This week, the big news in the world of e-readers is supposed to be Amazon.com’s announcement about Kindle book sales, which, the company reports, now outpace sales of hardcover books on its website. I won’t get into that claim — at least, not now — but I will direct you to an insightful piece from The Big Money that’s asking all the right questions.
For me, the real news in e-reading is at once more humble and potentially more significant: the launch of the Humane Reader project, which is spearheaded by an organization called Humane Informatics (HI). Its website is unfortunately sparse on information, but here’s what I can tell you. The goal is to improve literacy in developing countries by distributing e-book devices to folks living there. The centerpiece is a cute little nugget of hardware called the Humane Reader. According to HI, it should cost around US$20 in bulk.
That’s right — a e-reader for 20 bucks. I didn’t leave off the last zero.
HI is able to keep the price so low not only by building the Humane Reader out of inexpensive parts but by leaving off what’s traditionally one of the most costly aspects of any digital device, namely, the screen. The organization notes on its website that televisions are prevalent in developing countries, and so it’s designed its e-reader to connect directly with them. What’s more, the Humane Reader can store as many as 5,000 e-books using a tiny SD card. Oh — and did I mention that it’s built significantly around open source technology that can be freely licensed?
This is a brilliant project in so many ways. For months here on The Late Age of Print I’ve been prattling on about commercial e-readers and privacy rights. What I’ve inadvertently downplayed in doing so is the high cost of these devices. Even after the latest price war the cheapest Kindle will cost you $189, while a Nook will set you back between $149 and $199 depending on the model. Don’t even get me started on the price of an iPad. The point is, there are significant economic barriers to entry when it comes to e-books, which, if book reading does indeed go digital, threaten to freeze large swaths of the world’s population out of one of the most important vehicles for literacy. The Humane Reader attempts to address that threat proactively, even preemptively.
The Humane Reader project follows in the wake of initiatives such as One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), which has attempted to bring ultra-low-cost portable computers to kids in need all over the planet. It’s also open to criticisms similar to those levied against OLPC, including the fact that technology alone cannot bring about social transformation, much less secure justice or equality on a truly global scale. Nevertheless, I see the Humane Reader as an important piece in a much larger puzzle, and I’m happy to see HI looking to partner with individuals and groups who might help the project fit into a broader, more multifaceted campaign.
Humane indeed — and an especially intriguing development in light of what Julie Cohen, Richard Stallman, and I have been calling the “right to read.”