Your Book Is Watching You

Your Book Is Watching You

I'm quoted in the Guardian's piece on Joyland and filesharing today, and on the basis that if you're here at all it's because you're prepared to let me flesh out some ideas, that's what I'm going to do. In the words of George Cyril Wellbeloved: "I expect you're wondering what I think about all this."

"All this", incidentally, is a new system which apparently alters the text of e-books in order to trace whose copy has been copied without consent.

In the first place, I think the notion of a book which is reconfigured to provide a chain of evidence in a civil proceeding against the reader is repellant. I think that is in the most perfectly Teutonic sense an un-book. Books should not spy on you. I'm fascinated by Kobo's remarkable ability to track readers' progress through an e-book, and the commercial side of me really wants that information. But the civil liberties thinker in me hates that the facility exists and loathes the fact that people aren't entirely clear on how much they're telling the system about themselves. It really unsettles me. This is far worse: the deliberate creation of an engine of observation inside the text of the book. It stinks.

More: it is ghastly to the point of self-destruction in what it does to the relationship between the reader and the publisher. I always point to Dan Ariely at this point and remind everyone about the day care centre study in Predictably Irrational: once you turn a relationship from a social contract into a financial or even a penal one, it takes hard work and time to repair. This concept absolutely damages an already-stressed relationship between the creative industry on one hand and the reader on the other. It is a bad thing to do.


If you have, over the last few weeks, expressed concern at the idea that the NSA is watching your online activities or listening to your phonecalls; if you have—rightly and properly—responded with scorn to the fatuous assertion that "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear" from total surveillance (irrespective of whether that's actually taking place or not) then you have no business, as a matter of intellectual rigour and honesty, espousing this system‚—and you understand how popular it's going to be with the public. The ongoing addition of varying different kinds of surveillance to everyday life is pernicious. It is a cultural insanity. Don't contribute to it.

Then there are more obvious problems, of which the first is that the precise relationship between filesharing and sales is not properly understood. Some houses have had very positive results with DRM-free books, and O'Reilly Press have, if I recall, established a bump in sales every time a book is "pirated".

(For the record, once again: piracy is a crime of violence, hostage-taking, theft, rape and murder. Filesharing is not piracy any more than dog ownership is bear baiting. I was assured this morning that it's an old usage. It may be. It is an emotive term, not a useful one. Filesharing is at worst a tragedy of the commons issue, and should be tackled as such.)

Beyond that is the question of how the filesharing world will respond to this technology if it goes mainstream. The most low-end response is simply to read the text for alterations. It's not even technically very hard to scan books wholesale, as we all already know. Perhaps hosting sites will compare one text with another and spot the shifts. There's an ideological component to filesharing for many people - who believe that publishers are badly behaved with reference to DRM, for example, or issues of ownership of digital copies, in which it has to be acknowledged they have some solid arguments - so someone will spend some time getting around this fix. Who knows? It doesn't matter. It's a cheap technical fix, so there'll probably be a cheap technical fightback. That's how these things tend to work.

And then where are we? With a yet-more damaged relationship with the readership, a few legal cases generating bad publicity for the industry, and another expensive failure in the fight against something not everyone is sure is a real problem, and once again looking around wondering whether there might not be a better way.

"Your Book Is Watching You."

Is that really how you want to behave?

Count me out.