‘I’ ON CULTURE
We all understand why our grocery stores put the products they really want us to buy at more or less eye level, and the ones they care less about on lower shelves; it’s simply marketing. Most people don’t know that many products actually pay for their spot. See a whole group of products in an advantageous position? The manufacturer or distributor paid for the spot.
What bothers me is that even the rich companies do this now. Go on Amazon and put in the name of a book, and if you’re lucky, it will come up first. Of course, there will be a whole group of books with similar names that you didn’t ask for, but computer indices are often like that. You ask for Ashes of Victory and get Victory from Ashes as well. But there will be a half dozen other books that contain related words. And you will always see “recommended books” in a row when you pull up any book. All of those books are there because they are being advertised. Want more sales? Pay Amazon and have your book listed on the same page as the new Stephen King novel.
We all understand things like this. Poor Jeff Bezos, currently the richest man in the world, needs the cash from the advertising more than he needs the small profit he will make from selling you a book, or for that matter, any product. And since he sells so many different kinds of items, he has to make certain that you get to see a great many of them. But how to decide what to show you? Well, his computers know what you like from their records of your purchases. And they even keep track of what you just looked at and didn’t buy because those things might interest you. So he knows what products to push, and to help the poor little guy along, people pay him to push their goods. Of course, it could be argued that this is a betrayal of you, the customer, in favor of his advertisers but, hey, this is the new America. McDonald’s advertises a lot more that BurgerFi, and gets more customers, even if, well, the food might not match up.
The worst offender, at least in my opinion, is Google. After all, what they are is essentially an index. When you want to find information, you should be able to get it. But they’ve also been corrupted. When the lease on our car was running out, we decided we wanted to try a small SUV. So, we began, and I typed in the words “Honda small SUVs,” not because I was certain we wanted one, but because we had just seen an ad on television. I was careful typing it in, but the first item listed was for a Hyundai. I checked, and no, I had not mistyped. And the second was arguing that if we were interested in buying a Honda, we should look at Volkswagen instead.
I shook my head and muttered “advertising.” This was an index; I wanted information. And after those sites there were ones for Kelley Blue Book and for Edmunds and a group of others. Finally, there was one for Honda. After looking at the models, I typed in requests to look at Toyota, Mazda and Buick small SUVs. And I had to go through all those alternate sites before I got to the appropriate sites that could give me the information I wanted and needed.
We keep hearing that all of this is done because of the “algorithm,” the computer code that runs these programs. In other words, decisions are not made by people but by “impartial machines.” That is nonsense. Some person had to design and then write the algorithm, and those people are not necessarily objective. We’ve seen the political arguments over what is real and what is “disinformation” and have noticed that they seem to switch back and forth depending on who is speaking. Have trouble believing that? Just check politically different sites on the virus. The “algorithm” somehow decides for one group that some information is almost certainly true, and another algorithm decides that another’s information is almost certainly true — and they contradict each other.
Bottom line: understand that all our institutions, even those that seem ubiquitous and all-knowing, are products created by people who do it in their own interest.