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Published on July 5th, 2012 | by Guest Contributor

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Does the government care if you’re reading David Brin?


By David Brin

Your e-reader is reading you, tracking and collecting data on your bookish habits. When and where did you put the book down? Or take notes?  Or reread a passage? Who knows what you've been reading on your kindle?
Publishers now have access to detailed information about exactly how people use a book. Did most readers finish?  Which sections did readers favorite or ‘highlight’? The major players in e-book publishing—Amazon, Apple and Google—can easily track how far readers are getting into novels and nonfiction, how long they spend and which search terms they use to find books. Book apps for tablets like the iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook record how many times readers open the app and how much time they spend reading.
Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books.”We think of it as the collective intelligence of all the people reading on Kindle,” says Amazon spokeswoman.
But how will all this data be used? Who can access it? The Electronic Frontier Foundation has pushed for legislation to prevent information about consumer’s reading habits from being turned over to law enforcement agencies without a court’s approval.

Of course this is creepy.  It is not “transparency” because the light shines in only one direction.  On the other hand, I would love to use this system myself… if it were Opt-In.  I could then ask my pre-readers (I thank at least 40 of them at the back of every book) to turn on this reporting feature when reading an early draft. I’d be able to tell where in the book they slowed down, perhaps having to struggle with a passage.  Or put the book down, even temporarily in order to do homework or get sleep or feed the kids.  Or if they found a section tiresome or noteworthy.  I want it for product quality control!  And hence I can see why the big corporations want it too…. without the “opt-in” part.

That’s the part we should resist.

Looking and Looking Back…

Then again, the reflex to resist can get over-wrought. Take this exercise in tendentious pattern-recognition as an example that’s both illuminating and deeply misleading. Thisarticle compares 7 “sinister” technologies from Orwell’s novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to things we see today. Parallels are easy to come by!  And since Orwell’s book is the archetype of what I call the “self-preventing prophecy” – motivating millions to act in defiance of whomever they see becoming Big Brother – I don’t mind such contemporary alert-warnings!  (Indeed, when it comes to the NewSpeak aspects of lobotomizing Twitter feeds, I do agree.) Still, you need some grains of salt. And a willingness to say “Yes, but…” and to remind yourself of the myriad ways that tech pushes in the opposite direction.

Far more disturbing is this brief excerpt from an interview given by a FBI spokeswoman, about “National Security Letters” in which the government can demand information about you from third parties (e.g. your internet provider) without ever even going to a judge for a warrant.

Now as you may know, I am a moderate about the government’s access to reasonable levels of surveillance and even secrecy.  But in absence of any supervision, any human beings will naturally drift toward grabbing more and more, redefining “reasonable” as they go along, without accountability or criticism.  There are ways that accountability could be assured while maintaining an ability to surveil legitimate threats.  I’ve written about dozens both in The Transparent Society and in online articles. Here is one example: Free the Inspectors General!

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Existence and Other News

How will the world end? Salon recently ran a series of snippets from my new novel, all of them (entertainingly, I hope) relating to Doomsdays… or the many  ways our world might end.  Oh, but in fact I am a cheerful guy!

For those craving different questions and insights, here’s an interview with Brenda Cooper at the Futurist.

Mary Robinette Kowal – one of my favorite “whipper-snapper” young authors of the next generation – runs a nifty cool web site that now features a series called “My Favorite Bit” in which wrtiers are invited to describe a snippet of scribbling – from a novel or story, that made them especially proud or happy.  In my own contribution to Mary’s series, I dance around one of the best (according to many pre-readers) moments in Existence… without actually describing, or spoiling the scene.  Instead, I use it as an excuse to discuss the importance of suspense.

The Wall Street Journal review of Existence is clearly very positive and boils down to “very very interesting from many directions.”  Alas, I wish they had actually said that in a quotable way!

Salon Compilation of Brin Articles:  These range from sober assessments of how technology might affect transparency, privacy and freedom (leading to my book The Transparent Society) to a discussion or why our personal computers no longer carry a basic programming language and what this has done to our kids. From appraisals of Tolkien and Star Wars (leading to Star Wars on Trial) to a survey of several dozen plausible and less-likely ways the world might end! From my Ray Bradbury tribute to ways that the Internet just might be turning us into gods.  Have fun with ideas.

Like your version of a novel on audio?  The new edition of Existence by Audible uses three narrators to excellent effect, making this complex and tightly interleaved tale come alive with real drama.  Let me know what (some of you) think of it!

Government Science Fiction?

Pitches for Government Sci Fi! As a member of SIGMA, the think tank of scientifically trained science fiction authors, I have consulted with a wide range of agencies… e.g. about future threats & opportunities. Now Wired offers snippets from stories that various sci fi writers might (in theory) create to rally support for different US Government departments.  The outlines are mostly (except for the initial puerile-political snark) pretty imaginative.

Appearing in Seattle and Portland and at Comicon

Drop by http://www.davidbrin.com  to see my schedule across the next couple of weeks!

And more soon…

(Originally appeared at Contrary Brin.)



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