copyright notice
link to published version: IEEE Computer, July, 2012
reproduced as featured article in Computing Now, August, 2012

accesses since May 29, 2012

The OuijAmazon Desktop Metaphor

Hal Berghel

We're now well into 2012 or 17AA (After Amazon). has been the world's online super-retailer since the cretaceous period of e-commerce, surviving the mass extinction of ill-conceived and under-funded e-businesses. It is now solidly interwoven into the fabric of global e_commerce. In this column I'll reflect on another, less-well-known, aspect of Amazon: Jeff Bezos' perfection of mind control by secretly converting our workstations into digital Ouija boards. At least that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Like many of you, my life in e_Amazonia began innocuously enough with web surfing. I noticed that no matter what my search target was, the search results seemed to contain at least one link to Amazon. Initially, I was lured into a few of the original departments - books, movies & tv, music, etc. - standard fare for an Amazon neophyte. But then something strange happened. Jeff began to e_speak to me, personally and telepathically. Infrequently at first (Jeff is very e_polite) but over time with increased e_frequency. He suggested more goodies for my consideration. By the time he offered me an Amazon Prime membership – an offer only extended special friends –I was hooked.

Jeff has now taken control of my online-shopping will power. I've become an e_recluse. No brick-and-mortars for me. No idle chatting with clerks and salespersons. I leave my house for fresh food and café au lait – Jeff's got everything else covered. Last week I needed a battery for my watch. Jeff came through. I needed a tool to open the watch? Jeff's the man. The case back gasket was ruined. No problem. Jeff has a pack of 72 for $6.99. I don't know how Jeff can keep track of all of this stuff. At this point I'm confident that if Jeff doesn't have it, I can probably get along without it.

Every couple of days Jeff or one of his messengers drops worldly delights in a happy face box at my doorstep. Jeff has become the home delivery e_milkman for the new millennium.


My last e_discussion with Jeff went something like this (at least this is the way I choose to remember it).

Jeff: “Welcome, Hal. Thank you for your business.” I see you're looking at a Powermatic table saw.”

Hal: “Yes, Jeff. I was somewhat concerned about the California Proposition 65 warning on it, but then I noticed that everything useful in life has a California Proposition 65 warning on it, so I'm willing to take a chance.”

Jeff: “Good call on Prop 65. Would you mind if I made a suggestion?”

Hal: “Not at all, Jeff. You know more about this stuff than I do.”

Jeff: “Well, Hal, I've found that my other customers who bought this award-winning Powermatic table saw also bought a Forrest Woodworker II 40-tooth ATB .100 Kerf Saw Blade with a 5/8-inch Arbor. Have you ever considered that?”

Hal: “Can't say as I have, Jeff. How expensive is that bad boy?”

Jeff: “For you, Hal, $113.04 will buy this beauty. This is 11% off MSRP. And of course I'll give you Free Super Saver Shipping, and it goes without saying that the purchase will be tax-free. I don't know if this is for you, Hal, but I might mention that 64 of my customers have given this a 5 star rating! If you should decide to buy this, I can have it to your house in two days. But let me caution you, Hal, I only have two of these left. More are on the way, but I don't know when they'll get here. The choice is yours, big guy. I'm just trying to help.”

Hal: “I know you are, Jeff. You're a people person.”

Jeff: “Thanks, Hal. I'm always here for you.”

I felt the warmth.

It's precisely at this point that Jeff deploys his digital mind control. Jeff was one of the first e_commerce innovators to reject traditional screen gumbo like pop-ups and animations as products of the unrefined intellect. Jeff took a swerve and invented a new desktop metaphor of his own: the Amazon virtual Ouija board. That's right, Ouija board. Just connect to Look at your hand as it rests on the mouse. Jeff's imaginary hand is holding on to the other end, guiding you to e_nirvana. I call this the Ouijamazon desktop metaphor.

Few among us who can refuse a peek at the mystery that awaits about two inches below the green “In stock but may require an extra 1-2 days to process” info-bar on the Amazon page. We attempt to direct our cursor toward the back arrow icon but something stops us. The mouse becomes the planchette and an unknown force moves the cursor slowly but surely toward the scroll bar. This force is usually unstoppable in my case. The ancient Greeks created a special word for this in anticipation of akrasia =df inability to resist Jeff.

A gentle tug on the scroll bar introduces something we didn't know we needed but now can't live without. That was Jeff's invisible hand was at work. I hear Jeff's voice again: “Hal, take a look at the Forrest DK08244 Dado King 8-inch Dado Blade Set.” I can get that to you Tuesday for $269.10 – and all 13 of your peers have rated it 5 stars! “If you care to look at the reviews, I'll even sort them so you have the most helpful reviews first.”

Of course there may be some who deny this phenomenon and the very existence of the Ouijamazon desktop metaphor. But those types probably don't look to the Ouija board for enlightenment either. Some people just can't think outside the box.


Bezos' is the gold standard of e_commerce. My imaginary dialog with Jeff illustrates an example of social engineering in the good sense of the term. The result was a fair, arms-length transaction followed in two days by a Fedex driver with a Forrest Woodworker II 40-tooth ATB .100 Kerf Saw Blade with a 5/8-inch Arbor that cuts spalted maple like butter. What's not to like.

What brought Amazon to this place was the integration of both a solid understanding of the virtue of the World Wide Web and a keen online business sense taken to the level of art.

If one looks to from the point of view of just the Website, one can see that it takes advantage of the enabling advantages of the web, while avoiding the disadvantages. Jeff/Amazon realized early on that (1) search engines are very unfriendly to brands, (2) the Web tended to commoditize everything, and (3) in order for Amazon to prosper it had to provide a memorable experience at a variety of levels. Amazon goes way beyond the plain portal by integration. Since the early days, it featured an informal recommending system augmented with feedback, customer relationship management through links to catalogs, advertisers, technical support, and business partners, etc. And it took advantage of the Web's unifying technology to integrate native and third-party multimedia. In a sense is a cloud of self-starting virtual communities built around e_commerce. None of these features in themselves were particularly new or noteworthy twenty years ago, but bringing them all together for the purpose of e_commerce was inspired - and a key to Amazon's success.

And let's not overlook the sound business model – the bête noir of e_commerce sites for the first half of the web's existence. In retrospect, it is obvious that Bezos' take on e_commerce was the right way to do it:

to name but a few.

Of course the tax-free status will end soon as cash-short states push for legislation to have online retailers do their bidding - California projects a $300m+ windfall as a result of their 2011 agreement with Amazon. But even if you take tax-avoidance out of the equation, Bezos' business model still stands above the e_commerce competition. He's one of the few who seem to have gotten it right from the start.

Except for the Kindle, that is. Were he to have asked me, I would have recommended to Jeff that take a swerve around e_book hardware and open the warehouses to the public. But that's just me.