Monday, October 15, 2012

Big Brother is Watching You

When you read a book on Kindle, do you realise that it is also reading you?

Sign up to Kindle and one of the conditions is that you give them permission  to store information. Fine, you say; they know I'm reading this book because I bought it from them and I expect it's useful for them to compile their sales figures.

It's not only your choice of book they monitor, they monitor what you think of it. Did you know that the tracking information includes how quickly you are reading - the bits you linger over, the passages you read faster, the pages you skip over altogether? They know if you highlight something and analyse the popularity of particular ideas and plotlines. This charmed you, this excited you, that just bored you.

Some publishers are now putting out digital versions where after the book is published, the plot can be changed to go along with the information on what is most appealing to readers. Even more sinisterly, there are algorithms now making it possible for a book to be tailored to the  individual. The book I read, once my affection for Georgette Heyer had been recorded, wouldn't be the book that you, with your affinity to James Joyce, would be reading, even if it had the same title. I have a nightmare vision of a literary Groundhog Day when whatever we chose to read, it would always turn out to be the same book. And even I would get tired of cotillion balls, stage coaches, misunderstandings and a happy ending.

Admittedly commercial writers have always had an eye to popularity. Even Dickens, when he was writing Great Expectations as a newspaper serial, had alternative endings in mind and the one chosen would depend on the reactions of his public.

They were people who wrote to him to volunteer their opinions, though. This seems to me different. Speaking as a reader, this feels like spying on my innermost thoughts, an invasion of my mental privacy. Speaking as a writer, if I'm having a one-to-one conversation with a reader, I don't want anyone else eavesdropping.

Market research and feedback is all very well and we all do it, if we want to stay in print. But if fiction becomes as homogenised as long-life milk, we are looking into the abyss. And, as Nietzsche reminds us, the abyss also looks into us.


LD Masterson said...

I read about Amazon tracking "how" we read and it scared me to death. Another reason I prefer to read paper. But the idea that what I choose to read may be altered according to what someone decides I would like is beyond terrifying.

Aline Templeton said...

I must say, it sent the cold shivers down my spine.

Rick Blechta said...

I think we should all tell Amazon exactly what we think of this. If their sales drop, so will the “surveillance” pretty quickly. This is definitely out of bounds!

Charlotte Hinger said...

Curses on any writer, any time, any where, who would change their work on the basis of this kind of creepy tracking.