Orwellian eBooks Reveal More Than We Realize


John Hurt holds a book in a scene from the film, 1984. Photograph: Atlantic Releasing Corporation/Getty Images

Although the Kindle highlights function is publicly anonymous, there are still serious privacy concerns as it allows Amazon to track and store the reading statistics of customers

For The Irish TimesSarah Gilmartin writes:

‘The book fascinated him, or more exactly it reassured him. In a sense it told him nothing that was new, but that was part of the attraction. It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order. It was the product of a mind similar to his own, but enormously more powerful, more systematic, less fear-ridden.”

Winston Smith’s description of reading in the totalitarian world of 1984 may be satirical, but there’s also some truth to it.
We know the feeling of identifying with a book. It is one of the most satisfying aspects of reading, when a character says or does something that we ourselves think but are unable to articulate so eloquently or with an image that really expresses the sentiment.

Reading 1984 as a traditional book, I might have reached for a pen to underline that quotation. Reading it as an ebook, I have access to an enhanced version of this highlighting process. Since Amazon launched its Kindle Popular Highlights, in 2010, readers have been able to leave their own stamp on their favourite ebooks and can publicly share their insights if they want to. Tracking the scattered thoughts and similar minds of readers around the world, Amazon also gives its Kindle customers the option of viewing the most popular highlights of whatever book they’re reading.

At the heart of highlighting is the human urge to participate and document, to interact with a text at the most basic level, like a child pointing to something that has grabbed their attention. Readers may not return to their highlight, may never again think about that particular quotation or passage, but they have for an instant engaged. Ripping out newspaper articles, writing Post-its, scribbling on envelopes, marking cave walls with berries: the desire to record is age-old. The highlighting and notebook facilities on ereaders make it easy, storing ideas, half ideas, future ideas, even terrible ideas in one orderly, accessible location.

All the major ereaders have some variation of these functions. Like a modern commonplace book, the Clippings section in a Kindle or other device is a way to collect nuggets of information from a variety of sources. It is particularly useful as a tool for writers and other literary magpies. If bad writers borrow and good writers steal, ereaders make for excellent accessories to the crime. Users can rifle the world’s biggest vault and store the loot in a safety deposit box that never gets full….(read more)

The Irish Times

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