It costs nothing to create the design, nothing to submit it to Amazon and nothing for Amazon to host the product. If no-one buys it then the total cost of the experiment is effectively zero. But if the algorithm stumbles upon something special, something that is both unique and funny and actually sells, then everyone makes money.
I thought that this was an interesting piece until the end, when Ashton writes, “If you don’t understand how these machines work you have no power at all.” Really?
Yes, it is good to know how algorithms work, and it is also good to be aware of how pervasive they are. The automation of what are usually thought to be ‘creative’ cultural artifacts is discomfiting, not only because ‘creativity’ is seen by some as the last human stronghold, but because this particular case sheds light on some of the uncomfortable assumptions and choices that underlie that automation. However, as Tarleton Gillespie points out in his excellent piece on algorithms, “In attempting to say something of substance about the way algorithms are shifting our public discourse, we must firmly resist putting the technology in the explanatory driver’s seat.”
Sweepingly declaring that algorithmic (or even computational) knowledge is at the root of power is both technologically determinist and arguably internet-centric (Evgeny Morozov may be ranty and screedy at times, but he has made some salient points about this particular issue). There are many types and sites of power, and being hyperbolic about this particular one isn’t that helpful.