Books as Platforms for Surveillance


One major trend in current technological innovation is personalization. People can look up anything of interest with unprecedented speed, and are presented with information specifically tailored to their needs, preferences, and past behaviors. To effect this personalization, massive amounts of data are continuously collected about users’ interactions with technology—what they search for, what they look at, and what they choose to share with others online. There is a tension between the usefulness of having technology anticipate your needs and the Orwellian implications of having all the data you generate collected, stored, and analyzed.

In thinking about the production of e-books, we have to recognize that these knowledge systems will increasingly incorporate knowledge about the consumers of the books. For digital books to become more intelligent and adaptive to reader characteristics, they need to collect massive amounts of data about individual readers. Other essays from this book sprint have positioned e-books as platforms for performance, platforms for expression, and platforms for community in ways that emphasize the positive role of books in modern society. We also need to recognize that digital books, like much modern computing technology, are platforms for large-scale surveillance in ways that can have problematic implications.

One area of surveillance is the intentional actions users take: books they buy, books they read, passages they underline, annotations they make, and comments or reviews they leave for the broader online community. This data can be logged and stored, and it is easy to imagine scenarios where the act of reading books counter to your group norms is discouraged by the fact that it could be made public. Most text data will soon be able to be automatically interpreted, and comments and annotations will be crawled and categorized. The thought of an automated aggregation of every spontaneous and potentially trivial reaction by each individual reader across several years is somewhat discomfiting. On the other hand, this data generated by intentional actions is easily interpretable by readers themselves. In today’s world, many people are comfortable sharing this kind of information about themselves with their broader community. When readers have power to manage and curate this data as part of the way they present their identity, the collection of the data somehow seems less ominous.

A second area of surveillance is how books are read—user reactions to the text that are less intentional but integral to the act of reading itself. Gaze data can tell us where on the page the reader is looking at any given point in time; and while eye trackers are currently expensive and cumbersome, in the near future it is entirely likely that accurate tracking will be accomplished through camera-based technologies. Physiological data can provide information about readers’ emotional reactions to particular passages, and brain data can provide information about their cognitive states. While currently these technologies are intrusive and mostly limited to research applications, they will not always be.

The implications of this second kind of data collection are sinister. If Sara is assigned a reading from a textbook, and eye tracking indicates she barely glanced at one section, is that going to have negative academic consequences? Should it? If Jane has an emotional reaction to a passage that provokes a painful memory, should that be catalogued, stored, and interpreted, even if that information is never used? If Bob is recreationally reading a book on business, and cognitive state information indicates that he does not understand an essential concept, could that information be found and held against him later in a job interview for a position as a market analyst?

The more data we collect on the reader, the more we can tailor books to their unique needs and preferences. The knowledge system of the digital book of the future includes the characteristics of the reader. Readers themselves might want to examine that data, finding that it provides them with insight into their own habits, or curate that data, finding that it enhances how they wish to present themselves online. However, the collection of data which users do not produce intentionally while reading—gaze, physiological, and brain data—will mean that every failure of understanding or frustration is permanently indexed and potentially accessible. The future book is a platform for gathering an unprecedented level of information about each individual reader that catalogs their past experiences, current abilities, and potential for future success.

Creating Multiple Adaptive Paths Through the Book


A traditional book encourages the reader to take a direct path from beginning to end. Pages are arranged in a fixed order and numbered. But there are many cases where a book is not read in the order of its pages. Imagine Mary, who consults her textbook to understand a particular physics principle. She looks up the name of the principle in the index, and then turns directly to that page. After reading the description, Mary realizes that she doesn’t understand. She flips the pages to earlier in the textbook where she remembers a key related concept was first introduced.

Instructional texts are not the only contexts where you might want to navigate non-linearly. James is reading a crime novel. He reads a few pages, and then, as he always does, flips to the last chapter to see how the story ends. He finishes reading the book, remembers a part that he particularly liked, and then flips back to re-read it.

Digital technologies have opened up new possibilities for facilitating the way we navigate through texts. If Mary were reading a digital book, a search for the concept she does not understand might return a variety of relevant information: where the concept is first explained, what she needs to know to understand the new concept, and where that concept is later used in the text. The book could recommend, based on her knowledge, which content she should view first. Using hyperlinks, it is now possible to easily jump between different parts of a book, and using adaptive recommendations, a system can indicate which parts of a book are most relevant to a particular reader.

If James were reading a digital book, the possibilities of new technology suggest a more interactive and more personalized reading experience. The author could indicate multiple ways a book could be read to suit different preferences. For James, the book could be automatically reordered to present the final chapter first. Based on James’ reading behavior, the book could automatically infer which parts James liked the best, and link back to those parts at the end of the book.

To facilitate multiple paths through a book, there are several considerations related to technology and user experience design: semantic indexing, designing for non-linear navigation, making intelligent recommendations, and adaptive reconfigurations.

Semantic indexing. At a minimum, the content of the book needs to be indexed (either through natural language processing technologies or crowdsourcing) so that semantically meaningful links between different parts of the book can be made.

Designing for non-linear navigation. With non-linear navigation comes the need to design the book’s interface to support the user in taking multiple views of the text. Side-by-side split screen views should be facilitated so students can make direct comparisons between content. Reading history should be saved so the reader does not lose the page they were interested in, and can retrace their steps through the book if necessary.

Making intelligent recommendations. As the number of navigation paths increase, the reader may need recommendations for which path to view next. The quality of these recommendations depends on how effectively the book can construct a reader profile, interpret reading history, and understand how its contents can meet the reader’s needs.

Adaptive reconfigurations. For an engaging reading experience, a book could adaptively reconfigure its contents based on reader reactions and preferences. Using different navigation paths, writers could author multiple reading experiences within a single book, tailored toward different profiles.

One final consideration in this discussion is ensuring that these adaptive technologies support how readers perceive their own needs. In general, users want to maintain control when interacting with technologies. For this reason, recommendations may be better received than adaptive reconfigurations. Readers will want to be able to understand how the book is being reconfigured and potentially select their own path. As adaptive technologies become more sophisticated, the goal should be to enable the reader to make more informed choices about how and what they read. 

Digital Books as Physical Props


The Physical Properties of Books

The affordances of a physical book position the book in your life in a way that goes beyond the simple act of reading. To a buy a physical book, you might go to a used bookstore. You wander the aisles, noticing different titles. If something catches your eye, you can pick it up and flip through the pages. You might notice that the book is heavy, or that the pages look worn. The book has a distinct smell.

As you read a physical book, you leave traces in the book. You underline passages that are particularly meaningful. You fold the corners of pages down to mark your place. The book takes up space in your house. It moves from your coffee table to your nightstand to your bookshelf.

When people come to visit you, they see the book and comment on it. You lend it to a friend who’s always wanted to read it, but hasn’t had the chance. It’s a while before you get the book back, and there are times where you wonder if she’ll ever return it. When she finally does, there’s a distinct coffee stain about a third of the way through. Eventually, you give that particular book away. You never read it any more, and so it no longer seems to have a place on your bookshelf.

If reading a book is a type of performance, the book itself is a prop. The acts of buying, interpreting, displaying, and sharing the book are informed in part by the ability to interact with the book in a physical way.

Making Digital Books More Physical

As books become digitized, the experience of books as physical objects gets lost. When you buy a digital book, you don’t think about how heavy the book is or how it smells. It doesn’t take up physical space in your house, and visitors can’t serendipitously notice and comment on it. It doesn’t show wear. You can’t physically give it to someone, with or without the expectation of getting it back.

What do we lose in the transformation to the digital medium, and what should we think about reincorporating into digital books?

The physical properties of the book are missing. We can produce digital books that show use—how many people have made annotations, where they have made bookmarks—but not wear. There is no information about the condition of the book, how valued the book was. There aren’t physical properties such as weight or smell to link to the experience of reading the book. Building digital books that leave physical traces—e-readers that release smells or have touchscreens that feel differently based on the path of the book—would be one way of preserving the book’s physical properties.

The digital book lacks a physical presence. It can be displayed as part of your digital identity, but does not take up physical space in a way that has real-world significance. Having e-readers that can project images in your physical environment, displaying phantom book covers on your coffee table or bookshelf, would be a way of maintaining the ability to create a physical presence for your possessions.

Finally, the digital book lacks the same sense of ownership as a physical book. It is possible for multiple people to buy, read, and share the exact same copy of a digital book. Each physical book, while having the same text, has unique properties that reflect its journey through the world. It would be interesting to explore how to create multiple copies of a digital book that have the same core content but reflect the unique properties of each instance—who has bought it, who they have discussed the book with, and how valued the book is in its reader’s collection.

While the use of digital books as physical props is technologically feasible, the final question is whether it is necessary. What aspects of the physical affordances of books add value to the experience of reading them, and which ones will simply become artifacts of the past?

The future of the book is interactive, social and integrated with physical reality


Part of the current conception of a book is fixed text that a reader proceeds through in a pre-determined order. We may find books becoming more interactive, with more detail presented on characters or storylines that a given reader finds more interesting. We may also find books becoming more social, with the opportunity to discuss your thoughts on the book with a community of like-minded individuals as you read it. We may find that authors can receive real-time feedback on books and then adjust the text based on people’s responses, creating a better product overall. Finally, I think we will be seeing the content of books integrated more with physical spaces, where if you are in a particular location or context (e.g., on a bus versus reading at home) you receive a different reading experience.

Finding books through communities


While I think intelligent predictions of which books people will like will become more sophisticated over time, I think in the future the social element of reading will be a huge factor in which books people choose. People will form niche communities around their particular literary tastes, and use those communities to find new books. This is a good example of the long tail, where with the growth of Web 2.0 technologies, people can now find like-minded individuals across the world for any set of tastes and preferences.

Ubiquitous reading in the future


Technologies are increasingly becoming ubiquitous and tangible. Instead of needing to visit a computing device in a fixed location to access digital content, people now carry around tablets and mobile phones and have access to content at any time and anywhere. While I think there will still be a place for e-readers in the future, I think we will increasingly be seeing information further and further integrated into the physical world. With the growth of augmented reality devices such as Google Glass, people may soon be reading virtual text by using contact lense-like devices to overlay it over the physical world. One might also imagine digital text built in to large-scale physical objects like walls, so people can navigate through a book much in the same way they move through physical installations like museums.