What, Me Worry?

When I worked in healthcare I was involved in running several national demonstration projects, all of them oriented toward improving the processes and outcomes of care. Each of these projects was made possible through collaboration among multiple large organizations: medical group practices, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, health insurers, employers. Even though each episode of healthcare delivery centered around one patient seeing one doctor, the episode was always embedded in various interlocking institutional contexts. By working through these institutions it became possible to gather information from one-on-one episodes of care, aggregating the information into large databases and analyzing the data statistically, using the results to alter treatment protocols, which in turn altered the processes of subsequent one-on-one episodes of care. None of these projects involved the government at any level.

Capitalist ideology stresses the importance of individual enterprise and individual choice, in contrast with socialism where the mandates of the collective suppress individual freedom. But that’s fake news. Modern capitalism is collective. The only difference between a capitalistic collective and a socialistic one is that capitalist collectives — corporations — are organized on behalf of investors, whereas socialist collectives are organized on behalf of those who make things and those who use things.

Contemporary platform enterprises like Amazon look different from traditional corporations: flat structures and efficient logistics facilitating direct one-on-one transactions between producers and users of goods and services, purportedly without the organization getting in the way. But in fact the platforms shape the one-on-one transactions performed in their arenas, and of course the platforms are strictly capitalistic enterprises run on behalf of their investors. And the platform collects data from all of the one-on-one transactions, aggregate it, analyze it, and use the results to transform future transactions.

I remember when Amazon was just an online bookstore, selling paper-and-ink books at a discount because they didn’t have to cover the overhead incurred by brick-and-mortar stores. Now Amazon sells everything under the sun, but with the advent of the e-book there are no overheads to cover anymore. In the book business the Amazon model has been rendered obsolete by advances in technology. However, those same technological advances have enabled Amazon to morph from an online store into a platform. It’s easy to get your e-book distributed on the Amazon platform, but the individual writer-to-reader transactions are tightly proscribed. You have to sell your books in accord with terms and conditions set by Amazon, with Amazon retaining a percentage of the proceeds. And your e-book has to conform to Amazon’s protocols, which artificially restrict the buyers’ ability to make copies of or to resell the books they buy.

The transition from bookstore to book platform has been successful: Amazon exercises nearly monopolistic control over e-books. Still, the party can’t last forever. Surely Amazon recognizes that the commodification of e-books is dying, that the purchase price per book is falling inexorably toward zero. A new business model is called for, but I harbor no doubts that Amazon will prove itself up to the challenge. Eventually Amazon will likely distribute books to Kindle owners the way Apple distributes iPhone apps: free as part of your monthly subscription. Writers will get comped in small change based on numbers of page views, the way Spotify comps musicians based on numbers of listens. Algorithms will generate bespoke “playlists” based on data collected on each individual subscriber’s reading practices, perhaps pointing readers to books they wouldn’t otherwise have known existed.

These developments will play out with the inevitability of fate. Resistance is futile. Not only that, but it might turn out to be a new golden age for fiction. Readers get to read anything they want for free; writers get exposure to broader but more focused audiences. Amazon makes a shit ton of money, but maybe it’s worth it.

My personal experience in organizing national demonstration projects has always relied on building a temporary experimental organization comprised of multiple permanent organizations: associations of hospitals, of insurers, and so on. The book biz has its organizations — literary agencies, publishing companies, bookstores — but self-publishing technology combined with platform distribution technology is rapidly making these organizations obsolete. Building a resistance bottom-up from disgruntled writers and readers? I’ve got no experience doing that, no connections to draw on — I’m like the worst possible person to launch that sort of grassroots initiative. Maybe I should stop worrying about it.

Alright, that’s enough for today.

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