This project

This project responds to a recent patent granted to Amazon for what they call ‘speculative shipping’ and develops the ‘speculative methods’ being introduced in  sociology.  In particular, it takes up Amazon’s plans to send customers gifts in the post.

Amazon’s gifts involve the collection of data on customers that is then used to calculate further opportunities to induce purchases.  In contrast, this project utilizes an older and more haphazard process of selecting potential receivers of gifts than Amazon’s and recipients are invited to include a speculation about their future.

Background to Amazon’s speculative shipping patent

Alternatively called anticipatory and speculative shipping, the patent is Amazon’s attempt to minimise the delay between ordering goods online and delivery. They plan to ship goods in advance of order to particular geographical hubs, based on customer profiles.

If a ‘speculatively shipped’ good is then ordered, the customer will receive their item more quickly than if it had to be sorted and shipped from a main warehouse.

If a ‘speculatively shipped’ good is not ordered, it can be returned to the main warehouse.  However, this will have financial implications for Amazon, and the patent suggests a number of different options for Amazon to counter the loss of a sale.  For instance, if a customer has an item on their ‘wish list’, Amazon may instead offer that customer a discount on the item, to persuade them to purchase it.

In other cases, the patent describes that the item ‘may be delivered to a potentially-interested customer as a gift rather than incurring the cost of returning or redirecting the package […] For example, if a given customer is particularly valued (e.g., according to past ordering history, appealing demographic profile, etc.), delivering the package […] to the given customer as a promotional gift may be used to build goodwill’.

Writing in Forbes magazine, Marketing Professor Praveen Kopalle describes this patent as ‘sheer genius’:

 Amazon is also the purveyor of the three-Ds of consumer psychology: delight, discounts and deals. Anticipatory shipping adds to these. Think of the feelings you get when you see that an Amazon package has arrived at your door—it’s delightful and exciting, even though you know what it is. […] We like getting things in the mail, even if we didn’t ask for them.

This project takes off from the patenting of speculative shipping.  In particular, it explores the idea that receiving things in the post is ‘delightful and exciting’ through speculative methods and mail art.

Background to speculative methods

Sociology is currently paying more attention to the methods that it uses to research the world.  This includes a good deal of experimentation with methods: from involving participants and digital media in new ways to disseminating research in exhibitions or performances.

It also involves Sociology learning from, and working with, approaches developed in other disciplines, including Art and Design.  For example, as part of a project involving sociologists and designers, Alex Wilkie, Mike Michael and Matthew Plummer-Fernández developed and set in motion ‘bots’ (programmes that produce automated posts) to research how energy-demand reduction is talked about on Twitter.  These bots don’t just ‘observe’ discussions of energy-demand reduction on Twitter; they produce tweets.  In doing so, the bots and their tweets are part of Twitter, they participate in or ‘perform’ Twitter.  For these authors, the bots are an example of ‘speculative methodology’, which is ‘not prescriptive: it is performative’ (p 20).

Speculative methodology intervenes in a particular social site (in this case Twitter) and prompts and probes that site (rather than observing it).  Speculative methodology, therefore, involves a ‘shift from seeing research as answering a research question to seeing it as the opportunity for asking more inventive questions’ (p 2).

Drawing on this idea of speculative methodology as ‘asking inventive questions’ and as intervening in a research site, this project explores the system of speculative shipping that Amazon proposes by using mail art as an alternative mode of sending gifts, speculatively, in the post.

Background to mail art

Mail art – also known as post art, postal art and correspondence art – involves artists from around the world mailing or posting art to each other.  Mail art is a varied practice, and can include relatively simple doodles or sketches, collaged postcards, decorated or stamped envelopes, and more collaborative work where an artist sends a blank piece and asks the recipient to complete and return, or where the recipient of one piece of work is asked to add to it and send it on to another recipient.

One of the main features of mail art is that it involves an exchange of art through the post, and that a network of communication is formed.

Mail art is commonly seen to have been established by US-based artist Ray Johnson in the 1950s.  Johnson began mailing pieces of art to fellow artist friends and acquaintances and an international network of artists became what Johnson called the New York Correspondance [sic] School.  This network was largely private, although exhibitions in the early 1970s did publicise some of the art produced. Mail art has remained popular since then, and contemporary communication technologies such as the internet are pushing the boundaries of the practice. In the 1970s, mail art was also used to circulate alternative ideas in countries where state censorship was dominant (e.g., in Eastern Europe).

Although Johnson is seen as initiating mail art, its roots are also in avant-garde or alternative art practices, including Fluxus, an international network of artists in the 1960s who mixed different media and methods to develop an aesthetics to challenge how art and culture were becoming increasingly commericalised.  Indeed, mail artist Clive Phillpot argues that

When one receives mail art from Ray Johnson, one is receiving a gift of art. An ongoing practice based on gifts, or gift exchange, is rather extraordinary in developed countries in the late twentieth century. The current convention that the value of art depends upon public exposure and a price tag is dented by this practice. (1995: p 26).

It was also influenced by pop art – a movement that sought to engage with and include forms of ‘low’ or popular culture, in opposition to how art had previously focused on and be seen as a ‘high’ cultural practice.  Another main feature of mail art is that it includes or references everyday life and popular culture.  For example, doodles are often considered a ‘low’ form of art, and mail art collages often include homemade rubber stamps and ‘found objects’, such as bus tickets and receipts.