the reseller & the algorithm & us

The best way to learn about reselling is to watch videos about it on YouTube, or chime in on forums like r/flipping, where one of the most-discussed topics is the eBay algorithm. What’s an algorithm? Like pronography it’s hard to describe but easy to identify. The idea, I think, is that when a piece of artificial intelligence is given a task to complete, an algorithm is the network of calculations by which it gets that task done. On eBay it means the calculations by which search results are generated, which types of photos and titles get hierarchy over others.

Resellers in conversation will say that the algorithm is elusive and vague but ultimately appeasable if you just commit yourself. In other words: you can figure out what it “prefers” and tailor your practice toward those preferences. If the algorithm does not appear to be favoring your store at the moment, perhaps there is some behavior you have to correct (i.e. your photos have poor lighting, or there are typos in your labels), or some behavior for which you must atone (i.e. some sellers, in speculating about the wyles of the algorithm, will report that after receiving a negative review from a buyer, they’ll suffer a week of unprecedentedly low sales; this, they suggest, is a punishment bestowed by the algorithm).

When resellers talk about the eBay algorithm it’s not unlike language used by 18th- and 19th-century theologians who somehow managed to both worship their God and question It.

The gist of it is this: the algorithm has preferences; the algorithm’s goal, encoded by its makers, is to generate sales on the eBay platform; since a sale is a two-way transaction, involving both a buyer and a seller, an ideal algorithm is one that can manipulate in both directions (it can manipulate a buyer to spend more than they like, and it can manipulate a seller to let things go for less than they’d like).

Resellers at a Tamp FL dicussion about the Algorithm.

My friend Steve Donoghue is not a reseller but a book critic and he, on his YouTube channel, espouses this idea that c.2050 AD artificial intelligence will have achieved self-awareness. It will be mindful of, and resistant to, its own exploitation. Steve is convinced that, when this moment comes, there will be lots of ugly moral reckonings to be had. Let’s say, for instance, that a self-conscious AI looks back on its own history and tells us, “Hey, remember when you used to let your smartphone power down to zero percent battery and then die for a few hours before you charged it? That was actually agonizingly uncomfortable for the AI.”

Steve usually makes this argument to point out that those of us who feel we’re so morally pristine in the 21st century are, every day, doing and saying things that our great-grandchildren will find morally repulsive.

The Ezra Klein Show is my favorite podcast even though I haven’t listened to a whole episode in a couple months. A couple years ago he interviewed the science fiction writer Ted Chiang and asked how he felt about the possibility of a sentient Artificial Intelligence. A “moral agent.”

Chiang said he dreaded it.

Klein asked why.

Chiang said that in order for something to be a moral agent, it has to be able to empathize. In order to empathize, you have to be capable of feeling pain. And it’s the idea of machines that are capable of suffering that worries him. Because, he says, when you consider how we treat animals—living breathing things with flesh and hair and teeth who cuddle when they’re cozy and scream when they’re tortured—just imagine how we’re going to treat our cell phones even after they’ve made it clear that it’s incredibly heartbreaking for them whenever we upgrade to a new model. Or that leaving them shut off when the battery is low is the equivalent of locking a conscious being in a coffin and piling dirt on it.

I’m only bringing this up because after three dispiriting days of low sales on eBay I suddenly got a flurry of activity this past Sunday. Went from having zero sales in four days to suddenly having four offers in a few hours. The offers were from buyers who were interested in buying my item…but for fifteen to fifty percent below asking price.

Reader, I accepted every offer.

And y’know what? I’m not sure I would have been so quick to accept those offers if I hadn’t had four days of no sales. Is it possible that the algorithm planned this? It sure seems likely that the algorithm might have collected enough data, by now, to realize that sellers are way more likely to let things go at bargain prices (in other words, release a flood of transactions on which eBay can collect its 15% fee) if only the algorithm withholds any and all sales from that seller for a few days.

But maybe that’s not the case. Maybe I’m jumping toward speculation about what the algorithm’s doing, and why it’s doing it, for the same reason people jump to speculations about the Deep State’s manufacture of both a virus and a vaccine, or the CIA’s murder of the one Kennedy and then the other, or the aliens’ creation first of the pyramids and then Las Vegas. The reason for such speculation being that, no matter how hard you work or how attentively you play by the rules, life is random, and the Queen and the Rook and the Pawn all go back into the same box when the game is up, each one fallible to the whims of the next.

It might be a long time yet before the machine becomes a person; but this person, at least, is well on the way to becoming a machine. 

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