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Automated search and automated commerce begat algorithmic schlock ?

Having found its golden meme, Solid Gold Bomb wrote a computer script to churn out hundreds of T-shirt designs riffing on the phrase -- "Keep Calm and Dream On" to "Keep Calm and Dance Off." In theory, Solid Gold Bomb could be selling billions of them, for they only become "real" once an order is made. It's the infinite monkey theorem, applied to products: with time, the algorithms would produce a T-shirt someone wants.

Amazon does not vet such items, and Solid Gold Bomb is too solid to care. The advent of 3D printing will create an explosion in such phantom products.

Books got there first: Amazon brims with algorithmically produced "literature." Philip M. Parker, a marketing professor, must be the most productive, erudite writer in history: Amazon lists him as author of more than 100,000 books. His secret? An algorithm to generate page-turners like "Webster's Estonian to English Crossword Puzzles" and "The 2007-2012 Outlook for Premoistened Towelettes and Baby Wipes in Greater China" ("The moist towelette is an essential part of the lunchbox, and with the new global economy, this volume is essential," reads its only review). Some of these books might be useful, but much of algorithmic literature exists for one reason: to swindle unsuspecting customers.

When the former Wired editor Chris Anderson wrote of "the long tail" -- the idea that, thanks to the Internet, companies can look beyond blockbusters and make money on obscure products -- he never warned us it would be so long and so ugly. Somehow, well-crafted niche products have surrendered to algorithmic schlock.


-- Evgeny Morozov

But while algorithms, 3D printers and Web stores have solved the supply problem, demand-side uncertainties remain. If there are, indeed, psychopaths who want a "Keep Calm and Rape a Lot" T-shirt, how do they find it? Or, rather, how does it find them? Whoever matches existing weirdos with nonexisting weird trinkets could be the next Google.

Or could that dubious honor go to Google itself? Organizing the world's information was just prelude to a far more important goal: becoming a universal shopping gateway. Last week's news that it will introduce Shopping Express, a same-day delivery service to contend with Amazon, confirms the obvious: shopping is essential to Google's future. By analyzing our information streams, it can predict what purchases make us happy, and remind us to keep shopping. It already underpins the Google's most intriguing smartphone app, Field Trip.


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