LFI.3 Week 12 discussion

This week we talked to Dr. Chris Gilliard about consumer surveillance devices like Amazon Ring, and all of their discontents.

For our discussion this week, I’m wondering what your thoughts are about how companies like Amazon have created cultural norms, and what we might do to redirect cultural norms and conversations to focus on human rights.

It’s weird to me how easily people buy into the idea that a product such as Amazon Ring makes your life somehow easier or better. Surveillance devices, to me, play on the post 9-11 idea that we are somehow not safe, and we need to keep watch on our homes all the time or something bad will happen. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t need to talk to the person who knocked on my door if I’m not home, and I don’t feel the need to keep tabs on what’s happening in every room in my house when I’m at work. It’s interesting that companies such as Amazon have so much power that they can sell invasive products based on a manufactured need, and then somehow not suffer when the result of the product is the opposite of its intent (in this case, making people less safe instead of more safe).

Ideas on what we can do to redirect the conversation:

  • Push for limits on federal lobbying (Amazon spends almost $17 million a year on lobbying)

  • Continue to push elected officials to support legislation that protects people, not company revenue

  • Provide or promote alternative reasoning or solutions for real problems

  • Get these conversations going on medium that people prefer, or in the right length for a given medium


Something I’ve been thinking about a lot these past few days, which coincided with the lecture on Monday, was a conversation I had with the Boston Magazine reporter who wrote this piece:

I wound up talking to her because a bunch of us #ProtectLibraryWorkers folks were like, cool, yet again the humans who are going to make this possible for you aren’t involved in the narrative. She defended it to me by saying, “The assignment was to write about the patron’s experience, so that’s why I didn’t bring up staff concerns.” I was kind of stunned by this–the patron’s perspective doesn’t involve library staff?–but then during the lecture yesterday, I thought about how the Amazon model/mindset is warping every customer service transaction. This reporter was essentially telling me that the patron’s view only contained the patron and the book - not so very dissimilar from the relationship buyers have to Amazon, right?

I have wondered a lot about the tradeoffs of not trying to adopt the user experience techniques that are becoming standard via Amazon, FB, and the like in libraries. Would it endear us to people who might see more of a human side if we don’t, say, engage in a depersonalized model of grabbing your holds off the shelf, taking them to the self-checkout, and leaving? (That was as close as we got to Amazon-y at my last public library job, anyway.)

I’ve tried to shift my thinking away from competing with the tech giants vs. differentiating, realizing the things we’ll never be able to pull off ourselves vs. the things those companies will never be able to provide. The things they can’t provide and we can, though, are in jeopardy during this current moment of social isolation. I think there is a potential role for libraries to educate patrons on what is being lost and what is endangered right now as Amazon in particular gets more and more powerful. An idea I’ve had for a while is, can libraries help patrons find local businesses they can safely shop from so that a) Amazon doesn’t get their money and b) local tax revenue can be collected (which is huge for sustaining library funding)?

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Amazon and companies like it have created a new environment in several ways. They’ve continued the shift away from locally owned and operated services and products towards international supply chains. They keep prices artificially low which blocks others from entering the marketplace (and allows wages to stay artificially low as well). But overall, what they do is create the illusion of convenience. Instead of having to go to a store, all you have to do is a click a button and pay, and your problem gets solved. You don’t have to worry about the logistics, the human cost of production or transportation, or anything else besides getting the box off of your front porch. And because the biggest players often set the terms of the economic conversation, other companies follow suit. Instead of trying to differentiate, many players in the marketplace want to the be the “Amazon of xxxxxx” or “Uber, but for xxxxxx.”

Amazon Ring is another example of the same trope: trading privacy and accountability for convenience and the illusion of safety. But as more people sign on, it seems more normal and less like a radical overstep into communities.

To redirect the conversation, there are some steps people can take on a personal level:

  1. Don’t use these businesses if at all possible. A minor step, but an important first one to get the ball rolling. You can’t disrupt a system as effectively if you’re reliant on it.

  2. Help others make better choices in the marketplace, especially those in your inner circle where your voice has resonance and weight.

  3. Contact your legislators about these issues. Constantly. On the phone and in writing.

  4. Become an advocate in your local groups (library system, places you volunteer, etc.) to make better choices. Oftentimes, it’s not that the conversation around cultural norms is being lost by the better angels; it’s that nobody is bringing it up in the first place in smaller communities.

That’s what it is. The propaganda works! Meanwhile, crime is actually going down every single year! But less crime is bad for police department budgets. And also, package theft is up only because Amazon deliveries are exploding and because they require their drivers to drop packages within a matter of seconds. You’re absolutely right about a manufactured need.

I love all these ideas you’ve proposed, and I want to add to this last one that a very effective medium continues to be 1:1 conversation, especially in person. I know that’s challenging in these times, but I just wanted to note it – for all of Amazon’s propaganda, real relationships can almost always trump those. We just have to get our talking points in order.

Totally true. The worker, or really anyone who isn’t the consumer, is invisible.

This is so important for us in so many ways. Not only will we not be able to compete, but the way that these tech giants are able to provide such convenient and seamless service is with a huge amount of exploitation.

Exactly. I am really at a loss for what to do here. I am only at the stage of “obsessively thinking about it”.

Right, I do think there is a backlash, or an impending backlash, and there’s opportunity for us there. Even as people are ordering all their supplies from Amazon right now, I don’t think they like it. I think all this atomization is scary and isolating, and people are recognizing what is being lost in this current moment.

I think about this tweet all the time: https://twitter.com/The_Law_Boy/status/1169263666912534528

How do we use our community role to make these things visible?

Great suggestions here Mack, and this one and point two make me think about something a friend of mine said the other day – “truth is a group effort”. That really struck me in how…true it is, lol. We create culture every day.

I remember the exact time Amazon weaseled it’s way into my life. It was when they came out with the Kindle and teenage me had to have it. I still bought some physical books, but the Kindle was such a game changer when it came to series, especially to someone who had to drive 30 minutes to do anything. Same thing happened with Apple, I had a iPod so when I got a smart phone, it was an iPhone. These companies create cultural norms through time. If it’s something you’ve always had, then you tend to stop thinking about whether or not you actually ‘need’ that product. Companies are fully aware of this, which is why Google is all about getting schools to use it’s products.

I agree with a lot of the suggestions that have been mentioned. You’ve got to talk to the people around you and to the communities of your library to help facilitate change and awareness. We do a lot of employee development sessions so maybe one could be ‘What Does Surveillance in the Classroom Look Like?’ and talk about data collected in LMS or through ‘free’ online tools.

I don’t know when it became such a cultural norm to spend money on every electronic gadget that gets invented. My inner dad voice is like ‘just another thing that’s going to break’ - electronic devices are expensive but in ways that veer away from the wallet and start heading towards your sanity. In some respects the easiest answer is just dont buy some of this dumb shit. The people that I know that are real into Amazon are sweating about 1 day delivery, or wanting to watch Mrs. Maizel or whatever - or have definite FOMO - network effects.
I have worked with older patrons at my library that are living alone and paranoid. Maybe they already have been broken into - there is nothing technological that I can recommend to them that wouldn’t require them gaining a dozen new skill sets just to make the contraption work. I’m often at a loss for something to recommend beyond move closer to family, get a roommate, or something else more human.
I’m also surprised that Amazon hasn’t had its reputation ruined by the dumpster fire junk the third party sellers are hocking - a friend I work with actually got giardia from some supplement she bought on Amazon that was just dirty water. I’ve had to return several dvd’s that I’ve purchased for the library as they were weird bootlegs - anyways that veers away from cultural norms, I know, but the point being that we have to tell people that they’re NOT missing out by not giving amazon their money -

They are also the only ones with the infrastructure large enough to reorganize the world in their image. Advertising is one of the biggest ways we get our cultural norms delivered to us.

Great idea. I think a lot of people are thinking about this right now and are looking for good information about what it actually means. A really effective talk would not only illustrate the landscape of classroom surveillance, but what it means at your specific institution, and what we can do to fight it.

I think this is relevant! This company sucks and sells us garbage with no consequences. There are endless things to criticize about Amazon, so how did they take on this outsized role in our lives? It’s because they’ve benefited from paying almost no taxes, using publicly subsidized infrastructure like USPS and roads to build their empire, and have continued to be completely unregulated as they expand their tentacles into all other areas of life.

So, this is the hard part. What actually makes our communities safe is…community…and that takes work to build. I was talking to my sister this morning about the uprising in Minneapolis, and she was very sympathetic to all the demands of the protestors, but didn’t understand what something like “abolish police” means when she sees that there are things that happen in her neighborhood, like domestic violence or other situations requiring some deescalation, and she doesn’t know what kind of response is right there other than calling the cops. And she shared an example of a woman who shows up in her neighborhood a lot who has some kind of instabilities, will often start screaming in the middle of the street or whatever. So what I said to my sister was, well, what if you called two of your neighbors and talked to them about this woman, and you decided that the next time she comes to your street screaming, that the three of you will calmly go out and approach her and try to figure out what’s going on with her? And see if you can work together to deescalate the situation? And then imagine if we all did that in some form or another. That’s how we create safe communities. But it won’t happen unless we actively build it.

These are all great ideas, thank you. I really struggle with trying to get the message across to family and friends because of all the things we are talking about- the way the propaganda works, the ease in which the products creep into lives and the privilege of many using it to not have to think about the dangers and concerns. I was stunned when at a gathering recently in a suburban neighborhood everyone whipped out their phones to show the “funny Ring videos” they had of each other from previous gatherings and when I pointed out some of the problems they didn’t even seem to care, but hopefully something resonated with them. I will no longer be entering through my friend’s front door though. I am driven mad by the number of people in neighborhood Facebook groups (and likely NextDoor? I have avoided that at all costs) posting their footage, especially when it is of minors. The culture of surveillance is actually making people more fearful through this sharing, not to mention the overt racism that takes place with which videos are shared.

I wonder how much people’s attitudes will have abruptly shifted after this week. Like Lenin said – there are decades where nothing happens, and weeks where decades happen. Decades are happening this week!

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You’re so right about this. I struggle at times with the right talking points for why people don’t actually need the gadgets that are being pushed on society. One of my Friends of the Library members wanted to donate an Echo to the library, because it could tell patrons the weather and answer other basic questions, “so the library staff didn’t have to talk to people.” She really couldn’t figure out why we would prefer human contact over having a tiny spy in a public place.

Do you, or does anyone reading this thread, have a good talking point for discussing privacy concerns with affluent white men and women, when protecting vulnerable populations from harm doesn’t seem to resonate?

We are going to talk about this some in our Monday lecture!

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