I am an avid reader and like any other avid reader, electronic reading devices (the Kindle, to name one) have changed my life and the weight of my luggage when I travel. The Kindle and its kind have been invented for different reasons, but traveling light could have sufficed. I am not even talking about how easy it is to use them anywhere, the cheap rights-free books (cheap meaning free), the comfort of knowing that no one in the metro or on the beach can see what you read, not to mention the sudden cravings satisfied within a minute, the integrated dictionary that makes reading in another language so much easier, the convenience of offering books to far-away family and friends, and so on and so forth.

I have been such a strong advocate for electronic reading devices around me and in a reluctant France that Amazon could have commissioned me. The lovely couple selling beautiful 19th-century-like fountain pens with 21st-century technology in the Rue du Marché Saint-Honoré in Paris were the last victims of my proselytism.

But recently, my faith was deeply shaken by an article from the New York Times. It is about books, it is about literature – or is it? – it is about product placement and high-power analytics.


In two words, the article describes how (a certain type of) books « offer access to detailed information on how readers engage with the book, including how much time they spend immersed in it, how far into the story they read and whether they reread certain passages. »

I have been using Google every single day for many years now and I have openly handed my intimate life to Google along with my Gmail account. In addition, I have three Apple devices and I shop every week on Amazon. I am not sure what Google, Apple and Amazon are doing with the data they have gathered about me, whether they do mass analysis or go deeper for each individual, but they know virtually everything about my tastes, where I travel, what I buy and how frequently, whom I am conversing with. I am aware of this and I guess if I have not removed them from my life, it is because the services they provide have a much higher value than the annoyance they provoke knowing that I am willingly offering my life to strangers on a platter.

However, there is always a point where technology hurts your values and I am reaching that point.

If there is one area where I want to keep my secret garden, it is on my reading. Books are the only daily piece of my life that I want deprived of any commercial nature and I hope to keep it that way. I don’t want any recommendation based on my previous readings, I want to be able to read un-politically correct books without the fear of being stigmatized later on by the social roar or any political power, I don’t want high-power analytics to assume anything on my personality based on my readings. And at the end of the day, I don’t want writers to write based on my tastes, I want to be surprised, bored, amazed, shocked, offended, appalled, upset, blasé by the books I am reading, something I believe may be lost with high-power analytics. Or when authors know too well what a P&L is.

But am I wrong?

I know there is nothing new here. George Orwell and Ray Bradbury warned us over sixty years ago, but sixty years ago, it was fiction, it was scary and it was centuries away. It was not supposed to hit my generation, not even my children’s. Not so quickly.

Entrepreneurs rarely have spontaneous ideas of businesses. Business ideas come with unsatisfying services or unsatisfied needs, from reviving old dying trademarks or, also in France, from privatizing services that were previously under a State monopoly.

Since The Social Network, everybody knows how Mark Zuckerberg had the idea of Facebook. Steve Job’s biography from Walter Isaacson gives us a peek at the Apple founder’s creation process. No movie has yet revealed how Larry Page, Sergueï Brin and Jeff Bezos started Google and Amazon.

I bet I know. They have a book on their night table and it’s 1984. Every time they wonder what could be the next service to provide on their platform, they flip through the book. And guess what: I am sure they didn’t buy it on Amazon, but went to an old-fashioned bookstore. They bought it on paper, and they wouldn’t want you to know.