A Pox on the Patriarchy
That’s got you guessing hasn’t it? (Or not – maybe you found the question banal, uninspiring and asinine and have got no further.) But for those intrepid souls who have humoured me this far, you shall be rewarded with an answer of sorts.
And the answer is…[waiting for the drum-roll]…
…[OK, this is getting a bit awkward now]…
…….[Oh, just forget it].
The answer [drum-roll]…….
[Oh for fuck’s sake]. The answer is, of course, personalisation.
Yes, personalisation, otherwise known as ‘monitoring’, if you’re Shami Chakrabarti, or ‘getting to know you better, so we can serve you better’, if you’re in marketing. Or if you’re David Cameron. No sleazy grin necessary, but they’re always amusing.
I’m not actually going to debate about whether or not this is an infraction of civil liberties. My feeling on many of these products is that you need to always remember that old aphorism, ‘if you’re not paying for something, you’re the product being sold’ – which I like to think of as the bastard child of ‘no such thing as a free lunch’, and ‘you’re worth it’. It’s disturbing, but generally avoidable.
So Google demands to know your gender when you sign up to Google plus? So don’t sign up. So Facebook owns all the photos and information you put up on their website? So don’t be so naive. Facebook and Google are businesses, no matter how much they bandy about ‘don’t be evil’ slogans. I’m not sure Google would even recognise what evil actually means anymore, so mired have they become in self-justificatory doublespeak.
Now some of you will very reasonably point out that e-readers have been bought and paid for. And my argument does fall down a bit here, I’ll admit. But on the other hand, there are always books to choose instead. Lovely books that you can scribble on, spill tea on, bend the spine of, drop in the pool, leave the charger at home for…you may have gathered by now that I’m not exactly an apologist for e-readers. I don’t really see the point of them unless you’re going travelling for six months and can’t afford the space for all the books you’d be taking otherwise.
So no, I don’t like any of these invasions of my privacy. But that means that I don’t use those products. (Well, until recently – since starting this blog I’ve had to sign up to twitter and Facebook for ‘marketing purposes’. [Puke.] But I drew the line at Google+ with their gender policy – it’s just too creepy.)
But some disturbing news from Ben Macintyre in The Times has given me pause. My smug position of superiority to friends who complain about the intrusive practices of Facebook has been somewhat shaken. Because it turns out that this growing trend to follow the public rather than to lead the public is infecting an area very close to my heart: literature.
Macintyre reveals that the e-book readers of today, could be the unconscious shapers of the books of tomorrow. How? Well, you may not realise this, but, as Macintyre puts it,’ your e-reader is reading you’. Every passage you highlight, every book you don’t finish, every chapter your skip, every chapter you return to. All these are fed back to the corporate machine. And publishers are taking note. Here, finally is a mass of quantifiable data that can reveal which books work and which books don’t – and why. Or at least where.
Macintyre writes that civil liberties groups have a problem with this, as do those who fear that people will act differently, and shy away from ‘sexual behaviour’ if they feel under surveillance (though judging by the explosion of E.L. James’ sadobuster, this doesn’t seem exactly likely), but he concludes that this type of monitoring is a good thing. In his own words, ‘The advent of a machine that logs your tastes while expanding your mind is another way to improve books and sell more of them to people who might actually finish them.’
Oh Ben, how do I disagree with thee? Let me count the ways.
Firstly, I would argue vociferously against the possibility that ‘logs your tastes’ and ‘expands your mind’ are able to exist in a reciprocal relationship. If you are having your tastes increasingly specifically catered to, where is the mind expansion going to come from? Far more likely is that this kind of targeting will in fact narrow your mind. Google increasingly caters to our tastes, personalising our results according to location, browsing history, and social interactions. If your online friends like something, so will you, the theory goes. The aim is to make your search results and ads more relevant and ‘targeted’. Result? Our tastes become increasingly narrowed and self-affirming.
For evidence of this phenomenon, see this twitter feed powered by Tom Martin, he of LSE gender-discriminatory chairs fame. (Full disclosure: I will actually be starting an MSc at LSE in a few months; I’ll get my male friends to test the chairs and report back.). It seems unlikely that, were Martin’s views not reinforced by sites such as this one, this one, this one, this one…oh I could go depressingly on, but let’s not ruin an otherwise perfectly nice day, he would think that calling all women that question his, let’s face it, questionable conclusions, ‘whores’ is likely to get him very far – case in point, he has 606 followers. Naomi Wolf, to pluck a comparison from the air, has 18,621.
Now, to be clear, I don’t in any way think that no man can ever have a point about being let down by society. On the contrary, I think society lets down most men, since they have it bullied into them from the day they are born that they must fit into one, single form of masculinity. Not only this, but men are often as badly served by the current economic structures that pin up western governments as women are. But I also think that this particular case of ‘discrimination’ might have more to do with the ‘circlejerk‘ phenomenon, than with any real logic. Sometimes the internet is a force for good and can topple dictatorships. Sometimes it brings out the worst kind of bullies. And you can see from Martin’s attempts to be ‘scientific’ in his arguments that he thinks he is being entirely logical and reasonable – because across the world, a small minority of men, powered by Google, tell him he is.
As for the idea of this function ‘improving books’, I again refer you to the immense popularity of E.L. James, whose Fifty Shades of Grey was described by Andrew O’Hagan in the LRB as ‘this decade’s multi-million-selling contribution to the art of terrible writing about sex’. Yes, perhaps Macintyre is right to say that these books, newly created according to reading practices, will ‘sell’ more. They might even be finished by a greater number of people. But since when has popularity always equated with quality? Is it too much to again refer to E.L. James?
This kind of populist market research in the arena of literature threatens the quality of literature, just as a market research-driven government affects the quality of government. Last week I wrote about the problem with the political system in the UK – that it encourages knee-jerk populism, rather than encouraging real leadership based on deeply-held opinions. It encourages lowest common-denominator short-term thinking – after all, what’s the point of putting in place long-term plans that might actually stand a chance of delivering change when you need to deliver results yesterday?
And the same goes for e-readers. Great literature doesn’t need to be democratically elected. Great literature gives us what we didn’t know we wanted. (Sounds worryingly like Apple.) Great leadership should give us what we didn’t know we needed. As for great search results? Well, I think that horse might already have bolted.