From Guy Tiphane: Letter from San Francisco
8 December 2011

I may have mentioned that I read mostly literary fiction, which just goes to show that some people (like me) can see themselves in ways that don't necessarily reflect what they really do every day. Writing this letter, I made a list of six books I wanted to mention, and only one of them is a work of literary fiction.

When I last wrote, I promised to talk about machines selecting the next book for you to read. I like to see myself as a member of the reading resistance, sticking to paper books and relishing in the book shopping experience at independent stores, but I enjoy predicting the future, too, and especially the future that involves computers. I used to focus all my creative energy on writing software for computers that, alas, no longer exist. I would talk with my colleagues about various hypotheses, and then we moved on to something else. We had all the fun we needed just imagining the future, and we rarely gave much thought to the ways people would actually deal with the new situations we had imagined.

The future keeps turning up in ways that bear an uncannily resemblance to our imaginings. I was exercising with a friend of mine at a high school gym in the 1990s when I saw a woman wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with something like “Navy Intelligence.” My friend, a scientist who had an explanation for everything, said something about different branches of Intelligence developing software that would be capable of reading and analyzing the entire Internet traffic. The concept made a lot of sense to me at the time – it was even fascinating – regardless of its implications with respect to civil liberties, for example. Such systems have been implemented since, coinciding with the passage of laws making even their existence a secret.

What does this have to do with choosing the next book for you to read? It did not take Internet giant Amazon very long to figure out that the tricks used to sell you books could sell you all sorts of other things, as well. When you asked for a book, it suggested (I think it still does this) that others “like you” had also bought a whole lot of other books. “Like you” at the time meant people who had looked at the same book as you. “Like you” today may just be closer to people who think and act like you.

Everyone “like you” may see themselves as unique, but the evidence suggests otherwise. It is so much easier nowadays to find people “like you,” considering that the field is not limited to your neighbourhood or even your nation. It becomes possible, in fact, to find an awful lot of people like you. Do the test there in Please Understand Me, whichis psychologist David Keirsey’s book about character types, and read the descriptions of your personality traits on four scales. Even if your aggregated type is like mine (Introverted – Intuitive – Feeling - Perceiving) and is only one or two percent of the population – and even if you are comforted by the thought that most advertising does not target you at all – that is still a large number of people.

Enter Google, the current Silicon Valley success story. Because Google is so convenient, you probably use it for most of your Internet traffic and activity, with the result that it’s good at predicting what you're looking for when you type something in the Search field. It can also predict how you'll respond to advertising. I find that truly convenient, because I couldn't stand the Internet when it kept assuming I had an interest in Sports, Cars, or Viagra. It now knows me so well that I scarcely even notice the ads any more.

Eli Pariser, the author of The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You, warns that narrowing our view in this way will narrow our minds. It's like going to a family gathering where political or religious debate has become harmonious because you only hear those who agree with you. Images of wonderful family gatherings may come to mind, but Pariser’s point is that we won’t have intelligent, constructive discussion for the global good if we don’t include people who disagree with us. The key seems to be improved skill at dealing with chaos and bad tempers (see the section on Non-Violent Communication for a solution).

So the bookseller of the future will be able to channel books to your “like you” group, assigning a set of categories and key words to each new book so they will finally be able to match your type. Feed the contents of the books into the grand analysis machine – which analyzes Internet traffic and contents -- and match your type with the type of book.

Your “type” can be defined precisely – much more precisely than Keirsey’s 16 character types – and is like a DNA code describing your person, with a predictor of what books you'll read and be delighted with. A book's DNA can be compared to your “reader DNA,” and the bookseller – no longer a human but a machine automatically channeling books to you – is guaranteed growing sales forever. I don't really know how the public library of the future will look like in this scenario.

The field of semiotics concerns itself with meaning, and it’s generally agreed that the images you create in your head while you’re reading a text (a novel, a story) are yours, quite uniquely, and that ultimately you are the only one in control of meaning in your head. You can use the structuralist approach, where meaning can be determined according to culture, or the deconstructionist approach, where the text itself engenders new meanings as you read it. We just don't know how you might picture Jane Eyre or Emma Bovary (just think how different a novel is from a movie based on that same novel), and you may prefer the reading voice in your head for Virginia Woolf to the voice on BBC recordings of her work. These are thoughts that provide reason to hope you might have unpredictable reactions to reading a particular text.

So let’s imagine that publishers will cease to print on paper and that you will read books on some device. (And that that “device” may end up inside a contact lens.) Publishers will be able to take risks because they will not need to commit to printing thousands of copies. They will focus on marketing, on “capturing” readers with new titles, and that capture will be made easier by matching the book’s DNA to your own. In addition, once the reading process is subject to control by the seller (as it is with Amazon's device, for example), the seller can know whether or not you finished reading the book, how long it took you to read it, what sections you skipped, etc. Such information helps the machine build a better reader's DNA, to decide what else you will or will not like.

What becomes of authorship? If the big machine is really big, it can accept more works, and ultimately a novel can “sort itself” into the kind of book that becomes an instant success – or the kind that finds only limited readership. And guess what? The machine can then be made available to authors (for a fee, of course) to predict how well their new novel will do. Instead of submitting a novel to the opinions around the table at a writers' workshop, the writer can run it through the big machine to be read, analyzed and scored.

I find these thoughts horrifying, but just think: it wasn’t long ago that publishers employed proofreaders. Nowadays, the author’s word processor seems to do a good enough, albeit cheap, job of proofreading.

I will continue to enjoy the physicality and the social aspects of selecting and reading books for as long as they last. If I wait long enough, the new thing, the paradigm shift, will have improved to a level that is perfectly acceptable. I keep my hopes high with the thought that if, today, I can use a web browser (Firefox) that is independent of commercial interests, an equivalent way to read books will develop. Fingers crossed.

P.S. I have not found a way to make Jack Kerouac's novel On the Roadrelevant to this subject, but the books listed below were at least influential. With the exception of Introducing Semiotics, all are available in electronic format!

Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)

Len Fisher, The Perfect Swarm: The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life (Basic Books 2009)

Paul Cobley, Introducing Semiotics (Totem Books, 1997, reprinted 2010)

David Keirsey, Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence (Prometheus Nemesis, 1998)

Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You (Penguin, 2011)

© Guy Tiphane 2011

Guy Tiphane writes short stories and poetry at He lives in Berkeley, California.

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