Have you ever met one of those people at a party who within minutes seems to know your life history, sexual proclivities and history of insanity? They ask a lot of questions while at the same time manage to reveal nothing about themselves. Data miners are a scourge of the modern social gathering, and they make a lot of people uncomfortable, and for good reason – information is power. Most people aren’t comfortable with the idea that someone they barely know suddenly knows what colour underwear they are wearing. In the era of Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google, however, the data miners have started selling us back the benefits of collecting our secrets. Amazon and Apple can recommend products to us based on what we already like, Google and Facebook read our emails and messages and serve up ads based on what we’re talking about. We take these recommendations and automatic tailoring of services for granted. It isn’t a person, after all, prying into our buying habits and personal data in order to create a profile based on our likes and dislikes. It’s an algorithm. A piece of software. No biggie, right?
Right. This is 2010! Those of us who engage in online shopping and social media have obviously at some point decided that the benefits outweigh the invasion of privacy. Maybe we don’t like to think about it very much, turn a blind eye to it to some extent, but we still want what these companies offer us. Nonetheless, we should never forget how incredibly valuable this information is. When it comes to the buying habits of readers, this data has traditionally been very difficult to collect. A book publisher once told me that the only way to afford market research in publishing is in fact to publish books. Publishers try things out by instinct. If the public likes it and the company makes money, they stick with it. If not, they discard the author or the genre as easily as they came across it. All things considered, publishers would still prefer to publish fewer books that make more money. Thankfully for the reading public, it has ordinarily been difficult to know what sells and what doesn’t. Publishers aren’t constrained by absolutes – although they might have to run their books past the gauntlet of previous sales figures, the reason many books make it out of the slush pile is that the publisher has a ‘feeling’.
The point is, in the digital age the information about what people like to read and who they are can be collected more easily than ever before. If you buy books from Amazon, Amazon knows your age, your gender, where you live, what kind of job you have, how much money you generally spend on books, what books and authors you like – they may even know why. For a multinational conglomerate, it is not that much of a stretch to collate this data and see what kind of books are working in the market right now. This, ultimately, is why publishers are terrified of companies like Amazon publishing books. Although Amazon lacks the traditional technical expertise of a publishing house, they possess this new kind of information that publishers have never had access to. What might they do with it?
Can you imagine a world in which each book is dissected based on the plot line (three acts? four?) the number of words (people nowadays really prefer only books under 100,000 words), the number of female characters and so on and so forth until publishing books for particular markets turns into a paint-by-numbers drawing. It’s not like there aren’t enough authors out there who would write anything in order to get published. Previously, it has been impossible to imagine as complex a thing as a book being understood as a collection of data. But with the data now available to retailers like Amazon and Apple on the internet, what’s to stop them using this information for more than just recommendations? And would this be a bad thing? Perhaps in this future I am imagining we will shrug off the sterilisation of our entertainment by algorithms in the same way we have shrugged off the sterilisation of our social interactions in the same way. Perhaps these new improved algorithm-based books will be so much more entertaining than regular old books that we will turn a blind eye to the process? What do you think? Is this a ridiculous sci-fi nightmare? Or is this something you can imagine playing out for real?