Ebooks and Bridging the Digital Divide
Oct 25, 2011 [permalink]
Author Seanan McGuire suggests in her blog that the much-heralded "death of print" and wild happy-dancing around ebooks is a disaster for those living in poverty.
Her concern is that ebook readers are too costly; that people that poor risk having such items of value stolen, potentially "stealing my entire world"; and that paper books are the only salvation.
Bridging the digital divide is something that's very important to me — bearing in mind I started the world's first Internet service provider back in the day, and did so as a free service specifically to allow the public onto the then-closed Internet. I likewise started the first writers' workshop on the web, again as a free service, to ensure access to all. I should also disclose that I'm a huge fan of ebooks, that I did suggest to Jeff Bezos he get into ebooks at an awards dinner in 2004, and that I'm now an ebook publisher myself (ReAnimus Press), driven by a personal desire that I wish every book ever printed were available as an ebook, and because I once again feel ebooks have that same potential to serve a need for equality of access that paper books can't meet.
McGuire raises some interesting points, but I think the scenario she describes will only remain an issue for a fairly short time.
In other words, I think ebooks will — in the near future — tremendously help bridge the divide. Or, perhaps a better analogy, allow nearly everyone to move from the one side of the digital book divide onto the other.
I think bridging the digital divide vis-a-vis books/ebooks will be accomplished via low cost / freely accessible ebook reading devices. We're not there yet, today. However, we are on the steep, Moore's-Law-following decline in prices of e-readers. Someone blogged that at the rate the Kindle prices were falling, the Kindle would be free by, well, next month, and told Jeff Bezos, who sort of smiled or winked or something. Obviously Kindles won't be free next month, but it's not far off when there will be dirt cheap / free e-readers. At that point, and with the the ability to store one's ebooks themselves in the cloud, there's no real danger of someone stealing someone's entire library from them as she mentions was a concern.
Let's say in the (not too distant [*]) future one could check out the device from the library free like one today checks out the "paper book device", and let's say most books are available as free library downloads to that device (which is imaginable; lots of good stuff already there). Then the paper library borrowing experience could be basically replaced by a free digital library borrowing experience. I see this as a huge benefit for those with little resources, since there will be more books available to them for free than they have now via paper; less weight to carry 1000s of them; etc. ([*] Let's say, within 0-3 years for borrowing devices from libraries, and having the library's full depth of print titles available as ebooks within 10-15 years, if not much sooner.)
Smartphones are also dropping in price. Having read on my phone for almost ten years now, I can attest it's an entirely viable reading device. At some point there will probably be a government required basic service requirement for an inexpensive cell phone data plan, much as today the government requires landline providers to offer a low-cost phone plan.
(And there are also the pirate channels, which on those same basically free e-readers can make available every ebook, not just those in that library and those not already checked out. And no, as an author and a publisher, I don't worry about piracy in that context: anyone who pirates a copy of a book who couldn't pay for it is not just irrelevant to a publisher's or author's income, they're probably a future benefit, as they may in the future pay for something from the author they wouldn't have otherwise known about.)
I would be surprised if there weren't already libraries that lent Kindles or other e-readers. If not, I bet there will be really soon. They're barely more than the price of two hardbacks today and falling rapidly. Heck, who knows, maybe Jeff Bezos will donate a bunch to libraries or something, a la Andrew Carnegie. (With, of course, a "Buy this title for your personal library" button.)
So color me an optimist on this. Ebooks are not a threat; on the contrary, they will be of ginormous benefit to all segments of society.