“Generative art” is a blanket term for any creative work produced in part through programmatic or algorithmic means. “Playful generative art” makes use of highly technical disciplines—computer programming, statistics, graphic design, and artificial intelligence—to produce chat bots, digital poetry, visual art, and even computer-generated “novels.” These pieces may be motivated by serious social or political issues, but the expressions are decidedly unserious, often short-lived or quickly composed. Creators working in this medium are rarely artists first—as programmers, designers, game developers, and linguists, they use the tools of their trade in unexpected and delightful ways. Generative art also has much to teach us about issues at the intersection of ethics and technology: what is the role of the artist in a human/machine collaboration; what is our responsibility when we design programs that talk with real people; how do we curate and study ephemeral digital works? Digital artists, writers, technologists, and anyone interested in media studies are invited to attend.
"Your margin is my opportunity" ~ Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos
Last week while on a day trip to Seattle, I decided to make a stop at Amazon’s first“Brick and Mortar” store, in the University of Washington neighbourhood of University Village.
I had two goals in mind. I wanted to see if I could get a personal book recommendation from an employee and I wanted to purchase a book without leaving any data. I am not averse to providing personal information, but I like to have the choice.
Now the company was moving into the physical space. How consumer-centric would it be?
As I wandered into Amazon’s first physical book store, I was struck by nostalgia for the small independent bookstores. Amazon has gone full circle. The small independent bookstores were decimated by massive, multi-city block stores such Chapters in Canada and Barnes and Noble in the US. In turn, Amazon’s entry into the online bookselling business in the late 1990s had, by the early 2000s, badly bruised the competition. Books began to take a back seat to lifestyle merchandize, kitschy cards, stationary and stuffies. Amazon grew bigger, squeezed publishers on pricing, and further backed the physical bookstores into a corner. Books were longer realizing a sustainable margin for the big chains. By 2010, Amazon dominated book selling through online sales of print books, and leading the way in eBook sales and its proprietary electronic reader – the Kindle.
The Seattle storefront reminded me of a modest neighbourhood book store in a great community setting. There was a cupcake shop and kids toy store nearby, and kids were playing on an outside playground. People were coming out of Amazon chatting and smiling, heading off to get a coffee and talk books.
An employee greeted us inside the store. She held an electronic gadget in her hand and smiled warmly as she beckoned toward the inside of the 7400 square foot store. In the very centre of the room, sat a huge flat screen TV. I am not sure if it was 4K, but the three kids sitting in front of it sure looked happy. They were playing the iOS-born Crossy Road using Amazon Fire TV.
Next to the TV was a table bedazzled with Kindles of all makes and models. A salesperson was talking to a customer about Amazon’s Digital Assistant Alexa (allegedly named in tribute to the Library of Alexandria). “Alexa” is actually the wake-up word used to activate Amazon’s Echo, a voice command device for the “smart home”, which answers questions, reads audio books, orders pizza, and becomes increasingly better at offering suggestions and choices the more data “she” has to analyse.
The more questions you ask of Alexa and the more you interact with it, the more it can “help make your life easier”, assures the salesperson. The customer is clearly unsure as to how all this works and suggests that it might make too much personal information freely available.
The salesperson quietly tells him that the information collected by Alexa is used to enhance the customer experience; to make shopping easier. Developed for the voice-activated “smart home ecosystem”, Alexa also personalizes search results for pretty much anything: books to vacations and, of course, helps the user order or restock items through Amazon.com.
Not having access to Alexa in Canada, I was completely enthralled, but I was getting data-saturated.
I refocused on books and decided to ask the nice employee who greeted us at the door if she might be able to help me find a book. She whipped out her device and asked me what title I wanted. I said I was looking for a recommendation of some titles. I told her I wanted to buy something for a friend who was interested in sports writing, more specifically, newspaper sports writers’ work outside of their journalism work.
She frowned and said she was sorry. She could only search by title and that she did “not know all the books in the store.” She suggested I try the Sports, Entertainment, Biography and Reference sections. She assured me that all the books in the store were 4 or 4.5 stars. I asked what that referred to and she said all the books in the store were curated according to the reviews at Amazon.com.
I walked to the Sports section and browsed some titles. I found an anthology of sports writing. It looked good. I checked the price on the back – $14.95. Knowing that Amazon would use the online price, I walked back to the employee and asked what the barcode on the cards attached the shelf was for, pretty certain it was a way to get the online price. She told me it was for internal inventory control.
On my way back to the shelf I ran into another employee. I showed him my book and asked if I could find the online price. He led me to a price checker. And there I discovered the book was listed at $11.99. Perfect, I thought. I did not have to give any personal data and I will get a nice discount. As I turned to leave, the employee suggested I also download the Amazon app. All I had to do was click the tiny camera icon on the app I could scan any price by using the bar code on the shelf to get the lowest price.
I said I was told the barcode was for internal inventory control. He looked baffled and told me they use the code to allow customer access to the most up-to-date online discounts. He noted that the online prices were always fluctuating “for various reasons” and that instead of changing the physical cards on the shelf, they just do it electronically. Makes sense.
I download the app and head to the children’s section. Already I knew by even using Amazon’s WiFi on my phone my data footprint was becoming visible, but I was not planning to log in to the app, just use it to check prices.
I scanned one children’s book and I got the prize in Canadian dollars – more than the American cover price. Not good, but not too surprising given the current exchange rate.
I scanned another title. This time, I was instructed to log in. I would just go buy my books. I did not HAVE to log in anyway, I could always use the scanner, but if I did log in would I get a better price based on my own shopping habits? Would I get a “personalized” price? I did not see how they could be that customized (yet) since the sales person was scanning the book itself. And as I did not log in to the app, I have no idea what steps I would have been taken through on my phone.
Ha, I thought. Minimal data breadcrumbs and I have two books, an enjoyable shopping experience (for the most part – still wondering about the internal inventory control comment – and I have US cash so I don’t have to worry about the weak Canadian dollar in the purchase.
“You have saved 35%!” the beautifully-dressed salesperson told me. Great, I think, and hand her my two American twenty-dollar bills. Her brow wrinkles and she says, “I am sorry. We are a cashless store.”
What?? I have no US credit card on me, and using my Canadian Visa is going to wipe out my discount and probably even add to the list price. I ask why in the world Amazon doesn’t take cash.
She smiles and says, “We want to replicate the online experience as much as possible.”
“But, you’re a physical store with physical books and I have physical money.”
She was sorry, she said.
I handed her my credit card. I could almost feel my data downloading into the Amazon vortex as my card slid through the machine. So much for avoiding the data trap…
“Have a wonderful day!” I heard from behind me as I headed out the door and thought about the rumoured expansion of Amazon’s physical stores into everything, not just books…
 The location opened in the fall of 2015, with plans for a second one for San Diego, and according to some industry experts, as part of rollout of hundreds more.
 (Just last week Amazon released two new “siblings” for Alexa: the Echo Dot and Tap).