A couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about data collection on e-book readers:
It takes the average reader just seven hours to read the final book in Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” trilogy on the Kobo e-reader—about 57 pages an hour. Nearly 18,000 Kindle readers have highlighted the same line from the second book in the series: “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.” And on Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the first thing that most readers do upon finishing the first “Hunger Games” book is to download the next one.
In the past, publishers and authors had no way of knowing what happens when a reader sits down with a book. Does the reader quit after three pages, or finish it in a single sitting? Do most readers skip over the introduction, or read it closely, underlining passages and scrawling notes in the margins? Now, e-books are providing a glimpse into the story behind the sales figures, revealing not only how many people buy particular books, but how intensely they read them.
For centuries, reading has largely been a solitary and private act, an intimate exchange between the reader and the words on the page. But the rise of digital books has prompted a profound shift in the way we read, transforming the activity into something measurable and quasi-public.
The major new players in e-book publishing—Amazon, Apple and Google—can easily track how far readers are getting in books, how long they spend reading them 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.
Despite the faint whiff of fearmongering here, I’m really not afraid of picking up my Kindle Fire and reading an e-book.
If you think about it, this data collection really isn’t that different from something that the vast majority of us have lived with for decades: TV ratings. In the early days, it was a special box that some people installed on the back of their TV, but these days most cable or satellite boxes have more than enough computing power to make notes of what channels you’re watching, how often you channel surf, and at what point you abandon a show in favor of something else — essentially the same data that e-readers are collecting.
Could this become a problem in the future? Perhaps. Pretty much all sci-fi readers have read at least one story about a totalitarian future, but that in itself may be a good antidote to any attempt by e-reader manufacturers to use the data for things beyond the pale. Because sci-fi fans are informed about those things, they are likely to recoil at the first hint of shenanigans.
All in all, this might be something to watch, but I wouldn’t head for the underground off-the-grid bunker just yet.