Kindle Unlimited not quite unlimited (or how Amazon plans to kidnap your data)

Kindle Unlimited is a new service from Amazon which gives the customer free access to thousands of books for a fee of $9.99 a month.

But what happens to our notes, highlights and bookmarks?  Do we get to keep those if we leave Kindle Unlimited?

I just asked Amazon customer service and the answer turns out to be “no.”

When you cancel your Kindle Unlimited subscription, you will be able to access your Kindle Unlimited books until the next billing date listed on your Kindle Unlimited subscription. At the end of your subscription, you will lose access to all your Kindle Unlimited books. Your bookmarks, notes, and highlights will be saved to your Amazon account, but won’t be available until you purchase the book later or renew your Kindle Unlimited subscription. (emphasis added)

This means that if you want to keep your research materials (your research materials, mind you) you will have to pay Amazon a ransom every month for the rest of your life.  Right now it’s around $120 a year.  Clearly, Amazon can set this ransom at any amount it wants.

This must be one of those new fangled business strategies they call making a service “sticky.”   Sticky, yes, and golly if it doesn’t smell too.

A rule of thumb: Content created by the customer belongs to the customer.

We could split the difference here, if need be.  Amazon may have a legitimate claim to withholding our bookmarks and highlights.  But notes?  Notes belong to us.

We are not a family!

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When asked to describe a company, the CEO will almost invariably give us an ingratiating smile and say, “We’re a family.”

Employees are also tempted by the metaphor, and in happier moments, they will enthuse, “this really is my family.”

The truth is painfully otherwise.  The organization will use the employee as long as it suits and then jettison this employee without a flicker of remorse.   And often not even so much as an explanation.  One day you’re there.  The next day you’re gone.

Try that with your family.   “Dad, I’m sorry but you’re fired.  Mom, you have to go too.  We’re cutting back.  What, no, of course we’re sorry.  You’ve done a great job.  But things change.  We want you out of here by end of day.  And we’re going to need your ID  back.  Hand it over.”

“Firing” and “family” never intersect in our culture.  Ever.

I’m not complaining about the fact that people get fired.  Organizations are good at getting things done precisely because we try to stock them with all but only the people they need.

I am complaining about this ugly “family” fiction.  And it’s not just a problem of the group-think, conscious-bending, reality-concealing metaphor. (Though this should be objectionable on its own.)

I’m complaining about the use of the family metaphor to extract  value from employees.  Of course, you’ll give up your weekend, your vacation, your evenings and your personal lives.  We’re a family!  This is what families do for one another.  When used for these manipulative, value boosting purposes, the metaphor is no longer merely malicious, it’s now a deliberate, exploitative, lie.

So Mr. Smarty Pants Anthropologist, what’s the alternative?    I think it’s to define the corporation the way we do a graduate or professional school.

The first assumption  is that you the employee are passing through.  You will learn from what you do here, and move on.  You will work heroically hard but that’s because you are working to improve and get better.  As you do at a graduate or professional school.

We will treat you decently because, well, you are passing through.  And you will go out into the world, and speak ill or well of us.  You will help recruit the next class.  Or you won’t.  In fact, in a perfect world, you will pass through several jobs and return us.

The important thing is that superordinates are encouraged to understand the real relationship they have with a subordinate.  This person is not a member of a family.  This is not an enduring relationship.  We’re not “all in this together.”  Someday this relationship will end.   And we hope you will be better for it, not used up by it.  That’s in a sense is what we are here for.

This doesn’t create a symmetrical relationship, nor should it, but it could help discourage the practice of giving employees big, friendly hugs…while rummaging through their personal effects.

photo:

This is a library at the University of Chicago, blanket like, but covered in snow.  Now that’s a metaphor.

post script

Thomas Stewart has a wonderful essay on the “team” metaphor in Fortune here.

Who did this guy think he was?

MillsI was reading C. Wright Mills’ White Collar this morning.  It’s a searching look at American society after World War II.

I was struck by the tone.

["White-collar man"] is pushed by forces beyond his control, pulled into movements he does not understand; he gets into situations in which his is the most helpless position. The white-collar man is the hero as victim, the small creature who is acted upon but who does not act, who works along unnoticed in somebody’s office or store, never talking loud, never talking back, never taking a stand.

Surely, I thought to myself, you could render an account that describes the relative power, standing and autonomy of this social group in a way that’s not quite so patronizing.  I mean, isn’t there?  Couldn’t Wright have got most of the descriptive work done here without being so diminishing.  But, no.  It looks as if he has gone out of his way to take the imperial point of view.  Haughty, even.

["white-collar man"] is more often pitiful than tragic, as he is seen collectively, fighting impersonal inflation, living out in slow misery his yearning for the quick American climb.

Naturally I took particular  umbrage at this passage.

…white-collar man has no culture to lean upon except the contents of a mass society that has shaped him and seeks to manipulate him to its alien ends. For security’s sake, he must strain to attach himself somewhere, but no communities or organizations seem to be thoroughly his. This isolated position makes him excellent material for synthetic molding at the hands of popular culture—print, film, radio, and television. As a metropolitan dweller, he is especially open to the focused onslaught of all the manufactured loyalties and distractions that are contrived and urgently pressed upon those who live in worlds they never made.

This argument is what it is.  You buy it or you don’t.  Personally, I think it’s a bit of myth making that bears an uneven connection to the realities of American life, and almost no connection to the lived experience of middle class life after World War II.  This world was fun,  terrifying, experimental, and reckless.  A large group of people were undertaking individual and collective acts of social and cultural mobility.   White collar?  Try cervical collar.  This was a whip lash world.     (See my chapter “When Cars Could Fly: Raymond Loewy, John Kenneth Galbraith and the 1954 Buick” in Culture and Consumption II for an elaboration of this argument.  See  Home Fires for something more ethnographic.)

C. Wright Mills missed all of this.  What you get is the odor of disappointment, that the middle class was refusing narratives preferred by the radical sociologist.   His topic is the little people, and naturally any reference to autonomy, agency, experiment, self definition or, gasp, individualism is not only not welcome but an impediment to the larger argument.

Wright was a school master, reproving students  for not rising to the intellectual challenge.   How else to explain the tone.  It’s so very confident of the speaker’s authority.  So unafraid of openly scorning the subject.  So certain that the speaker knew better and could claim a higher standing.   Edward Said helped us understand those moments when Western critics presume to generalize and diminish other cultures.  He called it Orientalism.  But what term do we use when  intellectuals diminish not other cultures but their own? Occidentalism?

But the real question is whether anything like this is now possible.  Would anyone talk this way in the present day?   Would anyone dare?  Yes, the white-collar man has been transformed inside and out.  That much is clear.  What about the intellectual?  Any movement there?

Steampunk Cometh?

EmberWhile in London, I had a chance to catch up with Trevor Davis.  Davis is one of the people responsible for the IBM Social Sentiment Index and the prediction in January of 2013 that we should expect Steampunk to move from its status as a niche enthusiasm to something more mainstream.

IBM offered its prediction in a wonderful graphic.  (Click on the image to get a larger view.)

IBM-STEAMPUNK_FINAL_01.08.201_v2

I came home from 3 weeks in London to find a Pottery Barn catalogue waiting for me.

Here, I thought, was just the place you might expect to find a steam punk reference…whatever other cultural trends might come swimming into view.  I began to read.

The results were vexing in the way this kind of work is so often vexing.  There was both no evidence and some evidence of steampunk  in the Pottery Barn catalog.

No, there is no explict reference verbal or visual.  No helmet made of  leather, studs, and brass fittings.  No science fiction weaponry as if designed by a Victorian.  No elaborate time pieces that somehow look to be, mysteriously, steam operated.   No glasses that look like something lifted from a 19th century optometrist.  There was nothing obviously, unmistakably out of the Steampunk design handbook.

And that’s a pity.  These catalogs, stemming perhaps from the brilliant early work by Stephen Gordon for his Restoration Hardware catalogs, now have range they didn’t have in the Sears Roebuck days.  The contemporary catalog lets in lots of things in addition to the product.  Things are staged beautifully and with great care.  So it’s not inconceivable for a Pottery Barn to include a Steampunk helmet or watch for illustrative, evocative, purposes.

Still the fact that there is no explicit reference to Steampunk is NOT evidence that there is no Steampunk influence.  I think you can see it in the color pallet, in the mad scientist theme, in the laboratory.  As follows:

Ember Ember Ember Ember

Ember

In point of fact, something happens to trends as they move from the margin to the mainstream.  They are obliged to give up some of their defining features.   This is a little like the social climber who is obliged to give up some of her friends if she wants to rise.  To include a Steampunk helmet would mean quoting an aspect of the  trend that is too strange and wonderful for the average American household (at least the kind who shop at Pottery Barn).  (If I may voice a note of skepticism against this argument, there is something pretty strange about the skulls.  The American household is perhaps less timid than we think.)

This necessary “gearing down” of the trend is the reason that early adopters often disdain the trend as it enters the mainstream.  Clearly, it’s been diminished or “dumbed down.”  Or to put this another way, the trend must give up some of its extreme characteristics to find a larger audience.  In a word, it must be dedorkified.  (In effect, this reverses the work of the enthusiastic early adopters / inventors who delight in dorkifying the trend in the first place.  I think we can probably agree that the whole issue of dorkification deserves more careful study.)

Trends are Diderot packs.  They are a bundle of ideas, aesthetics, materials, colors, shapes, motifs.  Not all of these are welcome on the voyage from margin to mainstream.  Some will move on.  Others will fall behind.  And this may help explain why the signature pieces of the Steampunk look are not in evidence by the Pottery Barn catalog. Indeed, the absence of these things are exactly what we would expect of Steampunk in this new context.  In sum, the absence of proof is, in a sense, proof of proof.  As it were.

So now we have a problem.  The most defining design signatures, the ones we can used as proof of a trend’s diffusion, are, in some cases, the very things that will be “edited out” by the diffusion process.   It’s not that the Steampunk influence is not there in the Pottery Barn catalog.  But there can be no influence unless it is in a sense rendered invisible.

All of this suggests we need a more robust methodology for identifying a trend in motion.  Perhaps some combination of colors, shapes, objects, with a statistical feeling for how far from random is the presence of certain elements especially in certain combinations.  This tool might enable us to say that our intuitive feeling that the Pottery Barn catalog is in places “pretty Steampunkish” has foundation…because the copresence of these colors, objects and shapes is precisely x far from random.  Naturally we would to examine all the Pottery Barn catalogs and see if we can show when the trend enters the catalogs and whether this corresponds to what we know about the development of the trend itself.

Trends have internal dynamics.  We also know that whether and how fast they move through the social world depends on a set of diffusion dynamics that we are relatively good at thinking about.  (My own modest contribution can be found here.)

But our work as students of the trend is not complete until we create a model of all the trends, and all the decisive economic, historical, social, demographic, technical, digital, and other factors that make up the context in which the trend flourish (or fail).

So was IBM right?  Is the planet called Steampunk exercising a tidal pull on the oceans of contemporary culture?  Reader, you decide.

Word herds: are they changing and why?

Get_On_Up_posterRichard Corliss describes Chadwick Boseman’s performance as James Brown in Get On Up as something that “radiates sex, drive, menace and spirit.”

Oh, I thought, that’s kinda new.  Normally, a series like this (“sex, drive, menace and spirit”) would have a little more redundancy.  The “word herd” repeated itself to aid comprehension.  In effect, the terms in the word herd meant roughly the same thing.

Words in the herd might even be near or actual synonyms.  Thus the performance might be said to be “deft, subtle, nuanced.”  The first term sets up the meaning, the last one spikes it.  (To use a volleyball metaphor.)

But these days it is much more likely to see word herds that are diverse, with meanings working not together but happily in opposition.  Each word does it’s own work.  These word herds are heterogeneous.  If terms used to be synonyms, now they are a little closer to antonyms.  And the pleasure of reading comes less from going “Oh, that’s what she means.  Got it.” to having to read the whole thing through, admiring the bumper-car effect of unruly language.  Good writers aim for whip lash.

The methodological question: could we examine a large body of texts and see if indeed word herds are changing?  The tricky part, I’m guessing, picking word herds out of millions of words of text.  If this problem can be solved, then the question is whether there is some technique for judging the semantic distance between terms.  What we are looking for, for the sake of this suspicion, is a “before” with relatively little distance and an “after” with lots of it.

Not to rush things, but I think there probably confirmation is waiting to happen.  And not to really rush things, but my guess is that word herds are more heterogeneous for the same reason that so many things in our culture are more heterogeneous.

If once we were monolithic as a social and a cultural order, now we are various.  And we are learning to live with this variousness.  Homogeneous word herd are really training wheels of a kind.  They were designed help us grasp the meaning of a text.  And now they feel like a tedium tax the author is forcing upon us, as an unreasonable condition of entry.

It does feel like everyone is getting smarter.  Certainly, and against the odds, popular culture is getting smarter and this lifts all boats.  But the reason might be there in the everyday act of thinking.  There was a time when we staggered beneath a weight of unanswered questions.  Yes, we could go to the library and find an encyclopedia, but, Dude, really?  All that indeterminacy created, to shift my metaphor, a film, a gauze.  Meaning was hard to see.  Distinctions hard to make.  So it was left to the author to make everything clear, definite and precise.  Got it?

Got it???  How laborious.  Now that we can answer almost any question almost instantaneously, some of that film is gone.  The world is windexed.  The homogeneous word herd just feels like we are being struck about the head and shoulders by a schoolmaster who resents the fact that we are more interested in stray and playful meanings than his lesson plan.  This is language acting like genre, setting up meaning over and over again to remove all doubt…in the process removing all surprise.  We don’t need training wheels.  Not any more.

This is a question for people with methodological skills I do not have.  Maybe Tom Anderson  might care to have a look.  Or perhaps Russ Bernard might have a student who cares to take this on.   Please, if you have a way of solving this problem, sing out!

“Don’t Peggy Olson me, mother f-ckers”

Peggy_Olson_Wiki

I have been doing ethnographies in London for a couple of weeks.  And the great thing about ethnographies is that things do pour in.

In one interview, the respondent told me about a phrase now poised to serve as a rallying cry in contemporary culture and the corporation.

Here’s the background.

Neko Case, the singer from the Pacific Northwest, was given an award recently.  Playboy congratulated her in a patronizing way and Case let fly.  Someone rebuffed her and Case rebuffed them.

Here it is play by play, tweet by tweet:

Ember

See the fuller context here.

My respondent says she hears the “Don’t Peggy Olson Me” phrase at work more and more.

What a thoroughly contemporary artifact.  A show appears called Mad Men.  It’s an old media contemplation of an age gone by.  It features a character who comes to stand for the status of women in the present day.  An artist used the character’s name as a verb to object to her treatment.  Hey presto, a new media meme is born, and spoken language is a phrase richer.  An issue (feminism) that has lost some of its standing in the public agenda is returned to visibility.  The heat of people’s anger is reregistered, reemphasized.

This is contemporary culture, and its various wheels within wheels spinning as usual ferociously, with meaning skipping from old media to new media and back into the public eye.

One anthropological, the chief culture officer, question is how far will this phrase spread?  At the moment, it is too small to show on Google Trends.  I have asked a couple of people in London to let me know if it reaches them.

But I think we can still use Google Trends as a diffusion monitor.  It is possible when searching a term to subscribe to a weekly report on the term.  In this case, there is no report, but subscribing will, I hope, alert to me if and when the numbers for this phrase get more robust.

Ember

I can’t find a way to draw on an image within WordPress, but see “Subscribe” in bold in the upper-right-hand corner of this clip.

It’s never occurred to me before to treat people as detectors, as trip wires, and ask them to report when they first hear a phrase.  That plus a Google Trend, should help a little to show us how fast this social innovation is traveling.

I would be grateful if readers who’ve heard the phrase would let us know when and where they did.  If you haven’t heard the phrase, it would be great if you could report back when you do.

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