Is Amazon Evil?

by Mike Gleicher on December 23, 2014

(This posting is from December 2015 – before Amazon’s even more rapid diversification and growth. I think the basic message may have evolved now that Amazon seems to be taking over everything – for better or worse.)

For the books I recommend, I have provided links so you can buy them on Amazon. Some people think this is a bad thing, because they believe that Amazon is evil. If you object to Amazon, then there are other ways to get the books. For the class texts, I have requested that they be available at the UW Bookstore.

Online bookstores (Amazon in particular) are very convenient. However, they also kill off physical bookstores. Back in the old days, we used to say “support your local book store against the chains.” Now its more “support your local chain book store against the online giants.”

Worse, as online retailers get really big, they have more leverage to be even fiercer competitors and crush the smaller (local) ones. The upside of this is that some of them (notably Amazon) invest heavily in technology (which is practical to do at massive scale) which means they have even more advantages. So, they can provide even an even more competitive customer experience, and even better use their size to crush their smaller competitors. What makes this even more unfair is that the biggest retailers can subsidize their growth via the stock market (if your local store lost as much money as Amazon, they’d be out of business). The positive side is that Amazon has invested in research (they have some totally cool robot technologies for their warehouses, for example).

In France, a vibrant bookstore culture is viewed as an important part of a free society: if there is a monopoly in bookstores, there is a monopoly of ideas. For this reason, books cannot be discounted in France. Amazon is still big there, but they don’t compete on price. Anecdotally, it seems that the local bookstore scene is better in France (at least the places I visited).

All that said, I will provide you with links so that you can buy stuff from Amazon if you like. These links are set up with “affiliate” links – so that the “UW graphics group” gets a few pennies if you buy something. All those pennies are used to buy books for our lab. (you can of course, take out the affiliate part of the link and direct those pennies elsewhere).

And if you’re wondering abut my personal viewpoint: I do like to buy local, but admit that the convenience and selection of buying online means that I buy a lot of stuff that way.

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