Digital books and our attention, please.

Since the Ipad has come out as the thing to beat in 2010, I was reminded of Andrew Fitzgerald’s contribution to the New Liberal Arts: Attention Economics. With the general hue and cry being that now reading has to compete with email, internet, etc, all on the same device, publishers need to bring their A-game. To that end, there has been a lot of discussion about what readers want. Alain Pierrot has one solution for helping readers manage their attention to texts by essentially using XML to monitor their time spent reading and supplying rough estimates on how much more time they should expect to take, giving them a handy metric for managing their precious reading time. Somehow, this reeks of micromanagement, and kind of makes me reflect back on apophenia’s post about “big data“. Scary that we need to remind people that they should behave ethically when toying with other people’s stuff.

Pierrot contends that book publishers aren’t very good at giving their readers what they want. This is somewhat suspect to me, I know publishers are going through a crisis, but I don’t think by measuring reading times (and possibly skimming that information for corporate gains) the web-based world will do much better. While we all have a mania for personal statistics and self-measurement, the assumption that we all clock our time that closely is kind of like introducing management techniques into our daily lives. Sure, it’s handy to know how long it will take to finish a chapter of a book, but being able to manage one’s time (or mis-manage it, god forbid) is what such a program would try and erode. Life, after all, is a liberal art.

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