I heard a thought-provoking webcast today, offered by the Book Industry Study Group entitled “Digital Books: A New Chapter for Reader Privacy” and presented by an ACLU representative. She spoke of case law that has been passed protecting our reader’s right to privacy, whether that means prohibiting Google Books from recording our thoughtpaths, and subsequently aggregating, archiving, and ultimately monetizing them without our knowledge or permission, or protecting us from government fishing expeditions requisitioning our library or bookstore reading records.
Back in the early days of Internet publishing (1995), I considered the prospect of reading online with some elation rather than fear of thought path exploitation:
“… And it is access to human thought processes in response to books that we call ‘Cogniright’. The digitally recorded thought machine renders visible and manipulable the new terrain in publishing, the thought paths in and around and between people and books. These thought paths constitute the ideas in process behind the books, accessible instantaneously and globally for the first time really in an easily accessible format. The work that needs to be done is adapting the terms and conditions of licensing and rights from tangible product-based media, to the intangible and fluid media of online …”
(Excerpted from a speech I gave at Frankfurt Book Fair in 1995. )
and now I look at all this with increasing angst, as the full power of our ubiquitous recorded environment becomes clearer.
At this point, I am not even sure that anonymizers would quite do the trick of ensuring privacy in an online environment, for even if the original thinker remained anonymous, the fact of the trail itself would exist and could be monetized by some savvy cyber-businessman — unless a session-scrubber scrambled or erased the trail immediately upon its creation, like a broom after a circus cart. But it’s that unique reader’s thought trail, aggregated with all other thought trails arc’ing over an island of prose (a “chunk” if you will), combined with the businessman’s savvy, and the author’s inherent worth, that constitutes a new floating, fleeting attribute we call “value.”
Hah! Were he alive today, how exciting it would be to access Einstein’s personal online library, after he spent a few hours reading freely among books that inspired him, and follow his thought trail through them, hypertexthopping in sequence the chunks accessed, and alert to the time he took to read each chunk (knowing of course that each reader has a wpm or “words per minute” average which is normalized against that for his age group, genetic map, and education level); I’d pay attention to where Einstein’s wpm leapt or lagged from his average — where he was perhaps heading towards the terra incognita of an “idea”!
But the Big Question of course is: Would Einstein allow this kind of thing? Would he sell access to his thoughtpath, the privacy of his mind, allow Elsevier to republish it as part of its Science Online, with links to Amazon to all the books in question? The shekels he earned on the upsell might pay his cold Swiss rent faster than his professor salary! But if he did so deign — and I think that would be unlikely! — and agree to surrender the privacy of his thoughts while reading, how would his muse respond? Bask in the attention, or dissipate into dim, then lightless dots? We need to come to terms with the fact that online reading is a fundamentally different action than paging through a paper publication in the privacy of one’s home. It is infinitely sociable, and exploitable in ways we are only now beginning to discover. It can change us.
Yes, there is work to be done, the very first step of which is to ensure reader’s privacy in our digital world, until we better understand the risk and value of reading in a recorded environment, before we court the danger of undermining its power through monetization and publication of our thoughtpaths. The ACLU representative suggested that one can start by joining the Digital Due Process Coalition and work to put in place legislation to protect us while we explore this humblingly nonexistent terrain that threatens us so boldly.