Friday, April 17, 2009

The error behind Amazon’s

So Larry Kramer, who has also collected eighteen thousand signatures on a petition calling for a boycott, does not think—not for one second—that a computer glitch caused some books by prominent homosexuals to lose their Amazon sales rankings and become harder to find in searches. Michael Lukas goes even further. The glitch “targeted” homosexuals’ books, he yells: “Not only does the incident reek of blatant bias, it also displays a profound ignorance of literary history.”

That is quite a lot for one mistake to accomplish. If Kramer and Lukas do not believe that a programming error caused the “deranking” of some books, what do they believe was behind it? Lukas is clear on the point, offering a “short list of titles that Amazon might consider for the next round of censorship” and wondering darkly whether “this is the company we want controlling the future of literature.” But aren’t these contradictory ambitions? If Amazon seeks to corner the book-buying market, why would it also seek to shrink the size of the market? Do Kramer and Lukas really believe that it is good business to eliminate homosexuals’ books from a bookstore’s inventory? How would that be in Amazon’s interests? Are homosexual writers and readers such an insignificant public that the company could afford to offend and exclude them?

The programming error suggests exactly the opposite. Amazon was apparently trying to revise its search algorithms to make it easier for customers to find books on what are politely described as “gay themes.” But here is just exactly the source of the problem. And it is evidence of special pleading on the part of homosexual writers and readers. They want books with “gay themes” to be distinguished from all other books—set apart in a separate universe, with its own separate foundation and its own separate prizes—and they annex an ever-increasing area of literary history to this universe, but then they object, as Daniel Mendelsohn does in the same New York Times article in which Kramer is quoted, that “the words gay and lesbian were clearly flagged” when Amazon sought to revise its search algorithms. Since they themselves insist upon euphemisms like “gay” and “lesbian”—to speak more plainly would be a slur—they are the ones who have installed euphemism at the heart of the process and complicated the effort of distinguishing their writing from everyone else’s. They want to be singled out. They bridle at being singled out. Perhaps the very idea of “gay literature” is to blame for the whole snafu.


Anonymous said...

"he yells"Yells? There's no exclamation point, no italics, no caps. No yelling.

Lying does not become us, Mr. Myers.

D. G. Myers said...

You have a pretty narrow feeling for the word yell. I am not using it in the old email sense of YELLING.

The word usually connotes panic.

In a more formal sense, it often refers to the organized effort to build group cohesion. The Boy Scouts encourage yelling: “There are few things which, like good and well rendered Yells, are able to create cohesion and enthusiasm. Boys like to yell and to cheer, they like to let off steam one way or another.”

No lie. I am trying to characterize the emotional and political effects of Mr Lukas’s accusation that Amazon “targeted” homosexuals with a computer error.