Thursday, February 26

The Dark Side of Digital

By Dario Ciriello

Part of the Indie Authors Series 

The Indie Author in the Data-Driven Digital Age

On my darker days, I wonder—and I imagine you do, too—whether I’m not just wasting my time with this writing gig, when I could be doing something that’s a lot less work and maybe a whole lot more fun. Hiking, strumming my guitars, playing games. Maybe even abusing substances to dull the pain that comes with the territory.

For most writers, and perhaps especially indies, we write because we want to be read. Money is nice, but I bet the vast majority of us are at least as interested in exploring characters and telling stories as we are in making some extra money; and though we might dream, the reality of making a decent living from our writing is, let’s be honest, likely to remain just that—a dream. And I’m okay with that.

But who’s reading?

As someone who was an adult before we even had pocket calculators, let alone smartphones and e-readers, I’m increasingly disgusted—let’s not mince words—at the time people spend poking away at their devices. Why? Because those people aren’t reading.

When I bring this up, people are quick to remind me that some of those people are reading on their phones; that some statistics show that people are actually reading more than they used to; that the success of books like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Fifty Shades of Gray has brought more people into the readership pool.

The most reliable data I can find, however, suggests quite the opposite. Statistics (see fig.1 below) from Gallup and Pew, both reliable sources, indicate that the percentage of Americans who didn’t read a book during the past year rose from 8% in 1978 to a whopping 23% in 2014—an almost threefold increase. Over the same period, the more prolific readers—those who get through more than 11 books a year—dropped from 42% to 28%.


Fig. 1

This data alone is unnerving. Non-readers on the rise, and even hardcore readers declining steadily. Since the groups in between, those who read from one to ten books a year, remain almost unchanged and within the statistical margin of error, we can safely assume that a large number of former readers are simply not reading any more. (The actual dynamic is probably a downward migration across the range, but the net result is still a substantial drop-off).

At the same time, the number of books published each year has increased from somewhere around 45,000 titles in 1978 to between 700,000 and a million or more (numbers are hard to pin down) last year.

If you combine these facts, it becomes obvious that the likelihood of any one book (mine, say, or yours) being read is at least twenty times lower than it was in 1978 (the increase in published titles alone guarantees this).

Let’s also not forget that indie books don’t go out of print, so the competition at, say, Amazon grows all the time...by somewhere between a third of a million and half a million titles a year.

But back to the reader drop-off. What are those people doing instead of reading books? A generation ago, it would have been watching TV; today, it’s a good bet that they’re spending time on portable devices.

Whether you want to hear it or not, the truth is that for the vast majority of us, portable devices—your smartphone or phablet or iPad—are as addictive as crack. Every time someone comments on your FB page or pms you or tweets at you, you get a little burst of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasurable sensations and well-known for its role in addiction. And no, I’m not making this up—it’s fact, backed up by several studies (also see linked NYT article in “further reading”, below).

For every baby lamb rescued in Farmville, a book goes unread.

As a writer, when I see people poking at devices hour after hour, I want to cry. And I’m not talking about strangers: it’s everywhere, rampant among friends and family. The fact that I happen to have a very high resistance to this trend—I ditched my cellphone a few months ago and am happier for it—is meaningless: I’m an outlier. Most people, it seems, prefer passive pursuits like TV or playing games on their phone to the more active, imagination-engaging pursuit which is reading. Pass the crack pipe, please.

Now let’s consider the data released by Kobo last December on the percentages of readers actually finishing the book they bought (with wireless-enabled e-readers tracking your progress1, more and more about the habits of digital readers is now known). In the company’s own words, “with the onset of digital reading … it is now possible to know how a customer engages with the book itself—what books were left unopened, which were read to the very last word and how quickly.”

source: Kobo/NYT 


Among the interesting stats to emerge from the new field of “engagement analytics” are that:
  • The industry standard finish rate for Mysteries is 62%
  • At 74%, Italian readers of Romance had the highest finish rate reported in the study
  • Romance and Mystery genres generally had the highest finish rates, averaging in the sixties and low seventies percent bracket
  • Nonfiction titles scored worst, with an average finish rate in the 30% - 40% range
  • It takes the average reader just seven hours to read the final book in Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy on the Kobo e-reader—about 57 pages an hour
  • Twelve Years a Slave, ninth on Kobo’s British bestseller list, was completed by just 28.2% of British readers

On the face of it, these stats, coupled with my concerns over digital devices, ought to send me completely over the edge. Not only are my books less likely than ever to be read, but maybe 40% of those people who begin one won’t finish it!3

But the industry finish rate data concerns me less than declining readership: people have always abandoned books, and often read several books at once, so that it may be months before they return to finish it.

And another aspect of the finish rate data actually cheers me—here’s why:

The entire publishing industry, from publishers through to agents, is going to base more and more of its acquisition, editorial, and marketing decisions on Big Data (I call this The Hollywood Syndrome, and have written about it on my blog2). If, for instance, it turns out that books in which the villain has a cat enjoy a higher finish rate, trad pubbed authors are going to come under a lot of pressure to make their villains ailurophiles.

Since engagement analytics will inevitably lead to more and more formulaic writing and cookie-cutter books coming out of trad publishing (is that even possible? Just watch them!) good indie authors are likely to find themselves at something of a competitive advantage among more discerning readers. As in the heyday of indie films, indie authors will surprise and delight jaded readers with quirky characters, odd insights, strange plot turns, and all sorts of coolness lost to the generic, die-cut offerings that emerge from the data-obsessed mills of trad publishing

So the way I see it, it’s a mixed bag. I’ll keep writing because I have stories to tell and because I hope one day have a good readership, even a following. But on the whole, I confess that I struggle with the challenge of being a writer in the 21st century, and wish the damned transistor had never been invented.

How do you feel about all this? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of reading? Is Big Data a blessing or a curse? Should we abolish digital devices when the revolution comes? Above all, what keeps you positive and productive in spite of all this data?

Notes
1 Unless you keep your e-reader offline and only sideload ebooks, as I do, rather than download direct
3 It’s worth noting that Amazon refused to comment on or furnish figures on finish rates data. My suspicion is that they don’t want authors to know that free books (as per Kindle Select promos) are rarely read anymore: yup, free really is dead.

Further Reading
Nearly One in Two Americans Read a Book Last Year
Your Ebook is Reading You
Ebooks Can Tell Which Novels You Didn’t Finish
Silicon Valley Worries About Addiction to Devices
Keeping Tabs on Best Seller Books and Reading Habits 

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and freelance editor, and the founder of Panverse Publishing. His nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real "Mamma Mia!" island), was a UK travel bestseller in 2012 and has recently been published in Poland. His first novel, Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller, was published in 2013. Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short Science Fiction work, was released in June 2014. He is currently working on his second novel, another thriller. Dario has also edited and copyedited over a dozen novels, as well as three critically-acclaimed novella anthologies. He lives with his wife in the Los Angeles Area.

31 comments:

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    1. Yes. Sometimes it's necessary, gets out all those stress hormones. Then we square our shoulders and get back to work... :)

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  2. Wow. I think you may have changed my life -- or at least my attitude. I'm always stressed because all my writerly friends are working on books, and I seem to be a thousand-word kinda gal. So perhaps it's OK that I can't find the theme or structure for my book? Perhaps even a good thing, if I'm hoping to be read by anyone other than my neighbors and friends. I'll just keep blogging and writing micro-fiction and memoirs.
    There are surely a lot more words out there than there used to be. The problem, in my humble opinion, is attention span. We need to keep skipping around to get regular shots of dopamine. I will admit I often don't even get to the end of an article or a blog. On to the next shot! Fortunately, I am also a book addict, the paper kind. I read 25+ each year.
    While your blog is a tad depressing (more in terms of the decline of civilization than my own writing career), I do count it as a good sign that so many people are writing. We are engaged with way more people and ideas than we used to be. The trick for serious writers is to find the universal in this larger and more diverse pool of readers and figure out a way to get it out there.
    I also find comfort, if not hope, in the way that social media and the virtual world in general can connect "struggling writers." At least we can bemoan the state of the world together. Peace out

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    1. Hi Melanie ~

      Attention span is without doubt the problem. It's been in decline since first the clock, then TV was invented, IMO. Now, it seems a lost cause for many...although in time there may be a big swing of the pendulum, I doubt I'll live to see it.

      I did have some concerns about depressing people, but IMO that should never stop us from telling what we see as the truth, and facing reality. And there's an interesting aspect to statistics and probability, in that each and every discrete data point or event is unique. It's a bit like the lottery: while the odds may be heavily against any one person winning, that doesn't change the fact that *someone* will.

      And there's a big gray area between bestsellerdom, and nobody reading one's work. Pretty much *any* book is going to sell 50-200 copies on just the "family and friends" circuit; for some people, having two hundred people read their book is great--and, honestly, it is. So there's a grade.

      But what I think is important is to be realistic about the hurdles to becoming a well-read writer, and to look really, really hard at why one wants to do this peculiar thing. And for me the only reason to write is because you have stories you want to tell and characters you want to explore.

      Unfortunately, the people who get this aren't the ones who really have nothing to say and just clog up Smashwords and Amazon with reams and reams of garbage because they think they're going to get rich--again, I won't mince words and give them the benefit of the doubt. But I wouldn't want good writers to give up just because it's a tough gig. :)

      Kudos to you for your heavy reading! I'm probably in the 20-25 books/year range, and I feel good about that.

      Blogs, microfiction, and memoirs have their place too. I'm a long form writer by orientation, and so doomed to slugging it out as a novelist. But all odds and fears aside, there's more luck involved in this game than most people would like to admit (another blog post subject perhaps :) ). Books do still get read, and it could be yours.

      Best,
      Dario

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  3. I echo the sobs, but we'll carry on regardless, right?
    I can see that with my own family and friends - it seems we can't have a conversation anymore without the phone making an appearance and being used for extensive periods, or they check their tablets in the evening but hardly ever read a book anymore.

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    1. Marina, yes--we will.

      I have this idea that a writer, in a sense, has no choice. Oh, we can entertain the notion, as I did in my intro paragraph. But I think that to stop because it's hard, or because of fear, or because of time pressures...is to deny something vital in our core, something that needs expression. Even if we should turn it off, I think it would at some level make us sick. (Some will think I'm being melodramatic--I don't care. I believe this.)

      So we go ahead, write and publish, with eyes open. Sometimes I think of the image of the Fool in the Tarot, standing at the edge of the precipice sniffing a rose, with his few belongings in a small sack over his shoulder. There's a lot to be said for open-eyed innocence, which is folly in the eyes of the world. :)

      Coming back to Earth...you see it too, huh? It's hard not to. But a lot of people get really defensive when you point out that their technology has changed their habits, their lives, their relationships. That's addiction for you. :/

      Hey, I just got seven hundred words down on my new novel today. Yes, we carry on!

      Best,
      Dario

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  4. Perhaps people are reading less than they used to, but I don't think we can necessarily blame the internet for that. It's true that technology use is on the rise, but the generation most likely to use the internet and social media is also the generation that reads the most, at least in the US (http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2014/09/PI_YoungerAmericansandLibraries_091014.pdf).

    Moreover, I find that the internet encourages my reading habits. I subscribe to book blogs, follow authors on Twitter, and track my reading on Goodreads. All of these things contribute to me being *excited* about reading (as does actually becoming engaged in a good book, of course). And, of course, I wouldn't read even a fraction of what I do if it weren't for my library's excellent website, which allows me to have books from all over the city brought to my local branch and even to download books directly to my computer without leaving my living room.

    I'm not disputing the addictive nature of social media, nor the decrease in the number of readers, but I think the relationship between the two is more complex than simple cause-and-effect, and the internet and social media can be powerful forces in favour of reading.

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    1. Nicola, thanks for your thoughtful comments and that very interesting link.

      I do agree with you about the complexity of the relationship between declining readership and devices/social media/the internet. And I also know enough about statistics and study methodologies to know how easily conflicting and misleading research results can be, including those I quotes above: where people are volunteering information, things can get especially iffy.

      You're also right about how the the ways in which the internet can enable and amplify reading. But I do question whether reviews and recommendations form online sources actually lead someone who already reads a lot to read more, or results in occasional readers becoming frequent readers. It's sort of like preaching to the choir.

      Again, your point about complexity is very well-taken; and however objective I might like to think myself, I'm human, and tend to be more open to data that confirms my own views.

      But taking as data points a very wide circle of my own friends and acquaintances, and looking at how much time they spend online and on devices, and then hearing them say, as many people will if you ask them whether they read much these days, something like, "I just don't seem to have much time anymore" ...well...

      Also great point about libraries (I'm a frequent user, too), and the ability to download direct. But I wonder, would you read that much less without the internet?

      Thanks for pitching in!

      Best,
      Dario

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    2. In my case, I think the internet does help me read more. I'm a software developer (okay, I admit it, I'm biased ;) ), so my work is very intellectually-demanding, and I get up early in the morning to write, so by the time I'm home I've been thinking hard for a good 10-12 hours. I usually come home from work and feel like my brain has turned to mush and dribbled out my ears over the course of my commute. The last thing I want to do is pick up something that requires me to use my imagination, but engaging with others on that very topic makes me feel enthusiastic about it again. It reminds me why it's worth the effort.

      That being said, I'm already a big reader (I've read 15 books so far in 2015), and of course my involvement in book communities online represents a certain level of dedication, which leads me to question if we're not looking at two different types of people. On the one hand, there's the people like myself (and most likely you), for whom reading is an integral part of life, and on the other hand the people who read less often, for whom other activities tend to hold greater allure.

      That second group, I think, are the "I just don't have the time" group, but I'm still not convinced they'd be reading were it not for their smartphones; in my experience when people use that phrase what they really mean is "motivation". That being said, I can see how social media more than other hobbies might blur this line, so to speak. Social media involves real-time interactions. If you put a book down for a day or even a week, when you come back to it it will be exactly the same, and you can pick up where you left off. If you leave your Twitter feed for too long, you might miss something, or lose the opportunity to participate in a conversation. Obviously what you're going to miss really isn't that important in the grand scheme of things, but I think that makes it feel more urgent. Reading you can do any old time, so it's easier to put off than something that is time-sensitive.

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    3. I think you're right about the two types of people, and about priorities. But whether social media, device obsession, fragmented attention spans, or just the seduction of clickbait and Farmville, I think the net is the same...a reduction in overall numbers reading. R.E. Hunter below made the point about microfiction as well, so there may be that. As mostly a novelist, I have a bias to long works, and so worry about that. ;-)

      15 books in 8 weeks? OMG! And I write first thing, too, BTW...It's just the best time. Like you, I'm too fried later. But I'll read in bed for an hour or more every night.

      Best,
      Dario

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    4. I think to an extent it's true that people read less because they spend their free time in mindless internet pursuits, but on the other hand people use the internet to learn things like knitting and cooking and so develop other hobbies (things they might have once learned from instructional books), and to expand their horizons by reading thought-provoking articles. Yes, this is a bit worrisome in the personal sense for people who make a living off of writing novels, but I don't think that translates as a cultural decline.

      As for the 15 books in 8 weeks, I don't have kids :P I don't know if you do, but I know my friends who do have WAY less free time than me. I basically spend my evenings reading and discussing books.

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  5. I've heard from other sources that shorter fiction is becoming more popular. Too many people are too busy, and don't want to commit to an entire novel, but continue to read short stories. This is supposed to be one of the factors behind the rise in flash fiction.

    As a single data point, I do read on my phone. I prefer my Kindle, but our library doesn't support it, and I don't have a tablet yet, so I'm forced to read borrowed ebooks on my phone. But a lot of the reading on my phone is also blogs and other web pages, often from links I see on Twitter. If these are from authors, it sometimes leads me to their novels.

    I think the curation problem will need to be solved for indie novels too. There may be millions of them permanently available, but most of them them are unedited garbage. I've been surprised even by bundles and author-driven sites giving freebies in exchange for reviews (I won't mention names), where the quality has been much worse than I expected. But Amazon and Goodreads reviews hardly distinguish between really good reviewers, honest ones who don't really have the experience or skills, and the trolls attacking for personal reasons.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, R.E. ~

      That's true about short fiction, certainly flash. And it's likely the stats don't cover those, or even short stories (though I'm not convinced that many people read short fiction outside of SFF).

      You're so right about the curation problem. It's a very tough nut to crack, and I've more than once wondered if the sheer amount of bad and poorly-presented fiction out there today is actually putting some people off. Given the time investment in reading/reviewing a book, I doubt that anything short of AI is going to solve the problem...and an AI good enough to review a work will be good enough to write good fiction! Now that's a chilling notion... ;-)

      Best
      Dario

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  6. And of course all this angsting about characteristics of the readers we're given instead of the readers we desire is a great way to avoid writing the best book we can. Which is, after all, what we should be spending our time doing.

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  7. When not performing book edits, I write web content. In the past 2 years, the web designers I work with in London, on the West Coast, and DownUnder have all starting pressing for video web content: scripts. In an attempt to stay abreast, I always ask 'why' anytime a shift in the web space/time continuum pops up...and each designer (creative souls one and all) has given the same response: people want pictures, not words.

    True, this is 'reading' on a consumer level, but it used to be one could craft engaging content and capture interest for a heady 30 seconds. Now, video clips are added to supplement visitor interest, hoping to engage for a meager 15-20 seconds.

    This change was disturbing to me, along the same lines (perhaps) as the declining reader population disturbed you.

    I must say that my family (2 brothers & spouses) are very heavy readers, often consuming several books a month. I read all the time for my freelance work, but also read at least 3 books a month for 'fun'. The majority of my friends also read at least a book a month or have 2-3 in-progress.

    But then, maybe it's our age...we are all late 50s/early 60s. We all love the connection of sitting in the sun, clutching at a paperback, swatting at bugs, sipping a favorite drink, and getting utterly lost in the mind trip of a good book. We all read both paper and ebook versions. I like the tactile experience of 'real' books.

    Personally, I feel that the decline reflected in any statistics are simply society adjusting to a new communication paradigm, and eventually this will balance out in one way or another.

    Fahrenheit 450 always did freak me out though...

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    1. hit 'publish' and saw too late....no edit access....it is,of course, Fahrenheit 451 [sigh]

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    2. Maria, those are great comments.

      I'm in that same age bracket, and I agree that the demographic is a factor in both behaviour, and whether one cares. As far as the shift from textual to video content goes, I've noticed that for years now and it drives me mad--actually I find it very depressing,

      I *am* biased (I don't even watch TV), but there's an aspect of visual info I hate: it's a "push" medium, i.e., you have to accept the information sequentially, on the producer's timescale, and so on; whereas with text (more of a a "pull" medium), you can scan and skim and focus on a section which interests you far more.

      In the case of long work, say, a 1-hr documentary or news program compared to its text equivalent, a lengthy report or a newspaper this makes a huge difference in perception since you can zero in the items that you consider relevant or interesting without being at the mercy of someone else's hierarchical diktat.

      With the visual medium, that ability to "push", plus the very high emotional impact of the visual medium...well, you see where I'm going. If I want to see penguins frolicking in the arctic, yeah, video is good. Anything else, I want text.So I pine for the the very early days of the net, and hate that it's become something like television. It's dumbing down, and it's manipulative. ;-)

      I was an early ebook adopter, and read in both modes; but, oddly enough, I find myself more and more going back to print as a choice. It's...better. Not just in a tactile way, but also for retention and the ability to flip back (spatial orientation). But I do like digital for anything upwards of 400 - 500 pages!

      Best
      Dario

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    3. LOL no worries--I knew that you knew it was 451!

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    4. Maria, I also meant to say that you're absolutely right about adjusting to a new paradigm. The advent of the internet and now the portable internet (which is what handheld devices are) is a technological singularity on the scale of the printing press and the invention of the wheel, and this revolution is a rolling, ongoing one. But the fact that we have a technology which is quite literally rewiring our brains is IMO unprecedented. And that is fraught with perils and unknowns.

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    5. I HATE videos on websites. The vast majority of the time, I won't bother with the video and if there's no text I just close the tab. It's not worth the effort to dig out my headphones at home, and it's not something I can skim through if I'm pressed for time to see if it's of value to me. I also find videos on websites really hard to pay attention to, because they don't engage my brain enough so I start reading something else in another tab.

      I'm 25, by the way, so I'm not convinced there's a generational element.

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  8. The statistics are startling these days. Like you, I was here before all of the technology. I still prefer the book with a physical cover, back, and pages of paper in between. Although some of the devices have been life savers, I wonder if we're digging our own graves with all of it.

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    1. Indeed. I had a long talk with a friend in the tech industry last night and he confessed these issues are all concerns to him. Amazingly, when wi-fi first came out, he refused to have it in the house for some years. He stressed the need for *mindfulness*, for being conscious of one's choices and the ways in which technology can corrode our behaviour, relationships, and ultimately humanity. Wise words.

      Best,
      Dario

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  9. I have mixed emotions about all of this. On the one hand, reading is reading, and if someone is reading on a device, I'd like to think they're still absorbing words of some kind. However, I'm also distressed when I see families out to dinner, and everyone is on their phones. Ugh! My husband is a total non reader, and my sons vary. But hey, one of my sons took it upon himself to read the Bible. I can't complain about that!

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    1. Hi Julie :)

      Yes! the everyone-sitting at-table-on-their-phones-not-speaking is HORRIBLE! Distressing indeed.

      I'm fortunate in that my wife is a voracious reader; my ex, an academic, only ever read nonfiction, and that did used to bother me a bit--I love the ability to share reading pleasures and discuss books with my partner. Your sons, though...sounds like there is yet hope! :)

      Best
      Dario

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  10. I agree with Melanie Lynn over there. Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter (and more visual, too). I'm reminded of Gaston's "But how can you read this? There are no pictures!" In an information age, many people are more concerned with the what instead of the how and why. Many are under time constraints to deliver things instantaneously and immediately. I'm still glad, though, that there are good stories out there that capture readers' attention and make them wade through a hundred pages - not to get the gist of the story, but to experience the characters' world.

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    1. Hello Jee Ann ~

      Time constraints are indeed an issue. But it's also a question of priorities. Really, none of us have time for much--but we *make* time by rearranging priorities. It's like going to the gym, or cooking good meals rather than picking up fast food, or heating packaged. Or writing. For some of us, those things are important enough to push other things (evensleep!) aside. Readings like that, too Do I want to spend an extra hour online, or would I rather read?

      And there are those good stories, and I love that some of us are actively working--despite our occasional fears and concerns--to provide more and better ones!

      Best
      Dario

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  11. Hello Jee Ann ~

    Time constraints are indeed an issue. But it's also a question of priorities. Really, none of us have time for much--but we *make* time by rearranging priorities. It's like going to the gym, or cooking good meals rather than picking up fast food, or heating packaged. Or writing. For some of us, those things are important enough to push other things (evensleep!) aside. Readings like that, too Do I want to spend an extra hour online, or would I rather read?

    And there are those good stories, and I love that some of us are actively working--despite our occasional fears and concerns--to provide more and better ones!

    Best
    Dario

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  12. I am a reader, a writer, and a bit of a cell phone junkie (although I still prefer to read "real" books). I find the implications of this information rather frightening.

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    1. LD, I feel the same. I'm not sure that any of us can *do* anything about it other than to adapt, and perhaps one day there'll be a swing back of the pendulum. In the meantime, I just think mindfulness of our own habits and writing what we love is all we can do. At least...there are plenty of books! ;-)

      Best
      Dario

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  13. Excellent, but daunting post, Dario. Thanks for your insights. Unsettling to realize that the "progress" bar on the Kindle book is being used for data. But then, everything we do any more is used for data.

    I'm with you on the obsession with devices. Drives me nuts. I keep my cell phone (not smart phone) for my own convenience, leave it in the car when I go to a restaurant, turn it off at night. LOL

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    1. Thanks you, Toni :)

      Unfortunately, you're right about the direction of data mining...and I'm afraid we're just at the start of the beginning. So many of the good things about the net and the devices we enjoy come at a cost, it seems. The data collected on our habits will doubtless have some huge pluses as well as minuses: we're already seeing some of the benefits Big Data brings in the field of healthcare, for instance, where the wealth of data flowing will soon make some lengthy and very costly studies obsolete. But on the whole, I'm not optimistic. Especially when technology rewires our brain cicuitry and alters the dynamics of human relationships.

      Good on your for not giving in to the wicked lure of the device. And cellphone in restaurants? I would mandate jamming technologies in restaurants, cars, and movie theaters, just for openers...we managed just fine without them before: nothing is that urgent. But unfortunately I don't (yet) rule the world!

      Best,
      Dario

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