Having grown up in America, where capitalism is treated as a moral standard, I can see the appeal of having easy access to the details of everyone’s interests and opinions. At the bottom line, even in an industry so necessarily introspective as publishing, any business’s priority is to remain in business. If data is the key of finding out how to sell your product/idea and who to sell it to, then it would be stupid to ignore its significance. It’s important for us to identify how much this affects the decisions we make as publishers and how relevant our decisions are to the predicament at large.
Arguably, publishers don’t have the same capacity or intent for thwarting democracy that the folks over at Cambridge Analytica do. But at the same time, publishing is a medium for information. The key is to make someone’s ideas — fact or fiction — spread as far as possible. If we’re collecting readers’ data, it’s because we want to know how to sell things to them, which is still at the core level still a tool that can be used to create a more homogenized and/or polarized society.
The relative definition of privacy adds another layer to the problem. When Jellybooks or Facebook quizzes ask for your data and give you something in return, they’re acquiring consent. The problem is that the average human will assume a level of innocuousness in the action. For Jellybooks, there’s perhaps a little more transparency; you are aware that you are receiving a good in return for doing something. The insidiousness of Cambridge Analytica was the purposeful lack of transparency. But at the end of the day, it’s the capacity of the technology rather than its use that’s to be taken under scrutiny. The information that they wanted was for the most part public knowledge. If someone likes the “I hate Israel” page and then likes the “Kit-Kat” page, and their account isn’t privacy locked then I have the ability to see that information. Back in the early days of Facebook, users liked pages specifically because they wanted the public to know. It’s not that users don’t want people to know about their interests – it’s that they don’t understand the full significance of what giving consent means in a particular situation where someone has the ability to ask a ton of people at once.
Since coming to Canada and specifically since learning about how the Canadian book industry is subsidized by government grants I’ve been observing the alternatives to a capitalist approach to publishing. It’s not that I don’t think that Canadian businesses should be exempt from the motivation to make money, but rather that Canadian publishers should be more in tune to the problems that arise from a fully capitalist approach to anything — that placing too much value on monetary gain doesn’t place enough value on human welfare. The socialism that publishing in Canada is in part built upon reinforces the idea that creating literature, art, and research is a public service that creates public goods. Looking at the language used so often to talk about user data, we see words like: harvest, mine, scrape. At an etymological level, the terminology used removes the idea of users as people and instead creates a psychological objectification of the user base. Though we as publishers see ourselves as the medium through which writers reach readers, that distance grows ever wider when we reduce readers to dollar signs and binary code.
I’ve traveled down this unwieldy path of the philosophical dilemmas that data tracking brings up, but at the end of the day what it really comes down to is transparency and consent. Cambridge Analytica was deliberately unethical where I would hope publishers could maintain integrity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with data tracking, as long as the proper measures for consent are set up (and they’re not just used to avoid legal backlash).
I will say that to an extent I think this race for data tracking software in publishing is a little misled. It implies that we aren’t reaching readers now that we otherwise would be reaching if we had more information about their reading behavior once they’ve already purchased a book. I would argue that we would be selling books to the people who are already buying them rather than opening up a new market, and that we already have a lot of data about the people who read books; we know their demographic information, their interests, their location, and how much they’re willing to spend on books. What I’d like to see is real concrete evidence that tracking reader data would make an impact on the book market.