A writer’s thoughts on e-reader surveillance

The bibliophile world is aghast over an expose regarding how e-readers are tracking what and how we read. The article, Your E-Book is Reading You, was written by Alexandra Alter and published in the Wall Street Journal. If you haven’t read it yet, do so.

Briefly, the story states e-readers are monitoring what we read, how much of a book we finish, the time we spend on it, the search terms we use, the passages we mark, and the notes we make. Probably most of this data is analysed for commercial purposes, but there is the illusive spectre of government surveillance, too. I remember the outcry after the terrorist attacks on September 11 when the Bush administration wanted to obtain library records. This e-reader surveillance has the potential to go even further.

Nokia's Dr. Ian Oliver knows about online surveillance.

To be honest, I was a bit naïve and didn’t expect that our reading habits were being monitored so thoroughly. I should have foreseen it, though, because I recently spent about six hours interviewing Dr. Ian Oliver, one of the privacy tsars at Nokia. Most of the published article is about practical privacy information for the consumer, but we spent about half our time talking about how corporations and governments get our online data and what they do with it.

As a writer
This information could be extremely valuable to a writer. Basically, when I write I am guided primarily by what I think is interesting. This is modified by a host of people – editors, publishers, proof readers, translators – who are supposed to know what the reader wants. Sometimes others are involved. With Mohamed 2.0 I had to worry about what the subject wanted, which added an extra layer of complexity, headaches and moral questioning.

I also get feedback from readers, who contact me to complain or praise or make suggestions. I get emails and messages on social networks from people who want to tell me something about my writing. Sometimes I’m even stopped in public. Last week I was recognised by a young man in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, who told me his father back in England liked some of my stuff. He immediately sent a message to his father saying he ran into me, and then received a couple of text messages filled with comments about my writing.

This was great stuff: directly interacting with readers is what I want. All the editors and other professionals try to distil this information into clear suggestions, but it is best to get it straight from the public. This is why, speaking as a writer, I confess that I would love to know the detailed information on what readers do with things I publish. What do they like? What do they dislike? How long do they spend on it? What passages do they highlight? All this would be golden information to have.

As a reader
Yet, as a reader, I’m repelled by the idea of being monitored so closely. I just finished Michel Houellebecq’s brilliant The Map and the Territory on my Kindle, and made frequent highlights and notes. I checked Amazon’s page about this book and suspect some of my highlights are now on display for public consumption. It’s invasive, and it’s creepy.

The fact that our online behaviour is monitored is nothing new. I think most of us are simply resigned to the fact that our browsing behaviour is tracked and recorded and analysed in marketing meetings.

But monitoring our reading and the notes we make about it seem to be particularly nefarious. Less than a year ago The Guardian suggested that e-readers were good for those who wanted a bit of privacy about their reading habits:

The rising tide of e-reading devices – and their subsequent drop in price – has been a blessing to many, but perhaps none more so than fans of romance. No longer are they forced to conceal the covers of their latest purchases… from fellow commuters. Instead, they can follow their heroine’s romantic adventures with impunity, safely protected by the anonymity of their e-readers…

“[E]-books are an especially good fit for erotic romance because women (and men) can buy them in their privacy of their own homes. Now, with e-book readers, our readers also can read their books in public without anyone knowing what they are reading.”

Yet now we learn that e-readers are taking away privacy, not granting it. Think about that the next time you are tempted to highlight a particularly hot passage in Fifty Shades of Grey.

The bottom line
Moreover, such monitoring is going an extra step. In George Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother attempts to monitor and control the very thoughts of the citizens. One can gain an insight into the thoughts of someone by watching their behaviour, but watching their reading goes farther into the mind.

"The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world."

Books are the collective memory of civilisation, the ideas not only of their authors but also their readers. The ancient Greeks understood this intimate connection. Mnemosyne was a Titan, Memory personified, who discovered the uses of the power of reason, joined the soul with the intellect, and was the mother of the Muses, from whom all culture sprang. Books and thought are inseparably connected. Tracking a person’s reading seems almost sacrilegious to me, an insult to our collective and individual Memory. It is one more step to make Orwell’s Room 101 a possibility, because the surveillance of our reading puts the watcher deeper into our minds.

At the end of it all, I would rather not use this method to know what my readers are doing with my work. After all, when it has been published it is no longer mine: it is out in the world living its own life with the public. You honoured me by paying your money to read something I wrote, and I don’t want to desecrate that relationship by getting into your head uninvited.

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