ELTjam, Amazon, royalties and surveillance

Do I detect a faint hint of apologia in ELTjam’s discussion of ‘Amazon’s royalties changes‘?

The new system makes it less easy for authors to make money from short or bad writing but only via the borrowing service, not from normal ebook or print sales.

There’s a bit more detail on Amazon’s activities in this article, ‘The Amazonisation of Everything’ by David Golumbia in Jacobin.

As Peter Wayner notes, “instead of paying the most ambitious, long-winded authors for each page written, Amazon will pay them for each page read.” An analysis of the details by Hern concluded that “an author will have to write a 220-page book — and have every page read by every person downloading it — to make the same $1.30 they currently get from a book being downloaded.” Casey Lucas estimates that author royalties could decline by between 60 and 80 percent.

It seems that this new regime has been in operation since the start of July and it remains to be seen perhaps exactly what its impacts are. However, it should be of concern that Amazon’s profits will at least remain steady while author royalties may be slashed. That may also be the thin end of the wedge: if this works for Amazon, could it be rolled out beyond their Kindle Select program?

There are several other aspects of Amazon’s business which warrant much less circumspection, but, in the context of my last post, the one I find most alarming is their ‘Echo’ product. Echo is a svelte black cylinder which sits in your home and does the same kind of thing as Siri or Google Now**: according to Amazon, it waits for the ‘wake word’ and then records your spoken request (e.g. ‘Send me a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s last book’, ‘What’s the capital of Nigeria?’) and uploads the audio file to an Amazon computer where it can be processed and responded to by algorithms.

What’s the big deal? David Golumbia has a few things to say on this:

In order to do any of these things, Echo must be listening all the time, to everything that goes on in its environment, waiting for the keyword to tell it to take an action. That means it isn’t just listening to and processing things users say after the keyword — it is always listening, always processing. Amazon has been evasive, at best, about whether or not it is collecting and analyzing that data and what it is doing with it.

The potential for data gathering has been noted by several writers, including Alex Hern, Todd Wasserman, and Chris Davies, and raises serious questions. Is Echo recording and analyzing, for example, the number of times members of the household mention a given book, movie, or video game; other brand name; or product category? Is that part of how Amazon plans to ship products to us before we have actually bought them? Will it use Echo to track our neighbors as they deliver products to us? Will it use audio data to determine how long members of the house sleep, how often they have sex, and how many non-family members come into the house?

So, has this got anything to do with education? Is anyone talking about bringing Echo or Siri or Google Now into the classroom? Well, somewhat predictably, there is a post on ELTjam’s blog titled ‘Did Apple accidentally invent a cool language learning app?‘ Is there any reason to be concerned about teachers asking or encouraging their students to use Siri? At the very least, as Nicole Ozer has pointed out, we should keep in mind that Siri is “working full-time for Apple…by sending lots of our personal voice and user info to Apple to stockpile in its databases.”

I’m not personally comfortable with the idea that teachers might require their students to participate in sharing their data with a company in this way. Who benefits the most from this kind of transaction? Apple, I’d say: they rely on users’ data to improve their products and therefore also their profitability. If adult students choose to use such technology, that’s up to them; I think teachers should steer clear of it, despite whatever pedagogical potential it may appear to have.

** The first version of this post referred to it as ‘OK Google’, which I’ve realised is actually just the verbal command used to ‘activate’ the ‘service’.

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