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.

The problem of sustained reading in a distracted society

February 3, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

This past weekend, yr. humble correspondent finished reading Under the Dome by Stephen King. The endeavour took approximately 30 days to complete. While a novel of 1,072 pages is by no means a minor undertaking, 30 days to read a single book seems – to an inveterate reader such as myself – excessive. True, I completed two other, shorter books for review in the interim, but for the most part, my reading time in the month of January was devoted to a single book.

One reason for this is that I read the book in snippets – short gulps here and there whenever I could fit them in – rather than setting aside blocks of time to read, say, 100 pages or so. True, I have a day job that cuts into my reading time, and it’s clearly important to maintain a life outside the confines of a book’s covers, lest one become a kind of anti-social hermit. Still, it’s not as though my life is so back-breakingly full that I couldn’t find a quiet hour or two for sustained reading each day. Indeed, if I were to add up all the time spent staring at various screens in the month of January, the total would probably have been sufficient to allow me to finish a book of 1,000+ pages in 10 days or so.

It wasn’t always this way. I remember a time, not so long ago, when blocks of several hours per day could easily be found to read for pleasure. What has changed? In a word: distraction. The Internet, social media, reality television, and 24-hour-a-day celebrity culture have increased easy access to all manner of distraction, and distraction is anathema to sustained reading. Reading requires concentration and active engagement, qualities that are in short supply in today’s hyperlinked, attention-deficit society.

Alan Bissett, writing on the Guardian‘s Books Blog (yes, I recognize the irony), makes the same point, and extends it to include a value judgment:

So besieged are we by the entertainment industry that we are being stimulated only in certain directions. The sound of fizz is everywhere. Sustained concentration on the printed word, whether in-depth argument or fictional narrative, creates a particular cerebral event which visual-dependent media cannot. The assault upon this has meant the very theft of our thinking space.

This argument has been made before, notably in a 2008 article by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. Carr points out that although we are engaging with the written word more than ever before, the way we are doing so is changing:

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking – perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

This is no small matter. Skimming an online news article for tidbits of information or the next interesting hyperlink on which to click does little to develop the kind of complex thinking skills that are necessary to engage in a sustained analysis or argument, nor does it allow for an acceptance of ambiguity or nuance.

Jakob Nielson, an influential figure in “web usability,” provides statistics to support this shift in the way people read online: “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word by word.” All of which might be fine in an online environment, but the same kind of reading habits have begun to bleed into our offline lives. Don’t believe me? Then you haven’t picked up the print edition of The Globe and Mail recently. If you had, you’d surely have noticed that the news articles are getting shorter, and are frequently displaced by verbal graphics, “charticles,” and bulleted lists. All perfect fodder for people who want their information provided to them quickly and cleanly, without requiring the reader to chew over intricate concepts or bedeviling subject matter.

Neil Postman was certainly ahead of his time when, in his 1985 work Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, he surveyed the media landscape and noticed the deleterious effect that television was having on our political culture. It was a brilliant time-waster, to be sure, but Postman also realized that the ubiquitous home entertainment device was destroying rational argument and civic awareness. In his foreword, he juxtaposes the visions of two authors, George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Huxley – who, while nailing our “almost infinite appetite for distractions,” could hardly have foreseen American Idol, Twitter, or Perez Hilton – was also far ahead of his time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to read a book.