From books to infrastructure

Most people think of Amazon as little more than an online bookstore, but it could be one of the defining forces of 21st–century life—an algorithmically managed infrastructure company that has single–handedly rewritten the publishing industry's rulebook.


Design / James Bridle

This article was originally published in Domus 958 / May 2012

Until a couple of years ago, it would have been impossible to believe, listening to any literature professional, that publishing was anything other than a pen, ink and paper business. Sure, the typewriter, complete with ashtray and the clacking of keys, is romanticised, but it is rarely given an active role. The work remains "in manuscript" until it appears, as if by magic, printed onto paper and available in the nearest bookshop, transmogrified by the sheer romance of literature itself.

Of course, this is pure fantasy. For almost two decades, since the advent of desktop publishing, the publishing process has been almost entirely digital, only assuming a physical form at the very last stage: in the reader's hands. Most novels — not to mention every other type of book — are written — typed — onto electronic keyboards, and stored, transmitted, edited, formatted, set and distributed digitally. An increasing amount of the printing itself is digital too, as complex lithographic processes give way to digital presses allowing shorter runs and more efficient production. What then of reading, the last outpost of the physical?

Electronic books have been around for some time, and you can pick your genesis myth, although the most persuasive is the moment when Michael S. Hart, a graduate student with a new network account at the University of Illinois, decided to type up the American Declaration of Independence, it being the Fourth of July, 1971, and make it available for public download. In the process he created the first e-book, and went on to found Project Gutenberg, the first digital library, and fought a lifelong campaign for higher literacy rates.

Top: All Amazon lives: From its birth in July 1994 to the recent projects to raise the Apollo 11’s engines from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Infographic by Simone Trotti. Above: History of Kindle. Infographic by Simone Trotti

The first e-book readers, with first-gen names like SoftBook, Cybook and Rocket, appeared in 1998, along with the first websites offering paid downloads of electronic texts (Gutenberg's free library had reached 1,000 titles 2 years earlier). Although surprisingly similar in form to the e-book readers we know today, their low storage (1,500 pages!) and poor connectivity resulted in poor sales, bankruptcy and administration. This in turn left deep scars on the traditional publishing industry which had, in a surprising number of cases, spent time and money preparing their titles for the new platforms. The industry's subsequent conclusion that e-books were at best a distraction and at worse a mendacious trick by the technology industries has hampered it ever since — and may yet be its downfall.

Left, Device ownership in the US. Right, Book formats read in the US. Source: Pew Research Center. Infographic by Simone Trotti

Meanwhile, in Seattle, a different kind of technology company had been quietly establishing itself., founded by Jeff Bezos in 1995, set out to be the world's largest bookstore, but turned out to be far more than that. The disparity between Amazon's vision of the future of books and that of the traditional industry cannot be overstated; Barnes & Noble even took the upstart to court in 1997 over its "world's largest" claim: "[It] isn't a bookstore at all. It's a book broker," carped the bricks and mortar.

If the inventory software fails, mere people are adrift among millions of scattered flotsam

Kindle’s predecessors: According to Italy’s la Repubblica newspaper, the Incipit prototype was the first e-reader and was submitted as a degree thesis at Milan Polytechnic. The Rocket eBook and the SoftBook Reader (with leather cover) were the first e-readers to be launched on the market, while the Sony LIBRIé was the first e-reader to use e-ink. Infographic by Simone Trotti

The open secret about Amazon is that it's not a book company, or a retail company, or an Internet company; it's an infrastructure company. Its warehousing and distribution services outstrip most other retailers, and in many nations, particularly in Europe, their warehouses are the largest in the country. From the outset, Amazon didn't just buy up other book retailers and distributors; it acquired statisticians, analytics, data miners and hardware technicians. In 2006, it launched Amazon Web Services, making not just goods but its own digital infrastructure — virtually limitless data storage and supercomputer-scale processing — available to anyone, from physical locations in the us, Europe and Asia. This focus on infrastructure was to carry through to Amazon's signature product: the Kindle.

How electronic ink works. Infographic by Simone Trotti

The Kindle is, physically, a modest product. Its e-ink screen lacks the flashiness of its tablet rivals. It connects to the Internet via the "Whispernet", far below the speeds to which we are becoming accustomed. It is white, grey or, at a push, grey-black, and definitely plastic. Its low-tech appearance also sidesteps many of the controversies of electronic reading: slow refresh rates keep it from the skeuomorphism of Apple iBooks' page-flip animations; its reduced connectivity discourages the distraction of social services. It is not an iPad, and it turns this to its advantage. Optimised for reading, the dedicated ereader suffers from none of the niggles of the jack-of-all-trades tablet computer. It is robust and slips easily into a bag or pocket without the protective/fetishistic coverings of more expensive technologies. As technology writer Tom Armitage has noted, the Kindle "is a device that always seems content with itself. Just sitting there, not caring if you pick it up or not. Like a book."

E-book vs. e-reader: Not every e-reader supports all the e-book formats available on the market. The Nook by Barnes & Noble, for example, does not read Amazon formats, and Kindle does not read e-Pub, the “free and open” format. Below is a guide to help you find your way around. Infographic by Simone Trotti

Amazon has sold millions of Kindles since the device's launch in 2007, making it its own bestselling product. In 2010, Amazon claimed that Kindle books were outselling paper books in its own marketplace — a figure to take with a pinch of salt with respect to pricing and Amazon's own way with figures, but nevertheless compelling. The standard response to electronic reading has always been an emotional one, and a curiously physical one. Vocal readers have long decried "reading from the screen", as if letters come in different flavours depending upon their illumination. They have appealed to the tactility of paper and the smell of the book, as if stories are defined by their containers. As if, indeed, books should be judged by their covers. And yet it is the most serious readers who have taken to ereaders first, and to the Kindle overwhelmingly.

The average e-reader owner: During the 2011 Christmas holidays there was an unprecedented rush to buy e-readers. Infographic by Simone Trotti

Even technophobic publishers themselves, it should be noted, were among the first adopters, replacing their stacks of printed manuscripts for assessment with slim devices, even as they refused to distribute the finished articles in electronic formats and professed their belief in a paper future.

More nuanced dissent would penetrate further: into Amazon's terms of service, into their ringfencing of the social experience of their readers, into their aggressive pricing and discounting strategies. The Kindle allows these things by directly connecting reader and marketplace, to the exclusion of all other voices. Literary Jesuits, Amazon knows that once a reader has a Kindle in their hands, they are unlikely to go anywhere else for books.

World map showing the Amazon infrastructure, with depots, warehouses, headquarters, call centres and software development centres. Infographic by Simone Trotti

The great fear of the Internet is that we will be washed away in a tide of information, that the sheer scale of everything will overwhelm us, and that that everything is inferior, condemning us to wallow in the mud at the foot of an ever-receding Parnassus. And yet one of the many things the Internet has taught us is that surface quality of media comes a poor second to access, whether it's typographically inhibited self-published fan fiction or barely discernible YouTube camera-phone films.

What makes the Kindle unique is what makes Amazon unique: its physical presence is a mere avatar for a stream of digital services. In the spirit of its parent, it is more infrastructure than device. And it is as infrastructure that it disrupts, as its biblioclastic name intends.

The Kindle connects the reader to a carefully, algorithmically managed world, a code/space that affects reader and reading, and ultimately writing and literature. Code/spaces, as defined by Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge, are physical spaces in which use of the space is contingent upon software. For example, an airport check-in. Software facilitates the registration and flow of people, producing the check-in space; should the software fail, the space itself crashes, becoming a busy, angry and ultimately pointless waiting room.

Left, E-reader brands owned. Right, Tablet brands owned. Source: Pew Research Center. Infographic by Simone Trotti

Another example is provided by the warehouses of Amazon itself, which long ago grew to such levels of complexity that they require algorithmic management. Objects placed within them conform not to any human taxonomy — books alphabetised by author here, music CDs in another corner, DVDs over there — but to a mathematical equation, a computation of frequency that ensures goods are stored as close as possible to multiple sites of use and packaging. As a result, only an augmented human can find stock in its millions of seemingly randomly distributed square feet; if the inventory software fails, mere people are adrift among millions of scattered flotsam.

With regards to literature and reading, this increasing dehumanisation of information space points to the key question articulated by information studies professor Philip Agre: "Is a digital library a machine or an institution?" What Barnes & Noble said about Amazon's original book business is true of their current incarnation: Amazon is not so much a bookstore as a database, a vast, unknowable system, not dissimilar in that way from the Internet itself. And perhaps that is what Amazon and the Kindle ecosystem best represents, an Internet for the incurious; broad enough to appear impartial and unthreatening, controlled just enough not to break, or frighten the horses. If the Kindle restricts most of its users to content approved by Amazon — and it does — and if it walls up the reading experience and claims ownership over our highlights and bookmarks — and it does that too — is that forgivable in return for apparent access to all books, now, right now, forever? To what extent are we prepared to have our cultural experiences mediated or even controlled by technology? The answer, it increasingly appears, is quite a lot, and the Kindle, for better or worse, is the tool we have chosen to negotiate for us.