The flow of signals and the paths we choose

The #amazonfail furore made me angry, but not for the reasons you might expect. I'm angry at the sheer numbers of people who put their energy into mobilising against Amazon. The whole affair showed us just how easily Twitter and blogs can be used to spread a message about a company's unacceptable actions (in Amazon's case, removing LGBT-themed books from their sales rankings) and to generate massive amounts of negative publicity. Perhaps a month after the problem was first spotted, the complaints reached a tipping point; after that, it took just a few days to give Amazon the PR headache of a lifetime.

And I'm furious that it happened this way. Perhaps I should explain why.

First I want to explain that it's not because I believe the bloggers and tweeters should have been pouring that energy into more urgent causes. I don't see activism as an either/or choice: it's perfectly possible to be a climate change activist and still care deeply about LGBT issues, for example. And I want it to go on record that I think it's a serious matter if a book retailer's ranking system discriminates against people who buy and sell LGBT writing, whether or not the discrimination is deliberate.

But there’s a reason why this particular case of discrimination was so massively important to so many people. It was important because Amazon is such a powerful book retailer; for most authors, checking your Amazon ranking is an unmissable daily procrastination ritual. And why is Amazon such a powerful book retailer? Because so many millions of people choose to do their book shopping on the site. And they make that choice over and over and over again.

If you repeatedly choose one path, over time the path you have chosen will become easier for you and others to use. Eventually it may become “the” path, the obvious choice, and anybody choosing a different, less well-travelled one will be accused of making life difficult for themselves.

Right now, if you search online for a book title, the chances are that the book’s Amazon listing will appear in the search results above the author’s or the publisher’s website. With one-click ordering, you can buy it in less than a minute (although when you actually get your hands on it is another matter entirely). Using shops, especially independent bookshops, has become the harder, more expensive choice. And many people will think you’re an idiot for making a choice that involves expending more time and money than you have to.

A healthy capitalist system (if there is such a thing) has a rapid flow of signals. When a customer haggles at a market stall or a business deal is being made, the signals are flowing back and forth very quickly. But the sheer size of some businesses can muffle or slow down the flow of signals, and shareholder capitalism distorts the process completely. is a publicly listed company. That means its primary purpose is not helping people find the books they want, or supporting authors, or promoting any kind of ideology. Its primary purpose is to make as much money as possible for its shareholders. That's what the board of directors are required by law to do.

If it had been a deliberate decision to remove certain books from the sales rankings, the reason would have been money. Now Amazon is doing a frantic damage limitation exercise, again because of money. When we talk about a company "bowing to pressure from [X] group", whether that group is fundamentalist Christians or animal rights activists or LGBT-positive bloggers, what we really mean is that the continued pressure from that group is costing the company more money (in terms of reactive PR, lost sales and perhaps increased security measures) than giving in to that group's demands would cost. I think that most of the #amazonfail bloggers grasped that on one level. That's why they were talking about withdrawing custom and creating a PR disaster that would affect sales in the future. But they failed utterly to grasp that they were fighting the wrong battle.

I have my own problems with Amazon. I dislike them because (among other things) they have avoided paying tax and imposed working conditions which I consider to be unacceptable. I also have a problem with the company's attitude to climate change. The tax wheeze mentioned above involved shipping products to and from Jersey to avoid paying tax. In other words, burning unnecessary fuel purely to cheat the British Treasury of money that might be spent on public services. Then Amazon's founder, Jeff Bezos, decided to burn even more unnecessary fuel by building a private spacecraft.

So I have issues with Amazon because I'm a taxpayer and a British subject and a socialist and someone who's hoping to stay on this planet for a few more years yet. I stopped using Amazon to buy and sell books two years ago. My problem with the people who've more recently withdrawn their custom is that they're inadvertently framing this as a consumer issue rather than a human rights issue. There's a certain logic to that: it's a capitalist organisation, so hit them in the wallet. But there's also a circularity to it. If your complaint is about Amazon not letting you buy or sell certain books, you can't respond with a decision to restrict future buying and selling and expect that to have much impact.

One of my problems with capitalism generally is the lack of "enough". If it's your job to keep pleasing shareholders, and if it's the shareholders' job never to be satisfied, you'll do anything that gets you nearer your unreachable goal. Only the law will stop you, and sometimes not even that. Human beings and the environment are there to be exploited as much as legally possible.

Of course, that's not acceptable or even sustainable given that we have just the one planet. But I believe that if you have issues with a big company because of human rights or environmental mismanagement, you should express your protest as a citizen rather than as a consumer. Yes, of course you should withdraw your custom from any company that offends you ethically. But don't do it as a consumer protest; do it because you are severing your consumer-seller relationship with that company. Do it because you're more than a consumer. The people who've conditionally withdrawn their business - e.g. "I will not spend any more money with you until this policy is revoked and publicly apologised for" are still engaging as consumers, still dangling the carrot of future custom as a reward for better behaviour. That's fine if you see the problem as a consumer issue only. But my problem with Amazon goes way beyond that, and so should yours.

Continuing to engage with Amazon as a customer suggests that you're absolutely fine and dandy with tax money going into private pockets, with miserable working conditions, with climate-wrecking fuel waste. It suggests that you see yourself as a consumer before you see yourself as a human being, a gay man, a trade union member, a parent, a feminist or anything else that you might be.

People seeing themselves as consumers is what got us into this mess in the first place. Seeing yourself as a consumer makes you more likely to go for the "rational" choice from a consumer point of view: the cheaper thing, the easier thing. That's one of the reasons why independent bookshops are suffering and why Amazon has managed to grow so huge.

What I'm trying to say is: forcing a big company to change its "ideology" isn't the victory you think it is, because the only true ideology for that company is profit. #amazonfail has been a PR disaster for Amazon and it's something they seem to be trying to sort out before they lose any more sales. But that doesn't mean you've somehow changed anyone's mind. It just means that at the moment, not-being-homophobic is more profitable than being homophobic. Real change comes when people stop choosing to engage in customer-seller relationships with giant companies that are bound by law to ignore anything that doesn't relate to profit. Real change comes when we start making the "irrational" choice to place our custom with businesses small enough not to muffle little signals, businesses small enough to wriggle out of the straitjacket that is shareholder capitalism.

I also think that the people blogging about LGBT rights have failed to see the strength of their position. We've just established that avoiding homophobia is the profitable action; that means that the accessibility of gay-themed books is not a minority issue. You also need to look at how the discussion has been framed. Throughout the whole #amazonfail furore, the debate has been about whether the withdrawal of gay- and lesbian-themed books from the sales rankings was a deliberate decision, a "glitch" or the work of hackers. The most controversial position to take on this seems to be: "It was a mistake, all businesses make mistakes sometimes, let's give Amazon a break." The most popular position seems to be: "If it was a mistake, a big company like Amazon should have had the processes and resources in place to correct it immediately." Absolutely nobody seems to be saying, "Perhaps businesses should be allowed to choose to ban gay-themed books." Everybody in this argument takes for granted that if Amazon had deliberately excluded gay-themed books, that would be completely unacceptable. That consensus is a big deal.