Sunday, May 23, 2010

Kindle: Big Book Brother?

I began reading Ruth Reichl’s brilliant Garlic and Sapphires yesterday, because my good friend Jess at Desperado Penguin had given it a really good review. I’m not actually ready to review G&S yet, but I am ready to weigh in on a feature of Kindle for iPhone that I discovered while reading it: Popular Highlights. My verdict: Popular Highlights is creepy, distracting, and maybe even dangerous.

According to the folks over at Amazon:
Amazon displays Popular Highlights by combining the highlights of all Kindle customers and identifying the passages with the most highlights. The resulting Popular Highlights help readers to focus on passages that are meaningful to the greatest number of people. Some books don't have enough highlighting in them to have Popular Highlights. Popular highlights are marked with a grey dashed underline in your reading. (

Let’s think about the implications of that for a moment: Kindle is actually 1) collecting information about how you read a book, 2) combining that information with the information of others, and 3) placing that information within the book another person is reading for the first time. The default for this feature is “ON,” which means that until you figure out what’s going, weird squiggles appear under passages, and you get messages about how many people have highlighted a particular passage. Remember when you tried to save money in college and bought used textbooks? And then you found out that it was not only distracting but counterproductive, because you were over-emphasizing what someone else thought was important, instead of doing the reading yourself? That’s exactly what this is like – except this time I thought I had paid for the privilege of having a “new” book, and still got distracted by someone else’s (well, some collective other’s) idea of what was important.

Now let me admit that I didn’t read the bazillion-word terms of service agreement when I downloaded my free Kindle for iPhone software. (There must be someone who reads that stuff, but that is not me.) So I’m sure that at some point the Amazon folks told me they would be monitoring my reading habits through Kindle. But it honestly came as a surprise to me when I finally picked up a title popular enough to display this feature. And the feature has me rethinking my Kindle for iPhone use. Because while it only took a few minutes to troll the Amazon Help site and find the way to turn off the Popular Highlights display (you go to the Kindle home, touch the Information button, and turn the Popular Highlights feature “OFF”), I’m not sure I like the idea that they’re still collecting information from my reading.

Reading is nothing if not a personal experience – and while I love to discuss books, I like to choose how and when I engage in those discussions. And to focus those discussions on what was important to me, which may or may not have anything to do with the marketing potential of the book! But sales, not literature, are Amazon’s business. So what might Amazon do with the collective information they are currently gathering? Well, they might try to influence publishers to focus on certain kinds of books, based on what gets read the fastest – after all they are trying to sell more books, not fewer. They might also try to influence editors to tailor books to reader habits, adulterating the original intent of the author. Really, the publishing implications are pretty scary. (And before you start thinking that I’m some Marxist conspiracy theorist academic, let me aver that I’m an Advertising and Public Relations professor. I have no problem with marketing, but I AM sure it shouldn’t dictate literature.)

The Popular Highlights cues in G&S were based on as little as five users – that gives the first readers a lot of power to direct other people’s gaze. What’s to keep publishers, for their part, from trying to game this new system, highlighting recipes in a book (just for instance) in order to create a market for the author’s next book, which just so happens to be a cookbook? (Believe me, I am in no way saying that this is happening, but I can’t see why it wouldn’t happen somewhere down the road!)

And I haven’t even started to focus on the privacy implications of Kindle knowing what people are reading, how much time they are interacting with it and ultimately (based on 3G technology) their ability to know where people are when they read. Think about this – can your boss subpoena Kindle records to find out if you’ve been reading on the job? And, maybe more disturbing, to find out what you’ve been reading? I don’t know – but neither does anyone else, so it’s worth asking the question.

Having a book show up on your iPhone in under a minute is a wonderful benefit of modern technology – and make no mistake about it, I’m an immediate gratification kind of gal. But technology is outstripping law at this point. Features are made available before it’s clear whether or not there are ethical, legal, and moral issues that should be considered prior to their launch. So it’s worth thinking about whether or not the immediate gratification of the Kindle warrants its intrusive underbelly. I haven’t actually decided yet, but I am giving it a lot of thought.

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