E-Books and Privacy – When Tech Invades 'Me Time'

In 2013/2014 Archives

When it comes to the book vs. e-book debate, I find myself right in the middle. Most of the books I own are related to art, photography, photo journalism, writing and spiritual/self-help – topics that I have an emotional connection to. When I buy e-books, they tend to be on work-related subjects like tech, how-to and task management. Helpful, sure, but they tend to out-date quickly and I’d much rather see books on Francis Bacon and El Greco on my bookshelf than books on project workflow.

One of the many things I like about reading an actual, physical book is that I am completely cut off from anything having to do with technology. It’s just me and my book. Pure analog bliss. Another thing I like is that, short of paying for it with a credit card or checking it out from the library, Big Brother isn’t hovering over me. But that isn’t the case with a lot of e-books I’ve been buying recently. A recent article in The New York Times discusses the various types of information e-book publishers, both large and indie, are collecting from us. I find this utterly creepy.

The argument is that analytics are important to authors too. According to the article, data shows people are more likely to finish a bio than books on business and that people speed read romance novels and erotica faster than religious books. Knowing this, they can adjust the content of their books accordingly. For authors the struggle will be what to do with this data. Will it alter their storytelling in a positive way or will they pander to the numbers and produce formulaic dreck? But I digress.

Working in tech, I completely understand the value of analytics and how they drive successful businesses. I write blog and social media content for a living so it’s very important for me to know what people are reading, what they think about it and how they share it. Yes, I understand the similarities between myself and the e-book publishers and I fully admit that I am conflicted.

What rubs me the wrong way in this case is the continued intrusion of technology into our personal lives to the point that even a little ‘me time’ with a book and the speed at which I read it is a company’s data source. I love technology and in many ways it makes life easier. I also find our relationship with technology – particularly our gross dependency on it – very complicated, especially when it comes to privacy.

It’s to be expected the sales of e-books are tracked as they are with books, but don’t we have the expectation of privacy beyond the point of purchase? Book apps for the iPad, Nook and Kindle Fire all record the number of times we open the app and how much time we spend reading. If behavior like the speed at which we read an e-book is being monitored what else is? The words we search using the built in dictionary? The text we highlight? Our GPS location? Yes, they know all of these things. And who has access to this information and what will it be used for? At the end of the day, can’t we just read a book? For now, if it’s an e-book, it appears not.