Author, author!

Adrian Hon reminded me of something I’ve been puzzling over for a few months, in the wake of the Mystery of the Missing Amazon Receipts:

Chances are you’ve bought something from Amazon in the last few months (yes, we are all hypocrites, also there’s a pandemic on). Try searching your email for one of those orders. […]

No luck? You aren’t alone: Amazon stopped including item details in order confirmation and shipping notification emails a few months ago. They just show the price and order date now. For all its faults, Amazon has pretty good customer service, which makes this user-hostile change baffling to understand. Sure, you can still see your orders on Amazon’s website and download a CSV, but it’s far more cumbersome than searching your email; and if you’re a power-user, you can say goodbye to automatically generating to-do tasks from Amazon emails.

The mystery isn’t about why Amazon are doing this: I’m just wondering why I seem to have missed out?

Even as I’ve been reading about the content of Amazon’s emails changing over the last few months, my Amazon order confirmation emails have continued to include details of what I’ve ordered.1 Some of the commenters at Michael Tsai’s blog have suggested this might be a function of whether you’re using Gmail (nope) or whether you’re ordering through a business account (nope). Perhaps my Amazon UK account is just at the tail end of a very long queue and they’re destined to catch up with me, or perhaps it’s that all my recent orders from them have been for virtual items 2 not requiring postage so temporarily they’re being generated by a different sub-system that has yet to be updated in line with the new policy.3 Perhaps Amazon have decided that I buy from them so infrequently and spend so little with them that my data isn’t worth collecting. 4


In fairness, the bulk of Adrian Hon’s post is not about Amazon’s emails: it’s about the attitude of giant tech companies to the ownership of data that’s gathered through their systems and in particular the ramifications of that attitude to content collection and ownership of data if someone manages to get us all wearing AR spectacles that capture whatever’s in our field of view all day long as a matter of course. This topic needs to be thought about now, ready for the coming war for ownership of the data we look at every day.

Twenty years ago such an article might have ended with a plea that the IT giants do the right thing and not lay claim to ownership of the fruits of their users’ activity.5 In 2020 it ends with the conclusion that making the IT companies do the right thing is going to require regulatory action from the relevant governments, hopefully along with some degree of regulatory convergence.6

A reasonable strategy given where we’re starting from, but a battle destined to lead us all up several very steep hills before we’re done.


  1. I’m afraid I fail the power user test by not having bothered to set up a shortcut to automagically transfer the item details into OmniFocus for me to check off when the order arrives. I know I should do this because I can, but selecting the details of the item and using copy-and-paste (or the Share sheet) is good enough for me. I fear my lifetime stock of whatever enzyme drives some of us to be power users who get a buzz out of spending an hour writing a function to save 0.5 seconds per run is starting to run low and the extra effort just doesn’t feel worth the bother. (Yes, I should probably be banned from consuming Mac Power Users and Brett Terpstra‘s site if I can’t be bothered to follow through on life hacks like this. Sue me!) My main gripe with the emails I get from Amazon right now (at least until their change in email policy catches up with me so I don’t have the data to hand) is that for books Amazon include the title but not the author name. Given that I find myself copying this data into my accounts, it would be nice to capture the author name too at the same time as the title. Sometimes looking back I’ll see a title and not be able to bring the author’s name to mind, especially if the entry is a few years old. At 57 I should probably just get used to this mild forgetfulness, but it’d be so easy to include title and author in the email and let me capture all the relevant information in one go. (As of now, I just get round this by manually typing the author name in my note, like a caveman.) Using a portable computer as a backup brain is a big part of why I got into portable computers all those years ago when a Psion Series 3 or a Palm Pilot was the state of the art: now I’m on my second iPad Mini it’s a damn shame if our data sources are working against us by omitting information that they have right there
  2. Kindle books and the odd film rental through Prime Video. My last Amazon order that required a physical delivery was in December 2019, and the email included details of the item (Fridges Thermometer AIGUMI Digital Waterproof Fridge Freezer Thermometer With Easy to Read LCD Display and Max/ (2Pack-White)
  3. It’s weird that Amazon don’t seem to have announced this change. Did they think nobody would notice? Is this the first step in a process which ends with Amazon offering a shiny new order-status-monitoring app (Amazon Delivers?) that will pull data from Amazon’s servers and both provide all the statistical analysis of your order patterns that any geek could ask for while also integrating with your device’s reminders system to generate messages when an item is due to arrive? Proper power users will (reasonably enough) demand that the app allow them to feed this data to their chosen To Do app automagically. However, as long as the Amazon Delivers app provides a quick, simple list of items due most users will (also reasonably enough) be satisfied with that and (less reasonably, but understandably) will not care that the Amazon Delivers approach keeps that data about their orders safely inside Amazon’s app, where Amazon thinks it belongs. 
  4. A question for later consideration, in the dark and empty hours as I wait for sleep to catch up with me. Is the notion that my spending on Amazon might be so negligible that Amazon can’t even be bothered to try to protect it from data-scrapers a win or a loss for me? 
  5. From a selfish point of view: how will governments deal with their staff wearing AR goggles to work? Will civil servants be banned from wearing them in the office unless they’re an official set configured to disable the content-scraping feature? Will our office WiFi block access to the servers associated with whichever tech giant wins the AR Wars? Will all AR goggles from reputable manufacturers include a feature that they visibly indicate that they’re doing content-scraping? Come to that, how will all that operate in a world where many of us work from home? Or will there just be a law banning official information from being harvested by AR goggles that can be selectively enforced according to the whims of the government about what’s in the national interest that week? 
  6. The last thing we need is a world where the EU takes one approach and the USA takes another and China takes yet a third, and whatever remains of the UK by then is left to choose between them.