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Amazon 2011

New features abound, of course, but they're the sort that university teachers and other white-collar workers know all too well: ways of doing more with less, by making workers (or customers) handle the routine chores that used to be done for them. Nowadays you can tag a given "product" for Amazon so that it knows what you think of a book; if you want, you can even study a tag cloud that lists and ranks the most popular customer tags, so that you'll do a better job of tagging for the company. You can enter a customer discussion or post a review.

And, of course, whenever you buy a book, you help Amazon not only gauge the book's popularity, but also identify the other books that you have bought as well. It's an efficient, thoroughly commercial counterpart to the old information system. The simple, elegant Web page that once showered discriminating customers with information now invites the consumer to provide information of every sort for Amazon to digest and profit from.

t's not a tragedy: these days, Google and other search engines do everything that Amazon used to, and more (it's probably no accident that Udi Manber currently works for Google). But it's a sad and revealing tale nonetheless. Back in the day, the World Wide Web was mostly open territory, and innovation focused on bringing more people into it and giving them more things to do once there. Now, the Web has been fenced, plowed and monetized. More information and more images can be found inside private silos--like the phone and iPad apps we all love--than in the virtual territory open to all. If Jeff Bezos has his way, not only the remaining superstores and independents but also the remaining publishers will disappear. We'll be disintermediated with a vengeance, as Amazon dominates our collective imagination. Once, Amazon opened worlds to us; now it just sells them.


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