[Animism: The belief that natural objects, phenomena, and the universe itself have desires and intentions.(Free On Line Dictionary)

Numen: A spirit believed by animists to inhabit certain phenomena or objects.(Webster’s)

Some writers, possibly closet animists, ascribe seemingly inexplicable phenomena at Amazon to “the algorithms,” much as the Romans attributed natural events they couldn’t comprehend to the numen. I’ve been jostled by these algorithms, and can commiserate with the virtual cries of anguish.

Yggdrasil

Yggdrasil: The Mother Numen of Amazon Algorithms

KDP Select promotions that have no longer have any seeming affect on sales? “The algorithms.” Vanishing book reviews? “The algorithms.” Books suddenly gone from Category lists? “The algorithms.” Sales off? “The algorithms.” Some folks seem to spend more time trying to comprehend those algorithms and perceive their flaws than they do writing—impossible without reverse engineering the source code, which Amazon isn’t going to share.

More useful, perhaps, is to consider the emergent issue of “the algorithms” within the context of Amazon’s boldly-conceived and well-executed triumph as the premier on-line book retailer. For computer programs, after all, are written within the context of a business philosophy to “execute the decisions, actions, and activities of an organization or system,” as systems design theory puts it. Is what we’re seeing in those algorithms reflective of high-level decisions at Amazon? Or is it something less insidious?

Historically, Amazon’s brought literacy into a new age by championing the ebook, the greatest innovation in mass communication since Gutenberg invented moveable type in 1436. Gutenberg’s invention released the written word from the death grip of church and aristocracy, expanding the Renaissance, sparking the Reformation and the Age of Reason.

Amazon freed the written word from the palsied hand of traditional Big 6 gatekeepers, the self-anointed arbiters of what books were to be given life. Readers were hungry for the content Big 6 publishers were denying them, and hungry for it at an affordable price. Amazon is providing that—and making oodles of money doing so.

It seems a virtuous process for Amazon, its customers and authors. Why would Amazon jeopardize its success by alienating and disaffecting its writers through slash-and-burn programs and counter-intuitive sales promotion algorithms? Few people can create a good, book-length read. Logically, one wouldn’t want to drive them into the welcoming arms of the growing, well-funded competition.

This illogical behavior could be written off to hubris, which has felled many a successful enterprise, but Amazon’s senior management has never seemed lacking for introspection. I doubt it is now.

Rather, I believe that due to the size and complexity of Amazon’s burgeoning information technology structure and its own rapid corporate expansion, widening cracks may be appearing: undiagnosed cascade events, wherein one new program has unintended consequences on other processes. And in daily management, where direction from the top is misinterpreted or wrongly implemented. Jeff Bezos’ legendary micromanagement and superb computer science skills alone may no longer be enough to ensure all facets of Amazon’s functionality.

We’ll see if complaints continue to grow and if and when there’s a response. Smart money says Amazon will get it together.

But maybe I’m wrong—maybe it is the algorithms themselves. And if I study them long enough and hard enough, perhaps I can understand them and resolve my own Amazon issues. Then I’ll publish a Kindle ebook entitled Understanding Amazon’s Algorithms: a Guide for Authors. 

No harming trying. Off to commune with Yggdrasil’s numen. How does one begin? Oh, of course.(Uncanny how you just think “sacrifice” and all the cats disappear.)

Cheers,

Steve