Menu Close

Tag: Amazon

This website was archived on July 20, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.
Exolymph creator Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Pointillism of Failure

One of the most interested things that happened this week was an AWS outage. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Amazon Web Services is a sophisticated cloud host for websites and apps. It is very widely used, especially among startups. When it goes down, as it did on Tuesday, many tech workers can’t do their jobs. At least Twitter was still available, providing a convenient location for complaints. (Additional discussion took place on Hacker News.)

I wrote about the incident for work, first summing up reactions from Twitter and then making the case that AWS is not a monopoly and shouldn’t be regulated as such. In response to that argument, my friend Adam Elkus pointed out that decentralized infrastructure was a founding ideal of the internet. The beautiful new world of http://www was supposed to empower individuals at the expense of institutions, be they governmental or private.

It has done that — but as usual, the reality is more of a complex onion than the idealists seemed to expect. In my first Ribbonfarm essay, I wrote:

The internet enables more individual opportunity than ever before — how would my words manage to reach you otherwise? And the internet is more meritocratic than the landscape it took over, because anyone can distribute their own work to a potential audience of millions, but of course age-old power dynamics can’t be erased in one fell swoop. It also enables winner-take-all businesses, like Amazon’s dominance in ecommerce and Facebook’s reign over news media.

Centralization wins because it’s efficient, given the constraints and affordances of the internet. And yet this centralization can be penetrated — not dismantled, but surface segments can be peeled back. That’s what hackers do when they leak a database or whatever.

One of cyberpunk’s central insights, as an ethos, was that the internet gives individuals more power at the same time that amoral, corporatized institutions build up their strongholds. It’s funny that some of the same people — the cypherpunks, say — explicitly bridged cynical cyberpunk and sunny techno-utopianism.

In John Perry Barlow’s “Independence of Cyberspace” manifesto, presented to “Governments of the Industrial World” at Davos, he said:

The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish. […] We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies. We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts.

No one can arrest our thoughts, unless they’re hosted on AWS — a factory of the information economy if there ever was one — in which case someone fat-fingering a command kicks your thoughts into the inaccessible nowhere of a disconnected server farm. It’s impossible not to be at someone’s mercy.

Header artwork by Igor Kirdeika.

Infants For Sale At Walmart

The following article was written by mofosyne, Cornelius, and Zhenya Slabkovski for the subreddit /r/blastfromthefuture. Distributed here with permission. Edited and expanded for this venue.

Walmart recently launched their new line of Chubby Cherub infants. Early sales records show that Millennials prefer the Chubby Cherub brand to other leading names, such as Amazon’s FatCheeks. However, this cutting-edge product and its competitors are not without controversy.

Conservative groups have protested what one impassioned citizen deemed “the dehumanizing effect of selling infants on store shelves”. Most readers will be aware that this movement’s popularity has swelled since the July bombing of Walmart’s BioLife research facility. This week, a notorious incident in Washington DC led to the deployment of LRAD police drones, which successfully neutralized a riot attempt by au naturel protesters outside of the Supreme Court.

Photo by JE Theriot.

Photo by JE Theriot.

The conservative rally coincided with a special court session in which the justices ruled on legality of “shelf babies”, as Chubby Cherubs and FatCheeks are called on social media. The Supreme Court effectively gave the commercial infant retailers an all-clear sign, prompting the furor outside. Well-known conservative politicians attended the court session and later participated in the protest. In particular, Senator Zhenya was heard shouting, “My pastor will hear of this. Repent!” while being roughly escorted to the door by security personnel.

The industry alliance behind “shelf babies” points to the benefits of standardized human manufacturing. Babies grown in controlled environments have demonstrated greater intelligence and more rigorous health in preliminary studies conducted by the University of California at San Francisco. But the Child Design Group warns that the prevalence of off-the-shelf babies will endanger genetic diversity. A spokesperson recommended that aspiring parents use their specialty design service.

Now go join the sub and upvote the story!


Amazon has a whim machine bolted onto their ecommerce system. The recommendation engine is a combination of practical — “Other people who bought X also bought Y” — and bemusingly enthusiastic: “You clicked on X before so I bet you’d really like ALSDJFLKSAJF too! Wow, look at all those letters! Notice how they’re in the same alphabet as X? Pretty impressive, huh?” It’s bad at nuance but it’s good at throwing out options. There are so many options for it to scan and suggest.

This stock photo amuses me. Image via Robbert Noordzij.

This stock photo amuses me. Image via Robbert Noordzij.

Businesses need to solve hard problems in order to be successful. Shopping on Amazon is cheap and convenient and they have a vast array of goods. Selling things cheaply without collapsing is a hard problem, and so is convenience, and so is being stocked with lots of products. Amazon conquered all three challenges. Now the benefits feed into each other. Customers love the cheapness and convenience, so sellers must stock their storefronts. Sellers are much easier to aggregate than customers, so once you figure out the customer bit, you’re golden.

Superstar internet businesses — and I guess most high-value companies in general — are all about positive feedback loops. Circular incentives that channel energy from initial success to intermediate success to dominance.

When you search for something on Google, you make Google better by feeding data into their algorithm, and your presence incentivizes both websites and advertisers to cater to this particular search engine. You come back because the algorithm is so good at presenting the information you want. Websites worry about SEO and advertisers drop $$$$$ because that excellent algorithm keeps pulling you back. The incentive structure is great for Google. That ingenious feedback loop made them dominant and it keeps them dominant.

Fast forward to 2037 when we’re surfing Amagooglezon (or whatever supplants them) with our heads swimming in VR buckets. We’ll bounce from product to product, purchasing and appraising and reviewing and returning and diving into on-demand experiences. I wonder how recommendation systems will work then — maybe they’ll have personalities. Maybe we’ll fall in love with them. Maybe we’ll hate them. Maybe our wallets will be managed by AI assistants and none of this will matter.

Cybersecurity Tradeoffs & Risks

Kevin Roose hired a couple of high-end hackers to penetration-test his personal cybersecurity setup. It did not go well, unless you count “realizing that you’re incredibly vulnerable” as “well”. In his write-up of the exercise, Roose mused:

“The scariest thing about social engineering is that it can happen to literally anyone, no matter how cautious or secure they are. After all, I hadn’t messed up — my phone company had. But the interconnected nature of digital security means that all of us are vulnerable, if the companies that safeguard our data fall down on the job. It doesn’t matter how strong your passwords are if your cable provider or your utility company is willing to give your information out over the phone to a stranger.”

There is a genuine tradeoff between safety and convenience when it comes to customer service. Big companies typically err on the side of convenience. That’s why Amazon got in trouble back in January. Most support requests are legitimate, so companies practice lax security and let the malicious needles in the haystack slip through their fingers (to mix metaphors egregiously). If a business like Amazon enacts rigorous security protocols and makes employees stick to them, the average user with a real question is annoyed. Millions of average users’ mild discomfort outweighs a handful of catastrophes.

Artwork by Michael Mandiberg.

Artwork by Michael Mandiberg.

In semi-related commentary, Linux security developer Matthew Garrett said on Twitter (regarding the Apple-versus-FBI tussle):

“The assumption must always be that if it’s technically possible for a company to be compelled to betray you, it’ll happen. No matter how trustworthy the company [seems] at present. No matter how good their PR. If the law ever changes, they’ll leak your secrets. It’s important that we fight for laws that respect privacy, and it’s important that we design hardware on the assumption we won’t always win”

Although Garrett is commenting on a different issue within a different context, I think these two events are linked. The basic idea is that when you trust third parties to protect your privacy (including medical data and financial access), you should resign yourself to being pwned eventually. Perhaps with the sanction of your government.

© 2019 Exolymph. All rights reserved.

Theme by Anders Norén.