Tuesday, October 29, 2013

when looking becomes liking

Trends in tracking are creating a privacy problem that isn't about privacy, per se, that is, not about being personally penalized or embarrassed, but about representing -- or misrepresenting -- a public statement.

Recently, I came up against a quandry. Curiosity, and curiosity alone, made me want to read a book promoting an idea with which I very strongly disagree, and which scholarly critics have said contains poor research and poor reasoning. The challenge is how, in today's world, I can see what this book says without in any way rewarding the author. (I merely want to not reward, rather than to punish, which is why I'm not going to write a scathing review, or even reveal the title or author here.)

If I buy it new online, I not only pay the author, but also leave a record that I've bought it. Not only am I then inundated with suggestions to buy more books from an odious viewpoint, but my "voice" (if only as an anonymous datapoint) is added as a recommendation of the book to others. If I check it out from the library, it adds to the total number of checkouts and therefore prolongs the life of that book on the shelf. The remaining option, pay cash to buy it used, is fast disappearing as local used bookstores disappear, and is not an option in the ebook model that sees all transactions as licensed rather than completely sold.

The problem is that purchases and library checkouts are by default interpreted as liking, but sometimes one doesn't like every book one reads; sometimes one actively dislikes a book. If records are going to be kept -- whether personally linked or anonymous -- there should be a split-second-quick, completely effortless way of saying, "My datapoint is meaningless for your purposes. Don't link me to this or count my looking at it in any way."

Suggestion: Have "like" and "dislike" (or maybe better, "approve" and "disapprove") checkboxes on the order form. If the customer checks neither, it counts for nothing. Yes, that's right; the bean-counters will have to accept the reality that sometimes there are no beans to count. Note that this is not a ranking. The act of ranking or any other high-level evaluation  is to many people a stressful nuisance. If the business or organization wants ranking information, go ahead and put a scale on the form, but make it completely optional. While we're at it, it would be useful to have "not my choice" and "not for me" options for items necessary for school or work or other compulsory reason, and for gifts. These would count an item as neutral, and, in addition, prevent the item from being connected to the person's record in any way.

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