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April 27, 2016

When Amazon reversed its decision to carve out Roxbury from same day delivery it seemed that the company had come to recognize residents as citizens not data points, had heeded the political call of our political leaders, and that the language of morality had produced a small triumph over the market. Perhaps.

 I’ve been concerned with the treatment of Americans as data points and not citizens for some time. When Amazon excluded three zip codes in Roxbury from its service, some saw racial discrimination at work; apparently it wasn’t. Amazon was simply following its algorithms showing that it would make insufficient profits in those areas to justify the expense of offering same day service.

Roxbury residents and political leaders responded to Amazon’s market rationale with the language of morality. Mayor Marty Walsh stated that “All of our neighborhoods should be treated equally.” Former state treasurer Steve Grossman, now CEO of Roxbury non-profit Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, called Amazon’s business plan “insensitive, unjust, and unwise.” Roxbury resident Richie Medina complained that “It’s just not fair.’’

 Amazon blew off Mayor Walsh’s request that Roxbury be provided service but relented several days later. It seems unlikely that the algorithm changed, so perhaps a human being at Amazon responded to the language of morality. Or perhaps Amazon has another algorithm that calculates the business impact of loss of good will.

 It may seem odd that politicians are offended at Amazon’s dependence on advanced metrics since this is exactly what candidates do.  A candidate is looking for votes as the currency in the political market just as Amazon is seeking dollars as the currency in its market. Sasha Issenberg’s book The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns (available on Amazon, $9.99 with Prime) explains how political campaigns like Barack Obama’s have used Big Data to break the electorate into smaller and smaller segments. Micro-targeting is good for marketing candidates, but what does it say about our common citizenship?  While politicians often speak the language of morality, they are governed by the market.

 What is smart politics is apparently unjust business.

Big Data has its drawbacks. The finest data crunchers available to Senator Marco Rubio advised him that questioning the size of Donald Trump’s … ah … hands could be just the thing to revive Rubio’s campaign. The United States senator (World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, World’s Most Exclusive Club, etc.) lacked the decency or discretion to defy the algorithm. But then no one at Amazon questioned a formula that was not designed to exclude African Americans but only to exclude zip codes where Amazon would not make money.

 To its great credit the Globe went out and interviewed real human beings. Some spoke the language of the market – one businessman sided with Amazon. But most including the elected officials, viscerally, spoke the language of morality: unjust, unfair, unequal. There’s hope yet.

Amazon, Marty Walsh

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