On this blog, I’ve been cautiously optimistic about the future of reading. A shocking story from the Wall Street Journal is about to change that position.
In my estimation, the rise of digital newspapers and e-books will accelerate the distribution of information to disenfranchised groups. Democratization? Not exactly. But better than the status quo. Yet, the same technology that promises to make news and information affordable comes at an intolerable cost. The tradeoff for cheap, consumable media is the sacrifice of previously private data. The transformation of print media into digital is a change from the static and closed into the dynamic and open, both in terms of reader access and the accessibility of reader habits. The relocation of media consumption from print to digital platforms allows corporations to harvest analytics about reader behavior. As Alexandra Alter reports for the Journal:
The major new players in e-book publishing—Amazon, Apple and Google—can easily track how far readers are getting in books, how long they spend reading them 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.
For the wider distribution of media, we must pay with our innermost and formerly unfathomable secrets: how we read. A similar sea change occurred when reading was displaced from the home into public spaces; or rather when reading became a legitimate public activity. Then, the private Victorian reader became the object of observation and surveillance. The broadest and most general of reading behaviors could be monitored and disciplined. Likewise, the introduction of paperbacks increased the mobility of public reading and again redefined appropriate reading behaviors. The supervisory function of e-book analytics, however, services a very different institution than public mores. The corporate, profit-making body replaces a social body as the instrument of control. Private information is no longer routed into the public and dispersed into many benign hands; private information remains private, unknown even to the private individual, available only to the corporation, which collects it to leverage it into efficient profits. In effect, the media corporation becomes the equivalent of the medical corporation. Both possess information about the consumer that is opaque and unimaginable to the consumer himself, and both use that secret information to extract profitability from the consumer. Just as medical information assumes a biological power over the individual—to regulate health and normality—media information assumes a cultural, political power over the individual. The accumulation and release of medi(c)a(l) information to associated corporate interests—medical, nutritional, athletic; media, cultural, social—permits a network of corporations to mediate consumer desire. The unwitting consumer, not privy to his own analytics, cannot help but yield to the corporate directive. Via a perverse inversion, analytics no longer describe behavior, but rather prescribe a a maximally-profitable reality.
If publishers gain the ability to analyze, predict, and subsequently manipulate reader behavior, and if publishers control the flow of content from writers to reading platforms, then the incorporation of literature into profit-logic is inevitable. Of course, capitalism has exerted a massive, in fact, inestimable, force on the aesthetic and structural development of literature. Nevertheless, the tension between prerogatives of the individual talent and his capitalized milieu is beautiful and fascinating. Conflict, contact, and resistance are always imminent. According to this (admittedly New Historicist) understand of literature, literature as cultural text contains marginal and subversive voices within an institutional framework. Although e-books will continue the literary negotiation of subversion and containment, the balance will shift firmly, and perhaps irreversibly, towards the objectives of power.
Consider a world in which a specific demographic’s ideal hero is known, in which the most addictive plot is discovered, in which the speed of reading, the movement of eyes across the page, and time spent on sex scenes are the proprietary information of publishing companies. Already, publishers are releasing sophisticated “choose-your-own-adventure” style titles to captivate vulnerable audiences. Long-form journalism and weighty nonfiction tomes have glimpsed their own, future deaths. Readers might be wary of lingering over controversial titles. The artistic will of the author is excised as literature becomes an entirely robotic exercise. Censorship will be scientific and designed for profit. The novel will converge with other digital media, like television—cultural production, as a consequence of material symmetry, will be homogenous. We will live in an era of the interactive sitcom.
I have no doubt, though, that innovative writers, aesthetic outlaws so-to-speak, will contest the homogenization of culture. Freedom from print will mean a more fluid distribution channel for interesting, eccentric, risk-taking, and young writers. Alternative media will put containment structures into outright competition. Which will prevail, the conventional, discursive containment structures of “literature” or the material, analytic containment structures of corporate media? The collision of hyper-radical and supercharged writing with corporate and frankly boring and soporific, bromidic platitudes will be entertaining. Yet, I worry and feel ridiculous for worrying about what seems the inevitable triumph of Orwellian dystopia. I have had the misfortune of living at the end of literature. I suppose it’s time I learned to love what’s coming: the dialectic violence of the individual versus his economic universe.