Bringing democracy back to digital


By exposing us to diverging viewpoints, fostering dissent, broadcasting scientific discoveries, and stretching our imagination beyond its sensory frame, books have promoted the rise of our modern social conscience. The many societal and technical revolutions of the 20th century have often been ascribed to a unique combination of readily available literature and high schooling rates.

High-speed printing presses, global distribution, and the excellent editing work of our forebears, enable publishers to sell authoritative, if slightly outmoded, versions of classic works for a few pence a pop. These inexpensive books are the WD-40 of the publishing world: they find their way into the most unlikely places, eating away at the grime of mindless entertainment. Comfortably purchased by all, they require no special treatment. They are forgotten on commuter trains, picked up on park benches, handed out as tokens and prizes, thrown away without remorse — and saved by the dustman.

It was initially hoped that digital publishing would precipitate the fall of prices, without affecting the margins of publishers: provided authors hand out clean digital documents, the costs involved in editing, proofing and laying out a work decrease dramatically. Part of the savings can then be passed on, benefiting both seller and purchaser. We can even distribute books for free over the Internet, in essence the largest, most egalitarian lending library in the world.

Yet, in our enthusiasm, we may have collectively forgotten how tall a barrier we were erecting between the reader and the text. While printed books exist in and of themselves, old-worldly, generous, and inefficient, digital books must be accessed through a reading device, be it a computer, a tablet, or a phone. In effect, one requires costly tools to economise: the reading apparatus, access to a network, charging facilities, etc. One must also defend an attractive gadget against theft — for the tablet, unlike the book, holds universal appeal.

In our technical circles, access to a basic reader is a given. How expensive can these unmarked, outdated pseudo-smartphones be? They can run a web browser and access Project Gutenberg… To many, they are out of reach. And even if they were handed out by well-meaning librarians, they could not be charged easily, or used everywhere without fear of assault. In many regions of the world, including parts of Europe and North America, they would be useless bricks, deprived from the essential companionship of a cell tower or Wi-Fi router.

Certainly, computers are available in public places, including libraries. But how comfortable should we be, as a society, with asking the poor to register at a central government-run place to access knowledge that used to be free?

Whether by design or accident, free reading has, so far, been a right in modern society. Wonderful and convenient as it is, our current all-digital distribution model has failed to carry on this fundamental tradition. As digital publishers, we must examine ways to restore it, of putting random books back into random hands.

This article was written by contributor Francois Joseph de Kermadec