Last week, in a post entitled “The Book Industry’s Moneyball,” I blogged about the origins of my interest in algorithmic culture — the use of computational processes to sort, classify, and hierarchize people, places, objects, and ideas. There I discussed a study published in 1932, the so-called “Cheney Report,” which imagined a highly networked book industry whose decisions were driven exclusively by “facts,” or in contemporary terms, “information.”
It occurred to me, in thinking through the matter more this week, that the Cheney Report wasn’t the only way in which I stumbled on to the topic of algorithmic culture. Something else led me there was well — something more present-day. I’m talking about the Amazon Kindle, which I wrote about in a scholarly essay published in the journal Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies (CCCS) back in 2010. The title is “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.” (You can read a precis of the piece here.)
The CCCS essay focused on privacy issues related to devices like the Kindle, Nook, and iPad, which quietly relay information about what and how you’ve been reading back to their respective corporate custodians. Since it appeared that’s become a fairly widespread concern, and I’d like to think my piece had something to do with nudging the conversation in that direction.
Anyway, in prepping to write the essay, a good friend of mine, M—-, suggested I read Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing (New Riders, 2006). It’s an astonishingly good book, one I would recommend highly to anyone who writes about digital technologies.
I didn’t really know much about algorithms or information when I first read Everyware. Of course, that didn’t stop me from quoting Greenfield in “The Abuses of Literacy,” where I made a passing reference to what he calls “ambient informatics.” This refers to the idea that almost every aspect our world is giving off some type of information. People interested in ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp, want to figure out ways to detect, process, and in some cases exploit that information. With any number of mobile technologies, from smart phones to Kindle, ubicomp is fast becoming an everyday part of our reality.
The phrase “ambient informatics” has stuck with me ever since I first quoted it, and on Wednesday of last week it hit me again like a lightning bolt. A friend and I were talking about Google Voice, which, he reminded me, may look like a telephone service from the perspective of its users, but it’s so much more from the perspective of Google. Voice gives Google access to hours upon hours of spoken conversation that it can then use to train its natural language processing systems — systems that are essential to improving speech-to-text recognition, voiced-based searching, and any number of other vox-based services. Its a weird kind of switcheroo, one that most of us don’t even realize is happening.
So what would it mean, I wondered, to think about Kindle not from the vantage point of its users but instead from that of Amazon.com? As soon as you ask this question, it soon becomes apparent that Kindle is only nominally an e-reader. It is, like Google Voice, a means to some other, data-driven end: specifically, the end of apprehending the “ambient informatics” of reading. In this scenario Kindle books become a hook whose purpose is to get us to tell Amazon.com more about who we are, where we go, and what we do.
Imagine what Amazon must know about people’s reading habits — and who knows what else?! And imagine how valuable that information could be!
What’s interesting to me, beyond the privacy concerns I’ve addressed elsewhere, is how, with Kindle, book publishers now seem to be confusing means with ends. It’s understandable, really. As literary people they’re disposed to think about books as ends in themselves — as items people acquire for purposes of reading. Indeed, this has long been the “being” of books, especially physical ones. With Kindle, however, books are in the process of getting an existential makeover. Today they’re becoming prompts for all sorts of personal and ambient information, much of which then goes on to become proprietary to Amazon.com.
I would venture to speculate that, despite the success of the Nook, Barnes & Noble has yet to fully wake up to this fact as well. For more than a century the company has fancied itself a bookseller — this in contrast to Amazon, which CEO Jeff Bezos once described as “a technology company at its core” (Advertising Age, June 1, 2005). The one sells books, the other bandies in information (which is to say nothing of all the physical stuff Amazon sells). The difference is fundamental.
Where does all this leave us, then? First and foremost, publishers need to begin recognizing the dual existence of their Kindle books: that is, as both means and ends. I suppose they should also press Amazon for some type of “cut” — informational, financial, or otherwise — since Amazon is in a manner of speaking free-riding on the publishers’ products.
This last point I raise with some trepidation, though; the humanist in me feels a compulsion to pull back. Indeed it’s here that I begin to glimpse the realization of O. H. Cheney’s world, where matters of the heart are anathema and reason, guided by information, dictates virtually all publishing decisions. I say this in the thick of the Kindle edition of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, where I’ve learned that intuition, even unbridled emotion, guided much of Jobs’ decision making.
Information may be the order of the day, but that’s no reason to overlook what Jobs so successfully grasped. Technology alone isn’t enough. It’s best when “married” to the liberal arts and humanities.