In a very thoughtful article, Christopher Mims tackles this issue in MIT’s Technology Review.  Here’s an excerpt.  I suggest you read the whole thing:

Unlike books, which are one of the few media that do not require a secondary external device for playback, e-books put additional barriers between readers and knowledge. Some of those barriers, as I’ve mentioned, consist of Digital Rights Management and other attempts to use intellectual property laws as a kind of rent-seeking, but others are more subtle.

One in five children in the U.S. lives below the poverty line, and those numbers are likely to increase as the world economy continues to work through a painful de-leveraging of accrued debt. In the past, the only thing a child needed to read a book was basic literacy, something that our public education system in theory still provides.

Imagine Abraham Lincoln, born in a log cabin, raised in poverty, self-taught from a small cache of books, being stymied in his early education by the lack of an e-reader. And there are countless other examples — in his biography, Bob Dylan recounts spending his first, penniless days in New York City lost in a friend’s library of classics, reading and re-reading the greatest poets of history as he found his own voice.

Sure, these are extreme examples, but it is undeniable that books have a democratizing effect on learning.


  1. Will eBooks cause the sky to fall, make global warming and/or cooling happen, cause earthquakes, fires, floods, lead to cats & dogs living together, yadda, yadda, yadda…

  2. Already old news (fears), as we just discussed this not long ago. The “barriers” the author claims an ebook reader represents are clearly outweighed by the ubiquity of such devices, and their capability to hold many, many more books than any poor person could have ever imagined. The cost of providing a basic reader (even if it’s just a PDA) complete with an entire library of books is not only within our capabilities today, but would probably cost less than maintaining the world’s libraries.

    And trying to invoke Lincoln’s situation, here in the 21st century, is ludicrous. Might as well bring up Ramses II, stymied by reading because he had no modern jackhammer to carve onto stone columns…

  3. “The cost of providing a basic reader (even if it’s just a PDA) complete with an entire library of books is not only within our capabilities today…” Exactly who is “our?” Or did you miss the part about poverty?

    When the price of readers comes down to an “affordable” level, there will still be people who can’t afford them. However, they will then be a more practicable giveaway for groups that are concerned about literacy. The low-cost or free distribution of ereaders is a realistic future, unlike the failed distribution of low-cost computers.

  4. I really don’t think e-books will deter future Abe Lincolns. If you’re poor, there are always libraries to read from. Plus, if you’re THAT poor, you probably can’t afford even paper books either. I feel like this anti-ebook fear-mongering must have been written by someone who has connections to the publishing industry!

  5. Ah, yet more silly tech-sluming, as affluent people who perhaps never talked to someone who’s poor pretend to care and chatter to one another about a ‘digital divide.’

    The homeless I know are quite good at finding ways to access technology, including computers and the Internet. And those with even a modest income often have cell phones that can be used as ebook readers. When you’re constantly on the move, a cell phone with a pre-pay plan is a good investment.

    Finally, the real cause of childhood poverty, as anyone with eyes can see, isn’t ” a painful de-leveraging of accrued debt.” The problem was equally bad before the current debt crisis and has its roots in the 1960s. It’s divorce and out-of-wedlock births. Two parents are a lot better equipped to raise a child than one.

    You want to fix the digital divide, fix our bizarrely unrealistic ideas about sex and marriage.

  6. Two wringing-hands, view-with-alarm reports in one week on the same crisis-in-the-making?
    I smell a bleeding heart subsidy proposal headed for congress.
    This one carries lots of credibility too, coming from poverty-striken MIT, too.
    Jeeze! Try getting out the ivory tower and stopping by a soup kitchen or other charity to personally help, for a change.

    Enough with looking for causes where there isn’t one.
    Yes, it sucks to be poor.
    No, ebooks are not going to make poverty any better or worse.
    The poor have bigger and more basic concerns that need attending first.

  7. It’s not a technology (e-book) problem that is described. It’s a bundling problem. I agree with some of the points raised. There is no reason that we need to go through a private company to access public domain library ebooks. There is no reason to have DRM once the ebooks hit the public domain. These are problems that need to be fixed but you don’t have to get rid of the ebook technology to do it.

    I’m convinced that the e-book technology itself is good for the democratizing effects of reading and will get better.

  8. I’m one of the moderators for the Project Gutenberg Facebook pages. Many Facebookers visit our pages to say “Thanks for the books” — and a great many of them are Third World readers who say that they can’t afford to buy paper books. If people in Bangladesh or Nigeria can read ebooks on their cellphones, then so can poor Americans.

  9. It used to be that paper books were so expensive that only the elite could own them or could even read them. Later, about the only book an average family would own was the Bible. It’s really only been the past 100 – 150 years that book ownership was ‘democratized’.

    Like paper books, the price of ereaders and ebooks will come down until they are as ubiquitous as anything else. In the meantime, paper books still exist, as do libraries and schools, many of whom lend the ereader as well as the ebook.

    Let’s not forget that the government’s definition of poverty is nowhere close to the general perception of poverty. The 2010 census portrays the average ‘poor’ person as having an air-conditioned living space larger than the average middle-class European, satellite or cable TV, more than one TV, a cell phone, microwave, washer, etc. Only 4% reported EVER being hungry during the previous year, in fact, obesity is a far greater issue.

    Yes, there is a small subset of people who are truly impoverished, but those people have many avenues for help, both from private and public sources, while the rest have the means to prioritize their choices.

  10. “Yes, there is a small subset of people who are truly impoverished, but those people have many avenues for help, both from private and public sources, while the rest have the means to prioritize their choices.”

    It’s not as easy as all that. I’m old, disabled, American, and poor as the proverbial churchmouse. My old PDA died and I haven’t had the money to buy another ereader (or for glasses, or the dentist, or fixing the car, etc.). But I have a computer, so I’m coping.

  11. You can often get a used palm pilot for $30 or less on Ebay.

    Likewise, used PCs about a decade old (running Win 95/98/ME and upgradeable to Linux :) ) can be found for $20-30 in many communities.

    MP3 players with 4″ screens and plain text readers can be found for $20-30.

    These devices all read DRM-free books. Online conversion for format shifting is free and …well, not great but good enough.

    I’m not saying the issue isn’t worthy of discussion and not trying to diminish or minimize the terrible reality of poverty. Ebook accessibility is an issue that I believe needs to be addressed.

    But there are already some very viable and economical solutions.

    Bill Smith

  12. My computer is up-to-date, at least — it’s running Win7 64-bit. But so far as I know, there’s no PalmOS software, to manage syncing and transfering ebooks, for such a modern PC. Palm is dead, so no such software will be written.

    I’m used to a reader I can hold in one hand, so I’m trying to save up for an iPod Touch, which I think will be the closest thing to the old PDA.

  13. For the Palm, get one with a card slot and use a free download named CardTXT. It reads plain text files…just put CardTXT and the files you want to read on your card, slip it into the Palm and away you go.

    I’ve used this on my AlphaSmart Dana and it is easy enough that even I can figure it out. :)

    Bill Smith

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