Why eReaders are the end of civilization as we know it

Your Kindle knows what you read, and shares that information back to its masters. It knows how fast you read, what you buy after you finish a book, what passages you and thousands of others highlight, and even where you sit down to read.

Oh no, Amazon knows I read on the can!

Actually, this last one is probably not true, but the rest is. There’s been some minor hullabaloo about this article from the Wall Street Journal, detailing the ways that the Kindle and the Nook track your reading habits.

Some people consider this to be an invasion of privacy, while others wonder what’s the big deal? I fall more into this second camp, what the Guardian article calls the “Facebook Generation”. For me it’s pretty simple, most market research is tracked in such a way that my individual preferences, my identity don’t even enter into the equation. It’s not a matter of how fast I read the Hunger Games, it’s a matter of how fast thousands of readers read the Hunger Games. Yes I’m somewhere in that data, but it’s a little difficult to distinguish that drop from the ocean.

Now, of course, Amazon is also gathering this data to sell me things. Good luck with that. I have fairly specific and eclectic tastes that Amazon’s “Recommended For You” rarely gets right. Additionally, most of the books I read on my Kindle didn’t come directly from Amazon, and so are not as easy to track (thank you Baen free library and Many Books). My Kindle does try to have me rate everything I finish (even drafts of my work in progress), but most likely that data only works correctly for stuff it owns. Speaking of rarely getting the ads right, my new Kindle with “Special Offers” was showing me diaper adds for two weeks just because I’m in my late twenties. I don’t have a baby Amazon, so I don’t want to buy Tiki themed Huggies. Frankly, part of me wouldn’t mind if they had a little better data on me, so that these algorithms could do a better job, but I certainly don’t feel threatened by them. At the end of the day it is my choice to buy or not.

For many people, however, there is something particularly sacred about reading that makes this sort of tracking feel very invasive. People highlight passages, curl up in comfortable locations, dog-ear pages, what have you. Personally I never been the sort of person who has an “intimate” relationship with a book. There are certain books I like to own a physical and sometimes even nice copy (I have a $60 Lord Of The Rings set). I’m not a high-lighter, not even in school, and I use bookmarks instead of bending pages. And except maybe in a few reference books I don’t write notes. When I first got the Touch it would be show me passages of Catching Fire that thousands of people had highlighted. The Wall Street Journal Article quoted Amazon as this being “the collective intelligence of all the people reading on Kindle”.

That’s pretty funny.

I’m not exactly sure what impulse caused 18,000 people to highlight Peeta and Katniss’ last sweet nothings to each other before battle, but I was happier when I figured out how to turn it off. But even this sort of tracking I find more silly than threatening, and again if you are one of the thousands who highlighted a particular passage “Call me, Ishmael”, I still can’t figure out individuals.

If you don’t want tracking to be done on you, there are ways to “liberate” your Kindle, or you could just keep the WiFi off. And stop going to the library, and stop buying books online or in stores.

You’re gonna be tracked.

So why worry? Frankly, my eReader has caused me to read more than I was before, and is useful for some of the thick references I’m carrying around for my non-fiction project. It helps me to not carry around a 700 page C++ book, hundreds of pages of Writer’s Markets, and countless papers. There are always trade offs for new devices, and maybe it would be nice if Amazon would let us read in peace, but at least we’re actually reading. Even if one day Amazon installs a GPS and finds out I read in the bathroom, I’m not sure how that information will help them sell me anything. Except maybe “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader”.

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2 Comments

Filed under Books + Publishing, Trube On Tech

2 responses to “Why eReaders are the end of civilization as we know it

  1. Chuck Conover

    Very nice, funny and insightful. Great material for the Readers Digest!

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