Of course, there are a number of potentially dangerous outcomes of this data acquisition that range from privacy to the very nature of creativity. Below I'll work through these issues in order of (my perceived sense of) importance:
Records of our reading being kept in great detail can be subpoenaed by law enforcement. While Alexandra Alter, author of the Wall Street Journal article that kicked off this discussion, says in an On the Media story that she thinks it's unlikely that law enforcement will use the records in these ways, librarians know better. Many libraries have taken to keeping minimal records on their patrons so that they have nothing of substance to hand over to law enforcement is required to after the Patriot Act debacle of the early 2000s (see the ALA's position on the Patriot Act for more details).
The publishing world is contracting, and by all accounts (from my friends in New York who work with publishers), getting an interesting book published is increasingly unlikely. With new data showing--down to the word--what a typical reader likes, authors of challenging books that are out-of-the-mainstream may have an even more difficult time getting published when market data shows that people didn't get past the 2nd chapter of the last challenging, out-of-the-mainstream book that they bought.
But there's an even deeper issue about creativity that lurks beneath the numbers of e-book reading. Alter points out in her article, "Your E-Book Is Reading You," that
Publishing has lagged far behind the rest of the entertainment industry when it comes to measuring consumers' tastes and habits. TV producers relentlessly test new shows through focus groups; movie studios run films through a battery of tests and retool them based on viewers' reactions. But in publishing, reader satisfaction has largely been gauged by sales data and reviews—metrics that offer a postmortem measure of success but can't shape or predict a hit. That's beginning to change as publishers and booksellers start to embrace big data, and more tech companies turn their sights on publishing.When I brought this up around the dinner table, a friend who has worked in games for a number of years had a swift and decisive response to this that begged the question of whether the "big data" used by the rest of entertainment industry has done anything to improve the quality of what's been produced. In terms of data being used to shape games, he said,
It's very scientific, but the only thing that gets you into creating is killed by that process. It's so hard to be creative once you're given the metrics that define your market. It changes your approach. If you can't trust yourself as a creator, you can't be as good.He went on to say that when a new idea is truly original, the usefulness of metrics totally falls apart, because they simply won't apply. If fact, under those circumstances, metrics act as shackles to a radical idea. And when they are applied, you often end up with something, "so bland that no one will hate it."
I know that the jury is still out about how creativity, inspiration, and problem solving actually happen in the brain--but I think there's a real logic in this idea: how useful is data about what's worked in the past, when we're hoping to make something new for the future?
The debate about data can get awfully sticky because relying on gut, and doing what's working without getting insight into how it's working or why it's working can produce organizations and industries that are unresponsive to their users and patrons. This is becoming increasingly clear to the library profession as we scramble to catch up with patrons who could have told us years ago that our approach, equipment, and spaces were outdated--if we'd bothered to ask. And assuming that people's habits don't say anything useful about their needs and desires smacks of an elitism ("how could they possibly know what's good for them?") that has plagued the publishing industry for decades. Maybe a little bit of market data will do our writers and publishers a lot of good.
Though Alter claims that before this moment, reading had been a solitary act between the reader and the page, this isn't actually the first time that authors have taken their readers' desires into account in the writing process. While Dickens was publishing his books chapter by chapter in monthly installments, he was simultaneously finishing them--and you can bet that he knew what people were saying about his plots. Louisa May Alcott was so annoyed by her readers' responses to the first half of Little Women that she *spoiler alert* married Jo to a man who was old, rough, and grim as punishment. Whether those books would have been better if genius had been allowed to create in a vacuum is impossible to know--but I feel safe in saying that they're pretty damn good as they are.
So, applying user data to the creative process isn't all bad, but I think that what concerns me most is that this data gathering process feels like everything else that I dislike about e-books: the people who it affects (the readers) don't know how it works, and it's being done first and foremost to increase profit margins, not to improve people's reading experiences. For more on this topic, don't forget to check out our old old post on the Amazon Kindle DX. And please, school me in the comments section if you disagree.