Then check out, if you haven't seen it already, the description by Michael Eisen, a biologist at UC Berkeley, of his efforts to buy an old science book, about flies, from Amazon. Automatic pricing algorithms by used-book vendors there drove the asking price for The Making of a Fly to more than $23.6 million. Here, from Eisen, was the bidding early in the process, when the book was going for just over $2 million, plus $3.99 shipping:
I've written before, though I can't find the link at the moment, about the oddities of used-book pricing on Amazon, where some books that originally went for $10 are listed at 10 cents and others, inexplicably, at $500. Eisen explains the automatic-bidding "logic" that produced the $23 million price. As he puts it, in a model of applying scientific deduction to a clearly wacky phenomenon, "Both profnath [one seller] and bordeebook [the other] were clearly using automatic pricing -
employing algorithms that didn't have a built-in sanity check on the
prices they produced." (Thanks to MTJ for the tip.)
For more on the general concept of out-of-control bots upsetting financial and social life, see Bill Davidow's recent book, with Katie Hafner, Overconnected. It's $18.45 on Amazon -- or a bargain at only $22 million direct from me.
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James Fallows is a staff writer for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the new book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which has been a New York Times best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.