There is something special about walking into a bookstore and exploring the collection. Though I don’t do it purposefully, if it is my first time there, I tend to follow a similar path through the store to get myself acquainted. First, I float toward the literature section and walk across the wall from A to Z, scouring through the names of authors both familiar and unknown. Then, my eyes wander to the history and philosophy sections, where I can usually find esoteric titles that sometimes hint more at the tastes of the bookstore employees than the interests of their customers.
This brick-and-mortar meandering is in stark contrast to the clickbait world of the internet. In fact, online retailers such as Amazon have vastly changed the way we consume books. Any product, for that matter, is filtered through the technology giant’s recommendation algorithms and spit back at the customer in the hopes of making a sale. What we do not often consider is how these algorithms are destroying the humanistic side of reading and how we share books with others.
The basic idea of Amazon’s recommendation engine is to predict what consumers may want to buy based on their previous search history. The engine seeks to create relationships between “objects” — which include users, items and products — and makes a recommendation based on these relationships.
For example, a relationship may represent a user adding a product to their wish list or giving it a five-star rating. The recommendation engine then uses these raw data to compute the similarity between the product they had just viewed and another product in the same category. The final step is to integrate the recommendation into one of Amazon’s many on-site or email platforms. Approximately 35 percent of Amazon’s revenue is generated by advertising tools such as the “Recommended for You” or “Frequently Bought Together” suggestions that use this algorithm to add to the average value of orders.
As opposed to the discovery that occurs in a bookstore, the Amazon algorithm is set up so that you only see what the site wants you to see. This is especially problematic in terms of people’s reading habits because you only are recommended books that reinforce your current tastes and opinions. We should be uncomfortable with the idea that a digital extension of ourselves, created by website algorithms for financial gain, has so much sway in how we think. Blurred lines now exist between our own original thoughts about what we might like and what an algorithm decides for us.
In many ways, the digital identity we simultaneously create for ourselves and that companies create for us is the same person. At the Code Conference 2016 — an invitation-only conference hosted by the technology news website Recode — the controversial entrepreneur Elon Musk suggested that humans in the modern age are already cyborgs who possess a “digital layer” above the naturally occurring limbic system or cortex. The common tropes of implanted chips and robotic arms pale in comparison to the reality that your smartphone holds the same computing power as the NASA computers that guided astronauts to the moon in 1969. Each person must decide for themselves if this powerful digital layer serves a symbiotic role or one that has the potential to pollute their independent, natural selves. It is also necessary to question who actually has control over this digital layer: the user or the corporation?
What algorithms take away from the modern reading experience is its crucial interpersonal dimensions. My grandfather, who has lived in South Africa since the 1970s, told me once on a hike in the mountains above Cape Town about a book titled “Cry, the Beloved Country” written in 1948 by Alan Paton. The novel details the desperate journey of a village reverend from the countryside of South Africa who goes to Johannesburg to find his son, only to discover that he is charged and convicted for the murder of a prominent white man and advocate for racial justice. The story is masterful and nuanced in its treatment of race relations and reconciliation in the country, yet after I finished the novel, what I remember most are the conversations with my grandfather afterward about how it impacted him many years ago. I definitely would not have found “Cry, the Beloved Country” relying on Amazon’s online book recommendations, and more importantly, I would not have had this shared reading experience that brought my grandfather and me closer together.
The next time you find yourself in a bookstore, take the opportunity to slow down and see what’s there. If you are feeling really brave, you can ask an employee for a recommendation. I guarantee their reasoning process will not be based a detailed personal history of “likes” or “dwell times” (the amount of time you spend on a webpage before you click on a different item), and unlike an algorithm, they have most likely read the words on the pages they are about to endorse. Better yet, exchange books with a friend for free and pay attention to the meaningful conversations that follow. Books have a unique way of bringing people together that cannot be replicated by social media or technology. You only have to step back from your digital identity to see it.
Alexander Satola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.