Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Are your reading habits public?

Your e-reader is reading you, tracking and collecting data on your bookish habits. When and where did you put the book down? Or take notes?  Or reread a passage? Publishers now have access to detailed information about exactly how people use a book. Did most readers finish?  Which sections did readers favorite or ‘highlight’? The major players in e-book publishing—Amazon, Apple and Google—can easily track how far readers are getting into novels and nonfiction, how long they spend and which search terms they use to find books. Book apps for tablets like the iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook record how many times readers open the app and how much time they spend reading. Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books.

"We think of it as the collective intelligence of all the people reading on Kindle," says Amazon spokeswoman. But how will all this data be used? Who can access it? The Electronic Frontier Foundation has pushed for legislation to prevent information about consumer’s reading habits from being turned over to law enforcement agencies without a court’s approval.

Of course this is creepy.  It is not "transparency" because the light shines in only one direction.  On the other hand, I would love to use this system myself... if it were Opt-In.  I could then ask my pre-readers (I thank at least 40 of them at the back of every book) to turn on this reporting feature when reading an early draft. I'd be able to tell where in the book they slowed down, perhaps having to struggle with a passage.  Or put the book down, even temporarily in order to do homework or get sleep or feed the kids.  Or if found a section tiresome or noteworthy.  I want it for product quality control!  And hence I can see why the big corporations want it too.... without the "opt-in" part.

That's the part we should resist.

==Looking and Looking Back...==

Then again, the reflex to resist can get over-wrought. Take this exercise in tendentious pattern-recognition as an example that's both illuminating and deeply misleading. This article compares 7 "sinister" technologies from Orwell's novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four" to things we see today. Parallels are easy to come by!  And since Orwell's book is the archetype of what I call the "self-preventing prophecy" - motivating millions to act in defiance of whomever they see becoming Big Brother - I don't mind such contemporary alert-warnings!  (Indeed, when it comes to the NewSpeak aspects of lobotomizing Twitter feeds, I do agree.) Still, you need some grains of salt. And a willingness to say "Yes, but..." and to remind yourself of the myriad ways that tech pushes in the opposite direction.

Far more disturbing is this brief excerpt from an interview given by a FBI spokeswoman, about "National Security Letters" in which the government can demand information about you from third parties (e.g. your internet provider) without ever even going to a judge for a warrant.

Now as you may know, I am a moderate about the government's access to reasonable levels of surveillance and even secrecy.  But in absence of any supervision, any human beings will naturally drift toward grabbing more and more, redefining "reasonable" as they go along, without accountability or criticism.  There are ways that accountability could be assured while maintaining an ability to surveil legitimate threats.  I've written about dozens both in The Transparent Society and in online articles. Here is one example: Free the Inspectors General!

==Existence and Other News==

How will the world end? Salon recently ran a series of snippets from my new novel, all of them (entertainingly, I hope) relating to Doomsdays... or the many  ways our world might end.  Oh, but in fact I am a cheerful guy!

For those craving different questions and insights, here’s an interview with Brenda Cooper at the Futurist.

Mary Robinette Kowal - one of my favorite “whipper-snapper” young authors of the next generation - runs a nifty cool web site that now features a series called “My Favorite Bit” in which wrtiers are invited to describe a snippet of scribbling - from a novel or story, that made them especially proud or happy.  In my own contribution to Mary’s series, I dance around one of the best (according to many pre-readers) moments in Existence... without actually describing, or spoiling the scene.  Instead, I use it as an excuse to discuss the importance of suspense.

The Wall Street Journal review of Existence is clearly very positive and boils down to “very very interesting from many directions.”  Alas, I wish they had actually said that in a quotable way!

Salon Compilation of Brin Articles:  These range from sober assessments of how technology might affect transparency, privacy and freedom (leading to my book The Transparent Society) to a discussion or why our personal computers no longer carry a basic programming language and what this has done to our kids. From appraisals of Tolkien and Star Wars (leading to Star Wars on Trial) to a survey of several dozen plausible and less-likely ways the world might end! From my Ray Bradbury tribute to ways that the Internet just might be turning us into gods.  Have fun with ideas.

 Like your version of a novel on audio?  The new edition of Existence by Audible uses three narrators to excellent effect, making this complex and tightly interleaved tale come alive with real drama.  Let me know what (some of you) think of it!

==Government Science Fiction?==

Pitches for Government Sci Fi! As a member of SIGMA, the think tank of scientifically trained science fiction authors, I have consulted with a wide range of agencies... e.g. about future threats & opportunities. Now Wired offers snippets from stories that various sci fi writers might (in theory) create to rally support for different US Government departments.  The outlines are mostly (except for the initial puerile-political snark) pretty imaginative.

=== Appearing in Seattle and Portland and at Comicon ==

Drop by http://www.davidbrin.com  to see my schedule across the next couple of weeks!

And more soon...

24 comments:

Shelly said...

Interesting. I knew there was a lot they can see, but I hadn't realized how much.

Of course, there are the books I've read on Kindle and in hardcopy, where I jumped ahead on my Kindle version after reading a bit at home in the paperback, because hardcopies and Kindles don't sync. I wonder what they thought about that. ;)

Ian said...

Hollywood is reprotedly remaking Colossus, now that's a story in which paranoia about the extent of current surveilliance technology could be used ot full effect.

In the orgiianl movie (IIRC) the proagfonist's office and apartment are wired with cameras connected ot Colossus. now all that'd be necessasy is for him to carry a smartphoen and to remotely activate the webcam and mike on his computer.

Carl M. said...

I prefer paper books. I prefer to buy them at physical bookstores, but I have given in to the Amazon borg because I now live in the boonies.

Frankly, I don't care much for discount cards either. If I were running Barnes and Noble, I'd ditch the card and just give the discounts. Advertise that "we take cash" and don't track your purchases.

Markus said...

I would be willing to give you data on how I read Existence, but the ebook is too expensive compared to the hardcover so I will not read it. I do understand that publishers set the price, but i can wait 10 years to give my money to the dead empire. Bits cost next to nothing, there is no way I will pay 20 dollars for an electronic book.

Ian said...

"Bits cost next to nothing, "

As does paper - just check out the cost of toilet paper next time you're at the supermarket.

Robert said...

No, I understand what he's saying. It's outrageous to spend $20+ for an ebook when you get no added content compared to the $12 ebook that will come out a year or so later with the paperback edition. Now, I would be willing to spend $30 to get a combined hardcover-and-ebook edition, but only a couple publishers are going that route. Which is a shame, really.

Rob H.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin in the main post:

Then again, the reflex to resist can get over-wrought. Take this exercise in tendentious pattern-recognition as an example that's both illuminating and deeply misleading. This article compares 7 "sinister" technologies from Orwell's novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four" to things we see today. Parallels are easy to come by! And since Orwell's book is the archetype of what I call the "self-preventing prophecy" - motivating millions to act in defiance of whomever they see becoming Big Brother - I don't mind such contemporary alert-warnings! (Indeed, when it comes to the NewSpeak aspects of lobotomizing Twitter feeds, I do agree.) Still, you need some grains of salt. And a willingness to say "Yes, but..." and to remind yourself of the myriad ways that tech pushes in the opposite direction.


The one point I most agree with the article about--and in fact it occured to me on my own many years ago--is how much EASIER the internet has made something like the moment in "1984" when they had to change all of the records so that they've always been at war with Eastasia instead of Eurasia. In the book, it took an army of bureaucrats three days of exhausting physical work to accomplish the task. The more we rely on Wikipedia in particular and the internet in general as the medium of record regarding historical fact, the more likely it is that someone has a single button they can press and accomplish that same memory wipe at the speed of electronics.

Note that on some level, this already happens. When Sarah Palin famously claimed that Paul Revere's famous ride was to warn the British, many partisan followers attempted to edit the Wikipedia entry on Paul Revere so as to back up her statement. This plays into the right-wing notion (though the right would call it a totalitarian communist notion) that facts are maleable, that consistency is overrated as a virtue, and that whatever the favored authority figure says is in fact the case (and always has been).

Robert said...

I've a quick question to Dr. Brin concerning Existence (the novel): when you initially began work on the novel, was your short story Lungfish the initial inspiration that led to the final novel, or did you insert elements of it into the final work when you realized in some ways it paralleled where you were going in Existence?

Also, were the FARCs subverted Loyalist drones, or were they actual Rejector elements? Which won't make any sense for anyone who'd not read either Lungfish or Existence but I still am curious.

Rob H.

Jonathan (fighting on) said...

David, the public sharing of that reader data, at least with the author, sounds like the perfect tool to help creative writing teachers. New assignment: write a story, get 4 readers , analyze their reading data, revise the story, and get 4 more. Turn in both versions, and explain your choice of edits, and the resulting change in reader response.

Jumper said...

No doubt the next generation of ereaders will include hidden cameras, microphones, and special chips to measure aromatics and airborne bacterial levels.

Surely useful metrics would result to improve your reading experience and aid the author as well. Like many neural net programs, the explainability of the results will be problematic but the results themselves profitable.

Robert said...

Here's a depressing article about how wireless carriers are stifling innovation and have been for many years. And continue to do so, for that matter. And you know something? I've noticed this in internet coverage, such as the incestuous relationship between Comcast Cable and Verizon Fios to not compete (which is against anti-trust laws if I remember correctly).

I remember hearing how Japanese cellphones were so superior to American ones (prior to the iPhone release). This is suggestive as to why they were. And I very much doubt we'll ever see anything said about this in Congress or in the Presidential elections.

Rob H.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin, at the beginning of Part Three of "Existence", you quote Mel Brooks saying "It's good to be the king." but attribute the quote to History of the World, Part II.

Was that a typo? Thankfully, there was no actaul sequel to the godawful dreck that was Part I.

Anti SPy Mobile said...

Eventualy, they will start tracking your Kindle's GPS to know where you read - at the garden, at the WC ... :) this is ridiculous ...

Yesterday I've downloaded a tetris game which had permissions to track my locaiton. Why ??? Why a tetris game needs to know my location ?!!

Robert said...

Because the Tetris game is likely free, so they hit you with advertising. Targeted advertising based on your location.

LarryHart said...

Off-topic here, but it's a good thing global warming is a hoax because I'd hate to think we're in store for more summers like this one!

Not sure how many here were fans of Frank Miller's "Dark Knight" graphic novels back in the 1980s--the ones that launched the current "dark" Batman look--but I'm reminded of the tension building up to 50-year-old Batman's return in the first book with a stifling heat wave settling over Gotham City. One day was 97, and the next day the mercury hit 103, but a major storm front was on the way toward Gotham, "Like the wrath of God, it's heading for Gotham".

Well, yesterday it hit 103 here in Chicago (the city that the movie "Batman: The Dark Knight" was filmed in), and I can't help but think the wrath of God is headed this way. Life immitates art, sometimes perversely so.

Jumper said...

http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/arctic-sea-ice-shrinks-lowest-june-extent-ever-observed

ell said...

The one thing that bothers me about focus groups altering the track of a work-in-progress: The story will turn into the reader's desired fantasy, not the message the writer wanted to convey.

As for completed e-books, will the reader be allowed to change the direction of the story, with many endings programmed into the package? I recall there was a movie made with alternate endings that allowed the audience to vote on seeing the ending the viewers wanted.

LarryHart said...

ell:

As for completed e-books, will the reader be allowed to change the direction of the story, with many endings programmed into the package?


My 10-year-old has graphic novels like that. You make a choice (like chocolate or vanilla ice cream, or which of several tools to pick up) and each choice sends you to a different page to continue the strip.

It's a cute gimmick if you like that sort of thing, but I'd hate to see it become the expected norm for e-books. It could easily get as annoying as the ubiquitous (and increasingly-staged) "bloopers" at the end of movies.

sociotard said...

Regarding Kindle Espionage:

I'm not sure I care.

My first reflex was to compare it to the merchants in my own town. When I worked at a pet store, I often greeted a customer by name and asked how his Oscar was doing. Then I confirmed the size and number of goldfish he needed to feed said goldfish. Customer data tracking, as old as trade itself.

Then someone pointed out that there is a difference between a bookseller who knows me and makes recommendations, and a bookseller who follows me home and peeks through the window to watch how I read.

So, New Analogy: The kindle is acting like a butler. The sort who tends my library and takes my shopping list to the bookseller in town. Of course he watches me read. And if he's a bit gossipy, well, that's what servants have always done.

Of course, once, that would have been solely the problem of the wealthy. Now that our servants are electronic everyone can afford them, and so everyone has gossipy servants.

Ian said...

My concern about publishers collecting data on how eBooks are read is more along the lines of:

"I'm sorry David but your latest book had a reading age of Grade 12.5 and we feel that you're exlcuding too many readers - especially isnce the average reader of your novels refers to wikipedia three tiems in the course of reading it.

We have some software we'd like you to try out. It queries you when it appears you may be losing the average reader and helps you produce work that's accessible to a wider audience.

Would you like it set to Dean Koontz or to Dan Brown?"

Chimeradave said...

Makes me glad I have a B+W Nook. Barnes and Noble doesn't know or care what I'm reading. I get mostly free e-books anyway. It's rare for me to use B+N.

Lorraine said...

1984 can, as you say, motivate people to defiance of whatever appears to be Big Brother, but (spoiler alert) it is also a cautionary tale about jumping headlong into defiance, as the underground group with which your life intersects may end up being a front organization. You could end up getting the Brotherhood/Cointelpro treatment...

Tim H. said...

Do publishers keep track of library activity? Each check out is linked to an ID, but they may not deign to track people who are reading above their means.

Jumper said...

I suspect many libraries refuse to keep a record of readers' books after they are checked back in. Librarians are good that way. At least they used to be.

p.s. there is a new column by David up.