The quiet surveillance of readers

I read some months ago that while some people are watching their smart TVs, their smart TVs are watching them and reporting back – I think to the makers of the sets but maybe to the NSA and the Girl Guides as well, who knows?

I now learn that the same is happening to those of us who read ebooks, because it’s possible to track progress through an ebook digitally. My source was financial rather than technical so I don’t know how it’s done, but I would guess the ebook reader has to be connected to Wi-Fi for this to work. So what might we learn from this form of eavesdropping?

According to Kobo, Twelve Years a Slave, written by Solomon Northrup in 1858, was the ninth best selling ebook of 2014 but only 28.2% of British readers made it to the end. Yet when I check Amazon ratings of the paperback I find 741 responses (UK site) averaging 4.5 stars, so it is hard to account for the poor finish rate of the ebook. Could it be that ebook buyers are more given to buying on impulse, in this case fresh from seeing the film? They can download a copy instantly as they enter the foyer with their unfinished popcorn.

Another example. The Goldinch by Donna Tartt was the 37th most bought ebook of 2014 but only 44.4% of British readers reached the end of the ebook edition. Again, I’m not sure why this would be. The percentage of ebook impulse buys may have shot up after Ms Tartt was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Or perhaps the book’s length put them off. The physical version is long enough, but the smaller page size of the ebook edition must make it seem even longer. Maybe they flagged.

However this may be, as we lie on our sleepless pillow with our latest ebook for company, do we really want our progress through it monitored? I don’t think we do. And if all this doesn’t put you off ebooks, recent research claims to show that ebook readers disrupt our sleeping pattern. Not all of them, just those which bring with them their own source of light. But these are probably in the majority by now. Too bad you sold that primitive model you used to have.

It is now to be seen in a second hand shop minus the many ebooks it hosted before it was sold. You may have thought that buying ebooks meant you owned them, but you didn’t, so every last title had to be wiped before your trusty old reader could be sold on.

Where will the march of technology end? I think I’d prefer not to know.