I may have mentioned that I read mostly literary fiction,
which just goes to show that some people (like me) can see themselves in ways
that don't necessarily reflect what they really do every day. Writing this
letter, I made a list of six books I wanted to mention, and only one of them is
a work of literary fiction.
When I last wrote, I promised to talk about machines
selecting the next book for you to read. I like to see myself as a member of
the reading resistance, sticking to paper books and relishing in the book
shopping experience at independent stores, but I enjoy predicting the future,
too, and especially the future that involves computers. I used to focus all my
creative energy on writing software for computers that, alas, no longer exist.
I would talk with my colleagues about various hypotheses, and then we moved on
to something else. We had all the fun we needed just imagining the future, and
we rarely gave much thought to the ways people would actually deal with the new
situations we had imagined.
The future keeps turning up in ways that bear an uncannily
resemblance to our imaginings. I was exercising with a friend of mine at a high
school gym in the 1990s when I saw a woman wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with
something like “Navy Intelligence.” My friend, a scientist who had an
explanation for everything, said something about different branches of
Intelligence developing software that would be capable of reading and analyzing
the entire Internet traffic. The concept made a lot of sense to me at the time
– it was even fascinating – regardless of its implications with respect to
civil liberties, for example. Such systems have been implemented since,
coinciding with the passage of laws making even their existence a secret.
What does this have to do with choosing the next book for
you to read? It did not take Internet giant Amazon very long to figure out that
the tricks used to sell you books could sell you all sorts of other things, as
well. When you asked for a book, it suggested (I think it still does this) that
others “like you” had also bought a whole lot of other books. “Like you” at the
time meant people who had looked at the same book as you. “Like you” today may
just be closer to people who think and act like you.
Everyone “like you” may see themselves as unique, but the
evidence suggests otherwise. It is so much easier nowadays to find people “like
you,” considering that the field is not limited to your neighbourhood or even
your nation. It becomes possible, in fact, to find an awful lot of people like you. Do the test there in Please Understand Me, whichis
psychologist David Keirsey’s book about character types, and read the
descriptions of your personality traits on four scales. Even if your aggregated
type is like mine (Introverted – Intuitive – Feeling - Perceiving) and is only
one or two percent of the population – and even if you are comforted by the
thought that most advertising does not target you at all – that is still a
large number of people.
Enter Google, the current Silicon Valley success story.
Because Google is so convenient, you probably use it for most of your Internet
traffic and activity, with the result that it’s good at predicting what you're
looking for when you type something in the Search field. It can also predict
how you'll respond to advertising. I find that truly convenient, because I
couldn't stand the Internet when it kept assuming I had an interest in Sports,
Cars, or Viagra. It now knows me so well that I scarcely even notice the ads
Eli Pariser, the author of The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You, warns
that narrowing our view in this way will narrow our minds. It's like going to a
family gathering where political or religious debate has become harmonious
because you only hear those who agree with you. Images of wonderful family
gatherings may come to mind, but Pariser’s point is that we won’t have
intelligent, constructive discussion for the global good if we don’t include
people who disagree with us. The key seems to be improved skill at dealing with
chaos and bad tempers (see the section on Non-Violent Communication for a
So the bookseller of the future will be able to channel
books to your “like you” group, assigning a set of categories and key words to
each new book so they will finally be able to match your type. Feed the
contents of the books into the grand analysis machine – which analyzes Internet
traffic and contents -- and match your type with the type of book.
Your “type” can be defined precisely – much more precisely
than Keirsey’s 16 character types – and is like a DNA code describing your
person, with a predictor of what books you'll read and be delighted with. A
book's DNA can be compared to your “reader DNA,” and the bookseller – no longer
a human but a machine automatically channeling books to you – is guaranteed
growing sales forever. I don't really know how the public library of the future
will look like in this scenario.
The field of semiotics concerns itself with meaning, and
it’s generally agreed that the images you create in your head while you’re
reading a text (a novel, a story) are yours, quite uniquely, and that
ultimately you are the only one in control of meaning in your head. You can use
the structuralist approach, where meaning can be determined according to
culture, or the deconstructionist approach, where the text itself engenders new
meanings as you read it. We just don't know how you might picture Jane Eyre or
Emma Bovary (just think how different a novel is from a movie based on that
same novel), and you may prefer the reading voice in your head for Virginia
Woolf to the voice on BBC recordings of her work. These are thoughts that
provide reason to hope you might have unpredictable reactions to reading a
So let’s imagine that publishers will cease to print on
paper and that you will read books on some device. (And that that “device” may
end up inside a contact lens.) Publishers will be able to take risks because
they will not need to commit to printing thousands of copies. They will focus
on marketing, on “capturing” readers with new titles, and that capture will be
made easier by matching the book’s DNA to your own. In addition, once the
reading process is subject to control by the seller (as it is with Amazon's
device, for example), the seller can know whether or not you finished reading
the book, how long it took you to read it, what sections you skipped, etc. Such
information helps the machine build a better reader's DNA, to decide what else
you will or will not like.
What becomes of authorship? If the big machine is really
big, it can accept more works, and ultimately a novel can “sort itself” into
the kind of book that becomes an instant success – or the kind that finds only
limited readership. And guess what? The machine can then be made available to
authors (for a fee, of course) to predict how well their new novel will do.
Instead of submitting a novel to the opinions around the table at a writers'
workshop, the writer can run it through the big machine to be read, analyzed
I find these thoughts horrifying, but just think: it wasn’t
long ago that publishers employed proofreaders. Nowadays, the author’s word
processor seems to do a good enough, albeit cheap, job of proofreading.
I will continue to enjoy the physicality and the social
aspects of selecting and reading books for as long as they last. If I wait long
enough, the new thing, the paradigm shift, will have improved to a level that
is perfectly acceptable. I keep my hopes high with the thought that if, today,
I can use a web browser (Firefox) that is independent of commercial interests,
an equivalent way to read books will develop. Fingers crossed.
P.S. I have not found a way to make Jack Kerouac's novel On the Roadrelevant to this subject, but the books
listed below were at least influential. With the exception of Introducing Semiotics, all are
available in electronic format!
Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide (Houghton Mifflin
Len Fisher, The Perfect Swarm: The Science of Complexity
in Everyday Life (Basic Books 2009)
Paul Cobley, Introducing Semiotics (Totem Books,
1997, reprinted 2010)
David Keirsey, Please Understand Me II: Temperament,
Character, Intelligence (Prometheus Nemesis, 1998)
Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is
Hiding From You (Penguin, 2011)
© Guy Tiphane 2011
Guy Tiphane writes short stories and poetry at email@example.com. He lives in Berkeley, California.