruptive to the entirety of the industry if they want to get adopted with any sort of staying power.

Print books have been improved upon for more than 500 years. So in a way, it makes sense for ebooks to be modelled after the print formula. However, how can ebooks compete with paperback books—physical takeaways—when their prices differ by only $0.00 to $5.00? Ebooks must offer something more substantial and satisfying than print books if the industry wants to have them adopted by a wide audience. It is almost comical when Bjarnason comments, “Amazon’s Kindle format remains for all intents and purposes a 1990s technology.” In reality, ebooks are a digital facsimile of a book, for the most part. They are laid out similarly and I would argue that the Kindle format is a 1500s technology. But Bjarnason seems to be on to that as well as he says “[Fixed layout ebooks] contain… no innovative features to speak of, they are merely an accumulation of complex print-like cruft to aid the transition of illustrated or designed print books into digital.”

Projects such as The Pickle Index, where there is a web 2.0 storytelling integration that occurs simultaneously in story-time and in real-time over ten days, “revealing the narrative through the various features of the app: popular vinegar-based recipes, daily news updates, dynamic maps, and Q&A” is a much more interesting way to grab readers to have them read digitally. In fact, it is as this point that I would actually refer to digital reading as an “innovation.” When Bjarnason calls ebooks a “sustaining innovation,” as in the idea that they sustain what already exists in the publishing world, I think he is using an oxymoron. If they are sustaining a status quo, they are not creating innovation at all.

I think a major switch in the thinking around creating ebooks needs to be changed. They cannot just be an afterthought, a digital book. There has to be something altogether different about them, a reason for people to choose them over print books. But when prices are comparable, there is no physical takeaway, and print books are better designed than ebooks, there is no real point to adopt them.

Bricks vs. Clicks: How Publishers Are Affected by the Loss of Traditional Booksellers

One of the most prominent concerns in publishing today is the competition between printed books and ebooks. However, the means through which books are sold, rather than the general containers for books, is the more pertinent issue for the publishing industry (Shatzkin, 2014). With the loss of Borders and other brick-and-mortar bookstores, more and more book sales are being made online, helped in part by ebook sales (Pressman, 2014). While that may not initially sound like a bad thing for publishers, the online retail environment does not provide a level playing field. In fact, it introduces more obstacles. Continue reading “Bricks vs. Clicks: How Publishers Are Affected by the Loss of Traditional Booksellers”

Out of Quantity comes Quality (or what Publishers can offer Self-Publishers)

As the volume of self-published works continues to grow exponentially, research by book data analysts at Bowker suggest that the number of self-published titles has increased by 422% since 2007, and as the tools to do so increase in popularity and ability, with platforms from Amazon and Smashword providing full self-publishing services, publishers are increasingly being called into question to defend not just their position, but their existence. In a world where the number of books is increasing exponentially, I argue that the traditional publishing house will become an identifier for quality.

Continue reading “Out of Quantity comes Quality (or what Publishers can offer Self-Publishers)”