Friday, 2 March 2012

Bram Stoker's New Book

I was surprised and amused to receive an email from Amazon today, announcing "Bram Stoker's New Book".  A little annoyed, too.  I find Amazon's attempts to second-guess what I will like on the basis of what I have bought or looked at in the past as annoying as my grandmother's habit of finishing my sentences for me.  It arouses my contrarian instincts.  This can only get worse as Google combines its billion-dollar busybody algorithms to get inside our heads.

But Amazon's message reveals something about the constructs made by these electronic curtain-twitchers.  Like their real-life equivalents, they lack the imagination to understand anything that is not within the bounds of "the normal", or strictly contemporary.  A new edition of a classic is released and it's hey, chick-lit fanciers, Jane Austen's got a new one out!  Well, no, actually.

I would encounter something similar when I used to train new cataloguers.  Even highly-educated people have generally not given much thought to the complexities of what we loosely call "bibliography" i.e. the business of texts, books, authors, and publishing in its full historical context. To most of us, the poems of, say, John Donne simply are.  He wrote 'em, someone published 'em, we read 'em -- simple!  Again, not quite.

Even the basic business of authors' names has to be approached with caution, and some historical and multi-cultural awareness.  Ask a programmer to design a database that includes names and, ten minutes later, they will generally hand back something based on the assumption that a name consists of a forename and/or initials plus surname.  The sophisticated ones will have presumed that the inversion of these elements is necessary ("Donne, John").  Fine, as far as "the normal" (i.e. the contemporary Western name) is concerned.

But what about a mediaeval writer like "Gerald of Wales" a.k.a. "Giraldus Cambrensis", or some aristo like the "Duke of Wellington" a.k.a. "Arthur Wellesley"?  Or a Chinese writer like "Mao Zedong" a.k.a. "Mao Tse-Tung", whose "surname" is actually "Mao"?  Or what about pseudonyms like "Sapper" or Victorian matrons like "Mrs. Humphrey Ward"? And what about so-called corporate authors, ranging from the "Home Office" (which one? the British, Australian, or Canadian Home Office?) to the "Starship Enterprise"?  Come to that, who did write the Bible? Come back in a couple of months, Mr. Programmer, and we'll see what you've got.

If you're worried about recent moves towards Big e-Brother (and you probably should be) I think complexity will be our ally in the resistance to "targeted relevance".  Yes, 80% of web users are simple-minded folk looking for the same stimuli again and again -- Google will have them covered.  But you and me, my friends, we are too multi-faceted, too restless, too unpredictable to be pigeon-holed by any algorithm.  Yes, last week I was looking at Arctic exploration, but this week I'm interested in old pseudo-reflex film cameras that could be adapted for digital TTV ("through the viewfinder") imaging.  I had never heard of TTV two weeks ago.

Who knows what I'll be looking for next week, but I can pretty much guarantee it won't be anything that could be anticipated by the patterns of my past behaviour.  So those "targeted" adverts will just amuse and annoy me, Google and Amazon, and I certainly won't be buying Bram Stoker's "new book".  Didn't you read my post about Dracula?


Dave Leeke said...

I managed to stop Amazon sending those algorithm emails just before Christmas. At the bottom of the email - in the small print, of course - there is an opportunity to unsubscribe to those type of emails. This doesn't affect the order-specific ones. Also, you can stop a lot of the suggestions too when you go "shopping" on Amazon.

I was forever getting suggestions for Psychology books because Mrs Dave uses my one-click setting for buying books for school.

It was a worthwhile few minutes spent turning those settings off. I only ever get emails from Amazon about things I've ordered now.

Oh, and what the Mrs has ordered.

Huw said...

Especially amusing knowing your heartfelt love for Bram Stoker's old book!


Kent Wiley said...

Maybe Amazon missed your "issues" with Stoker's "old book" because as I recall the real sentiment was tucked into the comments page, wasn't it? But I recall it to be a real zinger. So you think we have a future vs. Deep Blue?

Mike C. said...


I must admit I quite *like* getting that little jolt of annoyance when Amazon thinks I'm into Star Wars because I've been birthday shopping... There's a lot of pleasure to be had from having one's prejudices confirmed...

Huw & Kent,

I think I'd be a lot more worried if it appeared that Amazon was able to figure out what books I'd bought and didn't like.

We're safe from the Killer Droids as long as we stay loosely organised, unpredictable, and keep away from social networks (which I'm sure are a trap set for humans by killer droids).