Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Does It Matter What We Read?

     It seems that amazon and Apple have whizzy computer algorithms (whatever they are) capable of analysing our reading habits in order to recommend books to us. As far as I can gather, they do this by registering data such as references to sex, and no doubt word length and sentence length as well.
Are you thinking what I'm thinking? No, not that computers will soon be writing books for us -  if that isn't already happening. (How would we know?  Because some books are so badly written? Hmmm. That might explain a lot... ) Forgive me, there are some areas that are simply too horrendous to contemplate so no, I'm not musing about computer-generated books.
      I'm wondering about the subtleties of context.

''Did the victim have sex last night?'
'No, Sergeant. There's no evidence of any sexual activity, or any sexual interference of any kind last night, although she was sexually active.'
'Yes, and we know she was a lesbian.'
       That's four references to sex in what is clearly a (badly written) murder enquiry, with no mention of death.

Conversely:
'She lay immobile as a corpse when he entered her, and could have been dead throughout, her body rigid and unresponsive.'
Two references to death and no mention of sex in what is clearly a (terribly written) sex scene.

What might amazon and Apple's whizzy computer analysis systems make of those? Fair enough, they were written specifically to illustrate the point. Let's pose the same question with some proper writing:

'Mr Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes. With the ring of light from his lantern dancing from side to side he lurched across the yard, kicked off his boots at the back door, drew himself a last glass of beer from the barrel in the scullery, and made his way up to bed, where Mrs Jones was already snoring.
As soon as the light in the bedroom went out there was a stirring and a fluttering all through the farm buildings. Word had gone round during the day that old Major, the prize Middle White boar, had had a strange dream on the previous night and wished to communicate it to the other animals. It had been agreed that they should all meet in the big barn as soon as Mr Jones was safely out of the way.'

      What conclusions might a computer draw from that? And what about Shakespeare's verse? Or the poetry of TS Eliot?

'Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.'

     The mind boggles. The mind of the analysing computer, that is...

And yes, amazon and Apple, I've read Orwell, Shakespeare, and TS Eliot, as well as Chandler, Lee Child, Edith Wharton, P G Wodehouse, Kurtz Vonnegut, Dickens, Mark Twain, JD Salinger, Dostoevsky, Kazuo Ishiguru, Jerome K Jerome, Jeffery Deaver... to name just a very few of the random and eclectic collection of authors I've enjoyed. I could name thousands - from Alfred Tennison to Jane Tennison, William Shakespeare to Just William... a hotch potch of authors most of whom who could  never be linked in any way, other than that they are all brilliant in their own way - in my very human opinion.
The issue is that taking any one of these books as a starting point, a computer programme would never recommend most of the others. 'You enjoyed Carry on, Jeeves? You'll like Crime and Punishment.' I don't think so.
Do we really want to restrict our reading experience to one kind of book, or one narrow genre? Surely that misses the point of reading fiction. Yes, we read to be entertained, but through reading the words, ideas and thoughts of others, we can also widen our horizons.
We shouldn't allow an ingenious computer programme to limit our understanding of the world.

6 comments:

Gowan Clews said...

Leigh, I get my reading recommendations from various sources.

Looking for computer books I'll check Amazon for reader reviews. Sometimes buy Kindle editions, sometimes from Foyles or Waterstones bricks & mortar stores.

Friends often suggest books. Bookshop staff are a great source.

Or simply browsing in a bookshop or even, perish the thought, a supermarket

Leigh Russell said...

That's great, Gowan. I'm sure we all take recommendations from different sources, but from a computer programme... it's just a bit limiting, I think.

Gordon Brice said...

I have bought books from various sources, but because I have bought some online from Amazon, I find that I am plagued with emails suggesting that as I bought such and such, I might also enjoy such and such. I realise of course that this is a sales pitch, rather than a genuine interest in what I may next like to read, but I would rather click on the application and peruse for myself. Reader reviews are very helpful of course, but a lot of pleasure is gained from browsing, either online, or in a bookstore.

Leigh Russell said...

Sales pitches can be counterproductive, Gordon. Thanks for commenting.

Gowan Clews said...

I'm happy to take suggestions from Amazon (computer program) or other software suggestions.

Supermarkets introduced me to Jasper Fforde (Waitrose) and Catherine Alliott (Sainsburys). I then went on to buy their books from (mainly) Waterstones bookshops

Browsing bookshops -- Daunt, independents -- reveals some crackers

No one way is best

Leigh Russell said...

That's how it should be, Gowan, lots of different books from lots of different sources. We can discover all sorts of new authors by a random system of recommendations. Amazon seem to be offering a narrower choice, based on what we already know and like. They should throw some 'wild cards' at us too!