April 13, 2009

Conspiracy Freaks Galore: The Amazon "Censorship" Flap

Greetings. Does the Internet provide an ideal growth medium for bizarre conspiracy theories? I don't know about "ideal" -- but we saw an example over the weekend of how people still love to blame conspiracies, even in cases where that belief simply makes no sense at all if you spend more than ten seconds really thinking about it.

On Sunday I started receiving e-mails from folks pointing me at various postings suggesting that Amazon had deployed an evil plan by purposely banning vast numbers of books from their sales ranking and related systems. What was really driving anger was the belief that the list of "banned" works was heavily skewed toward gay, lesbian, and other sexually-related themes.

These rumors were reportedly fueled largely by an avalanche of (necessarily short) Twitter postings, many of which seemed to represent the digital equivalent of "piling on" rather than exploring the illogic of the presumed circumstances.

And illogical they were. The range of the almost 60K books that had "vanished" was so broad, even including health books and classics, that it seemed obvious that a tagging error of some sort was the root cause -- and as is traditional with many such failures had come to fruition during a weekend, and a holiday weekend at that.

The issue was indeed tied to a cataloging problem, but even now, there are folks still writing around the Net who refuse to believe this, and who insist that "there must be more going on!" But think. What possible reason would Amazon have had to conduct such a purge? Did a right-wing religious group mysteriously buy a controlling interest? Did Bezos develop a sudden suicidal urge? No matter how you slice it, for Amazon to have purposely implemented such a broad action just didn't make any logical sense.

I'm reminded in some ways of the recent glitch at Google that caused all search results to be tagged as potential malware for a brief time. "Google must have been hacked! There's no other possible explanation," people were screaming. But in reality, the Google problem was caused by a relatively simple data entry error, and apparently Amazon's problem was of a very similar nature.

There are a couple of lessons to be remembered from all this.

One is that many of our technical systems are extremely complex and can be subject to asymmetric failures -- that is, a very small change or error can quickly propagate into massive effects. We're still learning how to minimize these kinds of risks.

The second teachable point is all about human nature, not technology.

People love conspiracy theories. Pick your topic. Google. UFOs and alien autopsies. The JFK assassination. Amazon, and on and on. Why do so many of us insist on complicated explanations and insanely unlikely levels of secrecy, when much more straightforward explanations make so much more sense?

I'm not a psychologist or a sociologist -- I never got far beyond introductory courses in either of those topics. But I'll bet it's all about the feeling of losing control. People simply don't wish to believe that simple errors can cause such widespread technical failures -- some sort of directed conspiracy to suppress particular points of view somehow seems much more palatable. Similarly, the concept of a dysfunctional lone gunman being able to change the course of world history is more than many people can handle.

In both of these examples, to accept the simple explanations is to emotionally accept the relative fragility of our systems and lives -- and that's something very difficult for many of us to do.

That's not to say that there can't be real conspiracies. But humans being the blabby creatures that we are, conspiracies are tough to maintain, especially over long periods of time. In theory, the really successful conspiracies would be the ones that we not only don't find out about in detail, but that we never would even suspect exist at all.

Unfortunately, I'm not permitted to discuss those ...


Posted by Lauren at April 13, 2009 09:01 PM | Permalink
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