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This online reading platform that mines kids’ preferences to create new books is deeply creepy.

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March 25, 2021, 11:36am

Maybe it’s just because I am an Old, but when I read about the data collection activities of Epic—an online reading platform that, in fairness, is free to schools and has helped kids access digital library books during the pandemic—I was extremely creeped out.

According to the Wall Street Journal,

Epic now possesses a trove of data on children, a group famously difficult to track. The company has access to real-time data on how many children read a book, how long they engage with it, how often they pick it up and put it down and when their interest starts to flag.

The company is using this data to customize reading recommendations, but also to create its own children’s books, including a series called “Cat Ninja,” which has subsequently inspired a spin-off about the eponymous Ninja’s owl sidekick (whose appearance generated a lot of clicks).

Though I’m sure part of my objection here is that these books sound dumb to me (probably unfair, as kids have notoriously terrible taste). Mostly, though, I don’t like the idea of another company basing its business model on harvesting my kid’s information to make more billionaires. And using it to create bloodless, crowd-sourced books!

Naturally, the children’s publishing industry is also skeptical. “We’re not just following trends,” Suzanne Murphy, president and publisher of HarperCollins children’s books, told WSJ. “We’re creating them.”

Maybe I’m being too precious, but I want my kid to read books that someone cared enough to sit down and write, not just A/B test. After all, I wouldn’t want to read a novel created in an open-plan Silicon Valley lab. One could argue that anything that gets kids reading more is good—I have made the argument myself, usually when defending Archie Comics—but there are so many different children’s books, written by so many different voices. Why should we strive for this kind of flattening?

And if your kids really want to be part of a collaborative book-making process, might I recommend Mad Libs? Or, you know, writing their own stories.

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