Responding to Harper’s September 2020 Issue – “Big Tech Extortion Racket” by Barry C. Lynn

Illustrations by Doug Chayka. Source images copyright iStock

This article was adapted from Lynn’s book Liberty from All Masters: The New American Autocracy vs. The Will of the People, and I was so enlightened by this article, I decided to go to Amazon to check out the book for myself. It says that the book is $28.99 and it arrives on September 29th, 2020.

Now, on the one hand, I almost pressed the button immediately. I love books, I love reading, and for the longest time, longer than any other products, Amazon represented the obvious place to get them.

It was our literacy and creative imaginations that outdid ourselves. As we published more and more books, and as we grew more accepting culturally of books outside the canon, we had a desire to read about other lives domestically and abroad. We wanted subjects in anything from home cooking to pagan religions. In each book we actualized ourselves and committed ourselves to reading as much as we could.

Publishers took up that mantle and produced widely, going so far as to bring e-readers to get us out of the problems of space. Yet still space remained. Go to any half-price bookstore or any resale shop and you will find analog products, toys, and collectibles bursting out of the seams. The United States publishes hundreds of thousands of books each year, and “new” is always happening. Getting at least one copy of every book ever written in each bookstore was going to be impossible.

Amazon was such an obvious and simple solution. Leverage the internet to create a real time database of what books were available and where, use huge warehouses (or the already established local businesses), and then work with logistical supply chains to get the book to the person who wanted to buy it. Directly to them. No longer would a person spend hours wondering if Joan Didion could be found in the genres of journalism, political history, fiction and literature, or memoir (the answer of course being “yes”). Now Joan Didion can be accessed by going to Amazon and typing “Joan Didion.”

As a dedicated reader, let me tell you that this distinction alone has saved me hours in conventional bookstores. Does Barnes & Noble have the latest translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s book? Turns out the answer for one location is yes, and the other is no, and not only that, I could only purchase the book from one store if I was a student of Texas Christian University, despite the fact that the book was right there in my hands.

So here I am, wanting so desperately to buy Lynn’s book, but here for the first time I am pausing.

In each of these circumstances at a Half-Price bookstore, or wherever books are sold in a brick and mortar store, what I failed to realize was that two people could look at the same book and see the same price marked on the book.

On Amazon.com, this book costs $28.99 for me, and this may have to do with my own sale history.

Until Barry C. Lynn’s article, I had heard about Uber’s price gouging depending on what they deemed “supply and demand,” never realizing that it is based off of data that only Uber provides. Who really knows if the concept of “rush hour” exists for a company like Uber? Different prices exist all the time for Uber, for both the employee and the consumer.

Why not for Amazon?

What if this book was only $22.50 for you? What if they know you do not typically read in the section titled “political economy” and thus need to be appealed to far more in order to pick up this book? Is that acceptable for the consumer?

Is that acceptable for the seller?

Allowing a company to dictate to many small businesses what they believe the value of a product is for them is a scary notion. Because if a company (or publisher like Hatchette books in 2014) had a problem with the price, they could be cancelled. And in a market where Amazon easily holds the majority of online purchases and searches, businesses have little choice.

There were hidden benefits to the local, brick-and-mortar establishment. Sure, on one level it was less efficient. The overhead, the rent, the power costs, the products just sitting there on the shelves, is enough to wonder why we did it. But now I see in hindsight that the reason why we did it is because even private spaces contain a little bit of the public. Your body inhabits space that others enjoy, and as you are both there, consciousness provides a shared environment. Colors and fabrics and clothing appears to you both, and in front of you there is a price. The power of sight allows you to see the clothing, and sensations like touch allow you to try it on and gauge its potential before purchasing. You are weighing the experience proactively.

Just imagine if you were at a fast food restaurant, and you normally do not eat out at fast food restaurants, and the cashier informs you that your hamburger is $2.50, while your friend, who eats there plenty, has to pay $5.00.

In no world would this be acceptable. According to the rules of social value, the burger is the exact same make and requires the same ingredients. Considering it has come from the same store, the same modes of production went into the ingredients and combined by the same employees. Yet because of a person’s recorded loyalty to a product, that loyalty is being used against them?

It’s bizarre. It’s bizarre that I am now paranoid about what the price of a book is. Now I am going to my friends with links to click on for books based on authors I have read before, and comparing them to books by authors I have never read before, in order to gauge if there are differences and how stark they can be. Maybe there are differences. Maybe there are not. But here’s the problem.

On my own, how can I tell the difference?

To be sure, there are winners and losers of every crisis. Oftentimes this can amount to luck. Imagine a commercial real estate agent in some coastal, dense urban cities. Coronavirus has stopped everyone in a game of hot potato, and some people got caught holding all the bad goods.

On the other hand, telecommunications, and technology companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, have already had huge gains. To be given this huge endowment from the world because they happened to have the right industry at just the right moment, is like a fraternity brother winning the lottery. The kinds of dopamine hits this is likely to produce does not have me excited.

We recently had big tech companies in front of Congress, and as they face scrutiny in other European countries, it’ll be any wonder if they face backlash here in the United States. Like pharmaceutical companies, like anti-consumer measures from the Food and Drug Administration, the differences even in the milk we drink compared to other countries who consider the well-being of their citizens can be startling. We have a habit of band-aid solutions to massive problems.

“The cow’s utters have been so overly milked that the utters now leak pus into the milk. To solve the problem, we introduce antibiotics to keep milk drinkers from getting sick.”

What we should have asked was:

Why are we milking the cows so damn hard?

I cannot really stress enough the power of longer reading of essays like these, in circulations Harper’s.

In life, sometimes we are so close to the news cycle that we can be spun up to alarmist degrees, where we are inclined to be so angry as to annoy our family members over Thanksgiving.

In other cases, we may find ourselves leaving society entirely. We go off on meditation retreats, or go hiking, or visit a friend who lives in the country.

But the middle ground, the in between is where the real sweet spot is. Harper’s Magazine, like the New Yorker, or like other literary magazines, encourages deeper thought, more pointed and nuanced conversations, and the ability to weigh in on opinions with a patient demeanor.

Perhaps we need to accept that some news can be too fast. “Getting it out there” can be akin to stirring up trouble without even knowing if trouble exists, or even if the trouble is worth stirring up.

On the other hand, getting it all settled in our heads is something that can never occur. We never have the whole story, and even supposing we did, what solutions exist that pleases all parties?

Perhaps the amount of information is not the real dilemma. Perhaps instead we should be focused on underlying principles. We agree as Americans that we desire to alleviate suffering, and the way that we do that is by performing the great experiment of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes, we get taken advantage of, but by and large we want to be informed without being fucked with.

And it can be hard to get that feeling if all we relied upon were quick sound bytes.

If it were not for this article, adapted from Lynn’s book, I wouldn’t know just how history repeated for tech companies in the same way that the telegraph and railroad did in the 19th century.

What television news source has done that for me?

Read instead.

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