Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Machines Of Rapacious Hate

The last time we had a power outage
at first I didn’t even notice it.

I had been sitting at my computer
writing, typing, for a couple of hours.

It had gotten dark outside but inside
I had the lights out. I enjoy writing
sometimes just by light from my computer.

At some point I stood up and looked around.

I looked out my window and saw nothing.

I mean nothing. I thought condensation
had fogged the glass but when I looked closely
I didn’t see any condensation.

When I looked more closely at the distance
I saw buildings, street lights and power lines
silhouetted—dark shapes against dark clouds.

Then I looked more closely around my room.

The four seven-segment displays were dark
on my plug-in clock. The little red lights
on my TV and DVD player
were dark. I realized power was out.

My computer was bright and working fine
because it’s a laptop. The battery
functions as an uninterruptible
power supply when the power line fails.

When I looked closely at my computer
I saw that the little power icon
didn’t display the power-cord symbol.

My computer had taken care of me.

It had let me write, it had let me think,
even as the rest of the world broke down.

I moused-over and changed the power mode,
switching to what’s called ‘power-saver’ mode
to make things easier for my machine.

Power came back in about half an hour.

My laptop’s battery hadn’t run down.


I’ve been thinking of that power outage because it was a pleasant moment for me with technology. Lately, however, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about a story I read in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago about a kind of technology I don’t like at all.

I like gadgets. I like computers. Computers and gadgets of all kinds have made my life better in more ways, I’m sure, than I’m even aware of. I’ve written a lot about gadgets and my affection for them.

A few days ago I read a story about a kind of gadget I’ve never really liked at all. And my simple dislike has turned into a kind of active hatred. It’s hard for me even to talk about this business. I’m just going to write a couple of quick paragraphs, then put in a link to the story. I recommend everyone click over and read the story.

So-called “book readers”—things like the Kindle and Nook and others—keep track of how a person reads. Not just what a person reads. But whether a person skips around. What page a person stops reading. What a person searches for and highlights within a book. Even other things.

Publishers and ‘writers’ use this data to plan future books.

Writers, soon, will be people who simply put together the kinds of words and sentences this or that demographic of readers want to read. I’ve understood, of course, that the business of corporate publishing had completely changed writing. But I never realized just how completely the coupling of corporate publishing and modern technology had reduced the profession of writing to something like prostitution with words.

Whatever the reader wants to read. However the reader wants to read it.

Prostitution with words.

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.

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.

Barnes & Noble, which accounts for 25% to 30% of the e-book market through its Nook e-reader, has recently started studying customers' digital reading behavior. Data collected from Nooks reveals, for example, how far readers get in particular books, how quickly they read and how readers of particular genres engage with books. Jim Hilt, the company's vice president of e-books, says the company is starting to share their insights with publishers to help them create books that better hold people's attention.

from “Your E-Book Is Reading You”

Digital-book publishers and retailers now know more about their readers than ever before. How that's changing the experience of reading.

by Alexandra Alter
in the Wall Street Journal, 6/29/12

1 comment:

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