In the physical realm, purchasing a book without revealing one’s identity involves little effort beyond proceeding to a store one does not usually patronise and paying in cash. Unless one is seeking illegal volumes, which are unlikely to be obtained at neighbourhood booksellers’ anyway, these obvious techniques are nearly guaranteed to throw friends, banks, and marketers off the scent.
Alas, there is no such thing as an incognito shopping trip in the digital world. Not only are our transactions permanently etched into our credit card records, they are carefully logged and scrutinised by the stores themselves. Any purchase on Amazon, to name but one, forever hounds us in the form of recommendations, obvious or otherwise. Emails and pages are subtly optimised to highlight content related to our past acquisitions, whether in style, length, or subject matter. While we may be given opportunities to decline outright suggestions, there stops our control of the process — and we must provide a reason for declining, which further enriches our personal file.
A lifetime of reading is bound to include a few “one-off” purchases: a quasi-pornographic thriller our friends are raving about, a sex manual in a moment of self-doubt, an introduction to growing prize gardenias in a brazen attempt at living it up. The fear of permanently tainting our record may prevent us from making such atypical purchases.
This is not only a matter of convenience, though; our personal freedoms are very much at stake. Books are heralded as an instrument of free speech, even as their distribution model turns into a poster child for surveillance. In a world of digital publishing, of large, centralised distribution platforms, there will no longer be any way to purchase a book without revealing one’s identity to the seller — and, possibly, the editor, its PR firm, a select group of advertisers, and a few thousands of their closest number-crunching buddies.
There are valid reasons for wishing to purchase a book without being tracked: not wanting to reveal one’s sexual orientation, social or religious beliefs, ailments and diseases, etc.
Storage and communication companies are increasingly interested in zero-knowledge services, opaque tanks and pipes into which even their maintainers cannot peek. Systems like Tor have also long offered anonymous browsing capabilities to those in need. Enabling anonymous purchases, or distributing books the contents of which are not known to the distributor, requires no new technology.
While it could be difficult to set up, for anonymity is amongst the hardest things to guarantee online, it is, without a doubt, an attainable goal.
It is high time that such systems be put in place. For our convenience, certainly, but also to safeguard our ability to publish and purchase books without fear of our interests being held against us. The publishing industry must be careful to maintain its role as a conduit for ideas, good or bad. As we attempt to turn ourselves into publishers-distributors, we must not allow the latter role to blind us to the long-term interests of our readers.