Echoes of Big Brother on the Net

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 May, 1999, 12:00am can't figure me out. I know because the electronic commerce firm has told me so.

By e-mail, naturally.

Each time you buy a book through Amazon, you get a message telling you what you've bought.

But this e-mail was different. It said that the firm hadn't worked out what my preferences were. But it was working on it, so maybe it will let me know before too long.

It is, of course, sheer coincidence that my first purchases over the Internet coincided with a tripling of Amazon's revenues.

Perhaps because of the minimal nature of my contribution, the computerised profiles which Amazon builds up of its customers do not seem to be able to cope with somebody who buys essays by a New York jazz critic, photographs of American musicians, a history of China, the memoirs of Chiang Kai-shek's first wife, a volume of mood pieces by an English novelist, and the autobiography of an American who saved thousands of Jews from Marseilles in World War II.

I wouldn't have thought the task beyond the wit of a pretty basic computer, myself. Jazz, China and France: hardly as challenging a combination as that of a friend who divides his time between management studies and bird-watching.

But the idea that Amazon uses one's buying patterns to build up a profile introduces a somewhat sinister aspect to e-commerce. Echoes of Big Brother cannot be far away.

A colleague at the Post who buys some of his compact discs through Amazon received a message the other week with a list of 10 new releases in which the firm thought he might be interested. He realised with a shock that three of them were recordings he had recently bought from a Hong Kong shop and three others were ones he intended to buy. As for the other four, they all interested him.

When he was in town recently, the Internet guru Nicholas Negroponte was talking over dinner about one of his favourite subjects - disintermediation, or the process by which the middle man will be painted out of the picture by direct electronic communication between producers and buyers.

Wholesalers, travel agents, traditional stockbrokers would become part of history (where this leaves newspapers is a matter I have discussed with Mr Negroponte off and on over the past five years).

Some retail outlets could expect to survive, he reckons. Despite the success of Amazon and other on-line booksellers, Mr Negroponte sees conventional bookstores continuing if only because of the serendipity they offer for 'meeting people and having a latte'.

But he has less hope for chemists' shops or other 'places where you don't go to browse or to pick somebody up'.

Amazon's attention to the interests of its customers is an obvious application of disintermediation, and is, in a sense, a throwback to the days when a neighbourhood shop might note your tastes and draw your attention to a particular garment, or a book, or a wine that fitted in with your previous purchases.

At the same time, we have become so used to gathering information about new products through advertising or, in the case of books and records, through reviews that it can seem a bit pushy to be sent an anonymous computer-generated message telling you what you want.

After all, it is not even as if Amazon was anything more than the retailer who is supposed to be on the way to disappearing.

For myself, I am waiting for the day when the publisher itself collates my various interests and puts together a book combining information on Duke Ellington, the French Resistance and the Xian incident in one handy volume.

The trouble is that it would probably only sell a single copy.