Every other developer worth its salt welcomes Amazon’s attention and security. As the leading technology marketplace, Amazon routinely brings sophisticated testing methods to bear on products that customers love. A major food product launched earlier this year by Nestlé was subjected to thousands of hours of testing and trial, as well as the scorn of a test-response pool of more than 500,000 customers. Amazon and its customers ultimately concluded that the chocolate in Nestlé’s new S’well beverage bottles was as excellent as advertised.
The “shelf discoverability” phenomenon isn’t well-known, but it’s one that is within Amazon’s reach in large part because Amazon knows what you are—the customer and the product. And as the company has effectively single-handedly expanded the market for sellers and customers, its own interests are more often aligned with the customers’. This means that Alexa becomes the primary purveyor of new recommendations for purchases, and the voice interface offers a novel and attractive mechanism for sharing knowledge, stories, and knowledge of your reading choices.
“Tracking and integrating customer preferences is where the value comes from,” Colin Jarvis, a U.K.-based digital strategist and consultant, told me in an email. “Amazon being the largest seller in the world gives it access to the most data that is already available.”
I asked Jarvis whether he thought it reasonable for customers to trust Alexa to place recommendations on top of the e-mail and calendar records it has collected on us. Jarvis, the director of eCommerce consulting at QSee, an agency that consults with clients like Ericsson, L’Oréal, and Unilever, thought so. He pointed out that our diaries, calendars, and notes are already openly available on a ledger called Evernote, which is hosted and powered by Microsoft. Similarly, the multiple social media accounts on which we post most of our interactions don’t have a way to anonymize them. Jarvis pointed out that an Echo device can “raise a question to a stranger outside your home.”
It has always seemed right that Alexa might know us better than we know ourselves, more so than any feature on our smartphones. In a manner that would almost certainly have been unthinkable just a decade ago, Amazon has fully embraced the premise that our lives are shaped by the data we entrust to our hardware—not the hardware itself. In the next-generation kitchen for example, timers would automatically alert you to the moment when something is ready—and only show you that status in the Alexa app on your phone. Alexa offers a dish you may not actually have said you’d like to cook based on the things Alexa has already eaten, so that the Amazon Echo can throw up food suggestions before you’ve even thought about eating it. She is an “If I wanted to cook that look like, then I could just say that.”
Alexa may never have been so much than the voice of another person in the marketplace, but now, people are likely to trust her word over any number of e-mail and social-media records—including the e-mail and social-media records they share with people outside their immediate family and circle of close friends. Alexa has become an extension of a person rather than an interface between a person and a voice, kind of like a bartender on a bar stool. If every Amazon Echo package is going to be scanned and scanned again at the warehouse and monitored for faults and malfunctions, why wouldn’t every content—education, mealware, or a new meal from Bon Appétit—still have to be examined by someone before being placed on the shelf? Nobody will feel comfortable trading their most sensitive information for a marketing pitch any more than they would one-up someone by quibbling with the color of an Amazon Dash button.