Your e-Book Reads You

By Eileen Feretic  |  Posted Monday, July 09, 2012 16:07 PM

By Samuel Greengard

A few days ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that publishers are suddenly enamored by e-books because they provide insights into the behavior of people reading books. It's possible to measure how long a person spends perusing a particular page, how many pages they read at a time and whether they skip over pages.

On a business level, this makes perfect sense. After all, the publishing industry hasn't exactly been at the forefront of digital innovation. Many publishers have been brought into the digital age ripping and tearing.

But from a consumer perspective, the news is creepy and disturbing--especially since you can't turn the e-spying off. In my mind, reading a book is supposed to be a solitary activity: a way to escape, however briefly, into another world that isn't touched by other people and things. The idea of publishers electronically peering over my shoulder isn't only unsettling, it could have serious repercussions.

What happens if I want to read a book on a sensitive subject or something that's unpopular? Will the government also peer over my shoulder? The Electronic Frontier Foundation has already linked the National Security Agency to warrantless domestic wiretapping.

I know all the arguments publishers will offer. We can recommend books better suited to your tastes. We can create books that you will find more appealing. We can be more responsive to trends.

Spin. Spin. Spin. Part of the serendipity of books is discovering something great--not having a book reverse-engineered by MBAs and bean counters to appeal to a particular demographic or psychographic segment of the population. I'm also put off by authors who are only interested in a color-by-numbers approach to selling their words. There's a lot to be said for artistic vision and integrity.

Worse is the incremental and ongoing invasion of our privacy--or, at least, any remaining illusion of it. Not that many years ago, the idea of loyalty cards, Web-tracking tools and public video cameras seemed incredibly bold ... and disturbing.

Now we accept these practices as part of modern life and hardly devote a thought to them--or their repercussions. As bits and pieces of personal data--here, there and everywhere--get assembled and reassembled, it's apparent that Big Brother is no longer an illusion.

Perhaps I'll fire up George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four on Kindle. Now, that would be the ultimate feedback loop.