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.

8 thoughts on “The quiet surveillance of readers

  1. I accept that anything I do on a device is public property and behave accordingly. I assume my iPad has its own source of light, but I don’t read ebooks before I go to sleep. I find some books easier to read as print and others as ebooks. I infinitely prefer those I download from iTunes, which I scroll up and down, to those on kindle, with their page turning ability. I do have a feeling that I will abandon ebooks that don’t appeal with less guilt than i would a print book. I’ll think about that.

  2. I find I have a preference for physical books, though I have a reader because my son bought me one. I use it from time to time, mostly in bed, because it’s light. And also because, when I get tired and drop it to the floor, the bookmark doesn’t fall out and lose the place. And on that happy note . . .

  3. Interesting, Rod. I wonder how the experts define ‘end’: the last novel page or that extra page with salesy stuff. Me, I finish 99% of the books I start. If they’re boring, I skim until I rediscover interesting. Which usually works.

    Except that .1% of the time.

  4. This is an interesting point – how do they define end?
    If you have to plough through the sales stuff it’s a wonder any ebooks
    get finished at all.

  5. Anyone tracking me will get pretty worn out, or its bot brain will fry as I get through a lot of ebooks, partly for reviewing. Read one last week that took me days, it was a real struggle, but I get a paltry sum for reviewing it, so needs must. I never finished Grapes of Wrath, I had to go back to Tristram Shandy for a second attempt and Lorna Doone was similar. Otherwise the perversity in me doesn’t like to be defeated. I prefer iTunes books too, although kindle has a neat function for annotating where you can look at all your notes (again for reviewing) at once. Apple should really introduce that, they’ve lost sight of what used to be their core market: journalism/publishing/graphic design, although I do edit using apple’s pages. Sorry, off topic!

  6. I track you all the time! You secretly read romances without letting on. Seriously though, Tristram Shandy was much admired by the Russian Formalists so there has to be something wrong with it.

  7. My Dad says stuff like this, but he bought a tv with a camera on the top that didn’t retract and my Mum didn’t like it and forced him to take it back and change it 😀 I don’t think she was worried about the spying she didn’t like it sticking up out of the set.

  8. I’m with your mum on this one. I believe they can monitor what you watch quite closely (adverts, for example) with a view to increasing their handle on what you might buy.

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