Under the Amazon Eye

Link Big EReader is Watching You from the Grauniad, 4th July 2012.

Your e-reader knows how long it took you to finish The Hunger Games and where you stopped reading Wolf Hall. Publishers are thrilled with the new data – but what does it mean for the rest of us?

Probably not a great deal.

Tim Coates, founder of new online ebook store Bilbary, which has launched in the US and will make its debut in the UK later this summer, is adamant that individual data should never be shared.”It would be absolutely dreadful. What people read is so private, and they have a total right to their privacy. That is rule number one and we would never ever tell anybody what anybody is reading,”

More personal than what you’re buying in the supermarket, or in Boots, registered on those loyalty cards? Admittedly, this does hark very close to the bogeyman of ‘Thoughtcrime’, and the urban legends of police interrogating library borrowing records (which is quite true in at least one case, although it was not books borrowed that the Met were interested in, but the ID of the person who had accessed ‘terror related’ websites at their local public library. Said records were apparently surrendered without question.).

The trouble is, as we consume more an more material via electronic means, we tend to forget that the internet, rather than giving us freedom, is actually putting us under more scrutiny. Every film you watch on Netflix or LoveFilm (yes, including the softcore) is logged next to your name. Every television show that you order is stored on a database. All of your purchases on iTunes, games from PSN and, of course, eBooks. 

None of these are ‘purchased’, either, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts. You simply buy the rights to access them (rights which can be taken away). Amazon, like your supermarket with their loyalty cards, can do what it likes with your data, if you can find the sub-clause in the contract that you just ticked ‘I Agree’ to.

 At the end of the day, it does allow publishers more information than they would have if they just put the book on a shelf,” he says. “It is going to be interesting to watch how it evolves over time. It is more power to the people who are essentially telling publishers and authors what it is they want to read.”

Now that’s an interesting bit, as if we needed more over-designed books out there following the latest trends. I dread to think how many Hunger Games clones will appear over the next year. I know that publishers have got to print books that sell, but this really is a Clockwork Orange approach to crafting literature. It also reflects the evolution of the internet and search engines into echo chambers, where users are directed only to material that resembles material that they have already consumed. Do we really want to loose even more serendipity when it comes to choosing books? Do we want Amazon to dismiss book choices based on the fact that we’ll read them too slowly and take too long making our next purchase?

The only data that I’d really be interested in is comparing the reading habits of Kindle users to those of print readers. Is one more likely to be reading more books simultaniously? Is one likely to impulse-buy more? Does medium actively affect reading patterns in an adverse or positive way? Sadly, education and academic reasearch is likely to be sidelined in favour of commercial manufacturing…