“What takes thirty minutes in the states will take all day here. Sometimes more.” That’s what David Ariosto was told by his housemate upon moving to Cuba in 2009 to work in CNN’s Havana bureau.
In his excellent 2018 book, This Is Cuba, Ariosto described in detail what life was like in a country with a centrally planned economy: endless waits for seemingly everything, including basic items like spark plugs, car door latches and….sinks. Ariosto’s was stolen from his rental house early on, with no replacement in sight. The antiquated cars that populate the island are in such desperate shape that cabdrivers instruct passengers to very gingerly close their doors. Something as simple to fix (in the United States) as an inoperative door can take many months in Cuba.
And then there are the grocery stores. There’s no arriving midday. What’s even somewhat worth buying has already been “picked clean” by then. Empty store shelves are the norm. It turned out that Ariosto’s housemate’s lament about access to consumer goods was true. As Ariosto wrote about a shopping trip during his early days in Cuba’s capital, “Beer, toilet paper, milk, cookies, and a few vegetables were all I had to show for an entire afternoon of shopping.” Too bad there was no Amazon for Ariosto while he lived in Havana…
Amazon rates prominent mention in consideration of the latest freakout about the Seattle-based company; the practice of “eavesdropping” on conversations taking place among Alexa users. According to the Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler, the reporter who seemingly broke what’s not much of a story, “Alexa keeps a record of what it hears every time an Echo speaker activates.” Goodness, let’s hope so.
If Alexa is going to be an automated assistant, better that she (?) develop a sense of my wife and me, what our preferences are, what we most often request, what she can’t help us with, etc.
And while Fowler doesn’t “accuse” Alexa of always listening, I wish the automated assistant listened with greater frequency. Figure that the more Alexa listens to my wife and me, along with our daughter, the better Amazon can get to know us. Indeed, imagine the opposite scenario as previously described in Cuba. Misery is not when the businesses who aim to serve us know our wants and needs; rather it’s an effect of them not knowing or caring what we want.
In Cuba, and in other countries where profits are illegal (or were illegal), there aren’t any Amazon-style companies going out of their way to meet the needs of their customers. It’s an awful existence. Again, imagine having to spend much of your day just to get a few basic items; items that Amazon can increasingly deliver to you within hours?
To which some who claim to be “libertarian” will respond that what Amazon’s doing is “an invasion of privacy,” that it’s “right out of Orwell’s 1984,” and “aren’t you a libertarian?” Yes to the final question. Unknown is whether those asking the question are.
To the privacy-minded it’s not unreasonable to ask if Amazon held a gun to their head and made them buy the Echo. The question is rhetorical. As for it supposedly having 1984 connotations, please. Try to be serious. If you’re buying something in the market economy, your purchases are being tracked. This is a good thing. Tracking of our wants and needs is how businesses can constantly improve when it comes to serving us. Absent the desire of businesses to learn everything they can about us, shopping for anything would be quite a bit more like a day in Cuba than most readers realize.
To which some will say that Amazon should have at least told customers that “Alexa keeps a record of what it hears every time an Echo speaker activates.” Ok, so what if she did? Would the tens of millions of Echo users really be fearful of what Alexa picks up with every “wake” word? What’s logically collected is normally a request, or a question. Alexa keeps a record of these things so that she can constantly improve her handling of customer questions and requests. As many of us know, some questions can’t be answered, and some requests can’t be carried out. The record-keeping is Amazon’s way of improving what tens of millions use.
Which brings us to the next question: now that you know Alexa keeps a record of your questions and requests, will you quit her? Judging by Amazon’s stock price the last several days, the answer is no. The cylindrical gadget is way too convenient to go without, and it’s convenient precisely because “Alexa keeps a record of what it hears every time an Echo speaker activates.”
Lastly, some will say Alexa’s “eavesdropping” is evidence of the parent company’s excessive power over consumers. Actually, it signals the opposite. You see, Amazon spends billions on all sorts of concepts (including spectacular failures) in order to understand its customers better, and also in the hope that occasionally one of its consumer offerings will prove a winner. Alexa, like Kindle before it, and like Amazon itself, was the rare success among all-too-frequent failures. Translated, it’s precisely because Amazon understands how precarious is its status as the world’s greatest online retailer that it constantly rolls out new ways to meet our needs. Alexa doesn’t signal an arrogant Amazon; rather it signals an Amazon that is so fearful of losing its precious customers that it spends billions annually in search of what will keep them coming back.
Geoffrey Fowler wrote what’s not a story. Sad is that so many readers thought it was one. No, Amazon is just trying to do well by its customers. The simple truth, one that Cubans would be all-too-eager to tell the easily hurt and offended, is that they couldn’t handle the frustrating reality of shopping minus the brilliance of companies like Amazon.
John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, and Director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks.