Prime numbers

Admit it. Forget alcohol or exercise: you have a troubled relationship with Amazon.

On the one hand, it’s great. Overnight — sometimes same-day — delivery. Pretty much everything you could want. Low prices. On the other hand, the wracking guilt at being a willing accomplice in the slow death of the High Street. And all that cardboard.

As non-essential shops have been forced to close, Amazon has played an increasingly important role in my lockdown retail experience.

Such is my dependence on the ubiquitous retailer I expect one of its first Prime delivery drones is being readied for flight as I write, with only my home address flashed onto a solid-state memory capable of holding many millions more, but which contribute less in terms of combined sales. A few more purchases and my name will be painted on the drone’s stealth grey fuselage, like an Eddie Stobart makeover Blackhawk. My very own Enola Gay with its Prime payload.

I reckon my spend with Amazon during lockdown alone explains why the firm reported revenues of $100 gazillion last quarter. Founder Jeff Bezos is now so rich on the back of my orders he has given up his day job to explore outer space instead, in a quest for a solar system big enough to hold his fortune. The only thing in his way is a certain Elon Musk, a man with a similar mission in mind, although Jeff clearly has a better track record with warehouses, so my money is on him. Whatever, whenever, whoever wins this Battlestar Crapica between two billionaires, Amazon’s success means the High Street will never be the same again.

Despite my guilt, I remain true to Amazon. Let me explain why.

Every Groundhog day wait for another Amazon delivery at home is made bearable by the realisation that, as my purchasing has become less predictable, the algorithms that manage my experience on the Amazon website are being tested to the point of destruction.

Indeed, as the YouTube theatre productions have been left for dust and Netflix grows stale, pretty much the only source of pleasure I now gain online is from Amazon. I balance my Amazon addiction with the thought of all those sweaty data scientists struggling to explain themselves in the written memos that Amazon’s senior management famously demand at the start of each meeting.

Why the sweat? Duh. Why the struggle? Good question. Those insistent prompts to add something else to a groaning Amazon shopping basket based on your shopping history, or the constant recommendations of items that are frequently bought together? Now useless. The so-called ‘on-site’ recommendations to consider items related to those in your basket? Suddenly redundant. Yes, those clever formulae that previously spotted patterns in your shopping behaviour are now unable to identify any common thread in your clicks. They are literally useless because the only pattern now is… click. And click again.

Whereas I once ordered the odd electrical item from Amazon, lockdown means the last twelve months of my Amazon order history reads like the Generation Game’s conveyor belt of prizes… if those prizes were dreamt up by an acid-addled production assistant from a Bluetooth future and were placed on Bruce’s hand-cranked belt by an alcoholic stagehand.

Let’s take a quick look down my orders here… Door hinges. Booze. Casserole dish. A cocktail shaker. Replacement earbud foam tips. Booze. A kettle, a toaster and some dumbbell weights. More booze. Maraschino cherries (Hold on, data bros, a pattern is emerging!) Slug-repellent copper plant pot tape (Wait — no it’s not. More sweating.)

Faced with these ever-longer lists of more diverse purchases, how can an algorithm identify a pattern in my buying history? When velcro is bought at the same time as verruca cream, or chalk is added to the same basket as cheese, what possible help can an algorithm provide when suggesting complementary purchases? You might as well throw the Argos catalogue off a cliff and see what page it opens at. If Argos still printed a catalogue, that is, and hadn’t also moved online.

You’ve got to get your kicks where you can in lockdown. So while the nagging concerns remain when I press click each day, I take comfort from the fact that my online ordering of increasingly random objects from Amazon serves a higher purpose.

At a time when algorithms are taking over everything else, I like the idea that we can loosen AI’s icy grip on our throats with acts of whimsy. There is surely hope for humanity given we can render millions of lines of computer code useless with a simple shoulder shrug and a random decision to order whatever comes into our shrivelled, lockdown minds.

In its own way, this reminds me of the ‘War of the Worlds’, where Martian minds “immeasurably superior to ours” invaded Earth with metal machines and laid waste to our humble defences with their heat rays. They were, of course, ultimately defeated when they caught the common cold. An act of randomness that, in the middle of a global pandemic, somehow seems fitting.

Epilogue.

Ooh, a fondue set! Click.

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James Tate

James Tate

A pick and mix of words; now online, better packaged and more expensive, like everything post-COVID. The sour cherries are best. The opinions are my own.