Jailbroken Kindle Emails Amazon's CEO Every Time A Bookmark Is Set
Over the holidays you may’ve been gifted a Kindle, allowing you to download books digitally to read them at your leisure. While you might be aware of the convenience and immediacy with which the device allows you to read the latest part of the Fifty Shades trilogy, you might not be aware that Amazon are happily recording data from your Kindle using their Whispersync technology. The software is turned on as a default on your Kindle under the pretense that it syncs data across multiple devices, giving you a helping hand.
But it also gives Amazon a helping hand, letting them accrue data on where you bookmark a page and how much of the book you’ve read over a period of time. As with lots of digital media, it brings up issues of privacy and how we’re constantly being monitored, even if that activity is as innocent as reading a novel.
Well, artist Johannes P Osterhoff has had enough! In a new performance piece he jailbroke his Kindle so that every time the Whispersync technology logs the data, it also sends an email to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos with the same info, as well as publishing it online here. The project began on 12th January—Bezos’ birthday—and is called Dear Jeff Bezos, so we emailed Osterhoff to find out bit more about the piece.
The Creators Project: What was the reasoning behind doing this performance?
Johannes P Osterhoff: As an interface artist I am particularly interested in controlled consumption interfaces such as the one used on the Kindle. These interfaces are very simple, engaging, and easy to use but have lost their purpose to reflect on the actual data flows in the background—and they usually offer no reach-through to lower technical layers. Recent examples—like the installation of trojans via faked iTunes updates on the iPhone, or the logging of location or keystrokes without knowledge of Android users—show the deep gap between the actions performed by modern gadgets on root level and the simplistic representations on their user interfaces.
This is also true for the Kindle. Its user interface is kept extremely simple to disturb the user’s “reading experience” as little as possible. But, of course, Amazon’s interest in an undistracted reading experience and smooth syncing between devices is not a philanthropical one. It is also a way to learn more about its customers and to use this knowledge to increase sales. I use interface art such as the Dear Jeff Bezos performance to focus on the underlaying processes and the business logic of controlled consumption interfaces, so as to make their influence on culture and the role of users a subject of discussion.
You say the piece is about how the act of reading is changed by ebooks and closed platforms. How do you think these have changed our reading habits and do you see this as positive or negative or both?
On the surface these changes look very positive. I do not have to carry heavy tomes with me, I do not have to go to a far-off bookstore to buy books, and reading on the Kindle feels OK.
But the Kindle with its closed system also fundamentally affects notions of ownership and privacy. Companies like Amazon are interested in exclusive ownership of data, because with this exclusivity comes its value. As a user of such services, one loses not only control but also authorship of the data one generated with one’s own reading.
And even though I read on the Kindle, I sometimes wonder what was so bad about physical books. I actually owned them, I could lend them to friends, and I could also read in private. With the Kindle and Whispersync all of this has become impossible. And, particularly, I am required to surrender my privacy during the reading on my Kindle. And I don’t even share my reading to the benefit of a community, with the Kindle and Whispersync this data goes exclusively to Amazon.
Have you had any comments from Amazon or Jeff Bezos about the project so far? Is the idea to antagonise Bezos or just make him aware or what his company does?
I have not received any comments yet. But so far I’ve only written six emails to Jeff Bezos (because I’ve only set six bookmarks). And I don’t want to antagonize him. Jeff Bezos undoubtable has contributed to modern reading at large, it has been made easier to buy and transport books. But for ages the act of reading has been a private matter, and with Amazon’s setup it is no longer private but has become accessible to their data centers. And, for me, to change an age-old tradition of privacy due to a company’s commercial interest and market power is not the best reason.
Personally I wasn’t aware that Amazon logged your reading habits through the Kindle via Whispersync. Do you think this kind of secretive accruing of data about people is just part of a networked society or is that sort of complacency dangerous?
I would not call it complacency. Contemporary user interfaces are made to be simple, engaging, and beautiful. But their purpose also should be to make users aware of their context and the consequences of their actions.