The Spy In Your Pocket

A recent Wall Street Journal article says that e-books are quietly collecting data on their users. Under the headline “Your E-Book Is Reading You,” and with an illustration of an e-reader staring back at its owner with two wild eyes, the article clearly suggests a Big Brother-ish conspiracy. A conspiracy to do what? To study the reading habits of Amazon and Barnes & Noble customers in order to enhance profit margins, possibly at the expense of privacy.

So far the information harvest has yielded a bumper crop of stuff we already know.

Barnes & Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier.


If you’re using an e-reader, you already agreed to let a corporation gather all the data it can about your reading habits. It was part of your Terms of Service agreement. The real subtext of the WSJ article may be that print books are, for this reason and others, better than e-books. I agree with that.

But take another look at the WSJ illustration of the scary-eyed e-reader. That’s a page from Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, in which Jim Dixon wakes up with a fantastically bad hangover. Never mind the Big Brother analogy. The hangover is a better commentary on our brave new relationship with Amazon.

– Brian Hurley

illustration by William Duke for The Wall Street Journal

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