Who knows what (and how and where) you’re reading?

December 16, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Back in July 2009, readers found that digital editions of two books they’d purchased from Amazon – George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farmhad mysteriously vanished from their Kindle e-readers. Although it turned out that Amazon removed the books (and credited the affected accounts) because the editions were unauthorized, this episode stands as a cautionary tale about the power e-book retailers have over e-book readers.

That power could be about to expand exponentially. Today, NPR published an article outlining the data that various manufacturers of e-reading devices collect about their users. If the irony of having Orwell’s books erased from Kindle readers is thick, imagine what the author would think of the following:

  • According to Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Amazon can track how fast a person reads by the number of page clicks, and can tell where the reader stopped reading.
  • Bestselling author and president of the Authors Guild Scott Turow says of Amazon’s Kindle: “They could tell you with precision the age, the zip codes, gender, and other interests of the people who bought my books.”
  • Google stores pages from books a reader purchases through its eBooks store to keep track of where the buyer finished reading, but also for “security monitoring” and to police “abusive sharing” of titles.
  • Apple’s iBookstore sends “functional data” back to the company so that Apple can better “understand customers and customer behavior.”
  • Kindles and iPads are equipped with GPS software that allows their manufacturers to track not just what you’re reading, but where you’re reading it.

If all of this Big Brotherish activity strikes a cold note of fear in your heart, you’re not alone. Author Stephen King, who knows something about fear, told NPR, “Ultimately, this sort of thing scares the hell out of me.” And it should. The more society hands over its privacy and information to the digital machine – which increasingly means big corporations trying to sell people stuff – the closer we edge toward a precipice beyond which everything we do is monitored, crosschecked, analyzed, and monetized. Orwell feared that Big Brother would take the form of a totalitarian government; the truth is it may take the form of rapacious corporations collecting minute amounts of data on us to better understand how to enrich themselves at our expense.

Of course, it’s foolish to blame corporations and product manufacturers alone for the current state of affairs. The public at large seems all too eager to allow anyone and everyone access to every corner of their lives. Social media like Facebook and Twitter, and geolocation sites like Foursquare, provide constant updates about a person’s whereabouts, activities, and interests.

This has not gone unnoticed by the folks at Kobo, who are in the process of rolling out a Facebook-linked app called Reading Life, which will allow users to post reading lists to their Facebook pages, along with favourite passages, comments, and reading histories. What caught my eye, though, was a paragraph in Quill & Quire‘s report on the Kobo initiative:

The app isn’t just about cultural sharing, however – it also provides Kobo and other companies with new marketing opportunities. [Michael Serbinis, CEO of Kobo] gave this example: Kobo will be able, via the app, to detect if a particular user reads frequently at Starbucks. If that reader logs a certain number of reading hours at Starbucks, they could be offered a coupon on their next latte. If Kobo users don’t want Facebook to know what they’re reading or where they’re reading it, the app can be temporarily deactivated.

Kobo is quick to point out that Reading Life is an opt-in service – in other words, users have to consciously turn it on for it to work. This would likely be small comfort to the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, or to the novelist Auldous Huxley, who, in Brave New World, predicted that humans would be all too willing to assist the forces desiring to subjugate them. The uncritical enthusiasm with which users have embraced Facebook, Foursquare, and other social media indicates that Huxley was right. Who can blame Kobo, Apple, and Amazon for wanting to profit off such consumer indifference? The problem is that by the time we realize we’ve relinquished our lives to the machine, it will be too late.

Consider this: in the movie Seven, detectives Somerset and Mills track down the serial killer John Doe by accessing his library records. In that movie, what the detectives do is clearly meant to appear unethical and underhanded. In today’s wireless world, it’s just business as usual.

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