October 19, 2008

Slice of PIE: Rich Man, Poor Man, eBook Man, Sheaf…

When I bring this up, some people seem to misunderstand what I’m asking, they deliberately misunderstand or ignore the question – so I thought I might take a moment to see if I could clarify myself.

How will the eBook “revolution” affect the poor? Tangent to that, if eBooks hold sway, will reading become something only a person who can afford an eBook reader can do?

There is already a gap between those who read and can afford to either buy books or take them out from the library – which is “free” (Free libraries posit an economy of surplus). It’s just that the discussions among writers, agents, and publishers seem to EXclude everyone but those who read in the developed world.

Hmmm…I don’t know if I’m making myself clear even to me, so let me try again: many people seem to be saying that eBooks will eventually be the most common way to get new books. The Kindle appears to be a hit (http://www.techcrunch.com/2008/05/14/amazon-may-sell-750-million-in-kindles-by-2010-thats-a-lot-of-kindles/ ) and a lot of chatter on blogs and websites I read seems to agree that eBooks will eventually be IT. My question: what about readers in developing countries?

Right now, paper books are scarce enough in developing countries. When I was in Nigeria, Cameroun and Liberia, books weren’t available there the way they are here. There were no B. Daltons, Waldenbooks, or Borders Books, and certainly, in 1983, Barnes and Noble didn’t have a Lagos store. I did read ROOTS, THE FAR PAVILIONS, THE THORN BIRDS, ON THE BEACH and CENTENNIAL, but I picked them up off the bed stands of mission stations where they were warm, dusty, dog-eared and slightly yellowing at the edges -- but still readable. Schoolbooks in most places were shipped in from the UK or the US or Australia or Canada and were typically second hand at best, but lovingly cared for, pored over and passed on.

What will it be like if the wave of eBooks washes over the developed world and books old and new require an expensive reader using even more expensive batteries that require an even MORE expensive power plant to generate power to recharge from? Even with solar cells…well, my observation has always been that the more complex a bit of technology becomes, the more likely it is going to be difficult to fix if it breaks. Once our Kindles are dead, we’ll toss them away along with whatever novels or textbooks were stored in them. I doubt there’ll be a collection point for used Kindles that will be recharged, reloaded with books, boxed up and shipped to developing countries.

More likely, the developed world will continue to develop as it always has…and the developing world will stop dead in its tracks…at least as far as reading goes.

Anyone out there offering a brighter scenario will be gladly believed!


JustinK said...

I am of exactly the opposite opinion that you are in regards to eBooks and their effects on the developing world.

My reasoning is simple, and hopefully not flawed: As the developing countries edge ever closer to what we today consider "developed" (Though that definition is constantly in flux)books, bound in paper and shipped thousands of miles at cost, will remain a non-essential. I'm not saying textbooks won't find their ways into the hands of those that need them, or that the odd classic novel or two may wander into a 3rd world village, but will children in developing countries ever stumble across Ringworld or Sundiver? Will their beliefs in what is possible be changed by the Vorkosigan series? Unfortunately not. These books will never find their way, physically, into the hands of those who are unsure of a source of food and water, power and shelter.

Let's take a different track now: What if food and water needs have been met. Shelter is rudimentary, but adequate. Where now does the quest for improvement turn? Not to books, but very likely to electricity and computers. The $100 laptop campaign, for example. Or this absolutely fascinating experiment going on:


And what can come along with these computers and internet? eBooks! A copy of Orson Scott Card may never fall into a box of rice packed by Feed My Starving Children, but as sure as aid organizations are attempting to increase computer access across the world some young Haitian child will stumble across Ender's Game on the internet.

So while we will, in all likelihood, never crate up and ship off a box of Kindle's to Africa, cheap (even free) electronic copies of books widely distributed will multiply the access of the third world to literature - both current and classical - many may times.


Excellent -- and a far more hopeful scenario than the one I see...but I'm inclined to think your future is limited by the benevolence of Mankind in postulating "What if food and water needs have been met?" That's a big "if" and one that flys in the face of the growth of human population in developing countries, the "hogging" of dwindling resources by the developed countries and the persistent desire of much of humanity to say, "Give me mine and leave me alone."

But -- yours is a future we might strive for! Especially to get Brin and Bujold into the hands of developing SF geeks!

Guy said...

Got this from a friend of mine:

"I have read recently that developing countries are starting to use solar to power lights and other technologies since it is distributed (more portable) and can be repaired by locals - actually the trainies were exclusively women. I think it was a PBS presentation."