Reflection on ebooks

Last class, we spent a lot of time mulling over the ways in which we can now read books. We can read them in the traditional form, on a Kindle, nook, or iPad, and on the computer. I think our interaction with books, while important, is not the most exciting thing about ebooks. I have yet to see any discussion of their potential to function as both a free good and a well of knowledge.

Take your typical online transaction.
The Amazon page for Franz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks

The paper book costs between $9 and $12 when you include shipping, while the Kindle edition costs $8. The ebook is slightly cheaper and, given that you have a way to read it and are not averse to the prospect of reading on new media, it makes the most sense to buy it.

The ebook transactional framework leaves out key options that paper book buyers have available to them. DRM makes sharing an ebook harder. It also makes stumbling on cheaper copies of your book almost impossible.  I looked over several online retailers for the Fanon book and each gave roughly the same price. I could easily buy the Fanon book from a friend for much But I didn’t. I found my copy of Black Skin, White Masks lying in a big box of unwanted books outside the Philosophy Library.

This acquisition made me wonder about the potential of free ebooks. Several online distribution spots for free ebooks exist already, but the use of free ebooks is not widespread. People seem to prefer paying for their ebooks and shun the free variants.  I can think of several reasons for this. Ebook users may want to support the author by paying for the book or they may see the free variants as somehow inferior, unfamiliar, or dangerous. Maybe if free ebooks were thought of as more like library books and less like dangerous knock offs, they would be more readily adopted by the general public.

Free ebooks as library books still face some conceptual challenges. Who would distribute these books? How would we compensate the distributors for the server and bandwidth expenditures? These are all very important questions to ask, but I think a viable alternative to the e-library system already exists. Suppose we do to books, what we did to music. We digitize them entirely and make them  available to rip, burn, and share without any DRM restrictions. Inevitably, worldwide book piracy would spring up and we could easily share thousands of books within minutes.

The potential of a global book piracy is exciting because it could directly impact millions of disadvantaged people ravaged by  unequal access to education. The widespread availability of new technologies and high Internet penetration rates makes learning through digital mediums much easier for some countries (see the case of cell phone learning in South Africa).  Those who do not live in countries with a similar infrastructure could benefit  from cheap and durable technology loaded with educational material. The One Laptop per Child project provides a model for how this technology could be developed and distributed.

Of course, there are legal and copyright problems with the piracy model but it shows the potential that ebooks have to be something other than just another way of looking at the same old text.

EDIT: Think giving laptops to kids is a bad idea? Check out this Colbert clip to see just how durable laptops can be.

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