Earlier today, one of my followers on Twitter suggested I read a post by urban fantasy author Seanan McGuire. In her post “Across The Digital Divide,” McGuire talks about how, in the arguments against and for e-books, one thing is overlooked: how this digital divide affects the poor. While many of us obsess over the merits of books (Books are beautiful! Books are priceless! Books are cool!) or the merits of e-books (E-books are easy to carry! E-books are cheap! E-books are cool!), we forget that e-readers may be convenient and useful but they are not accessible to those who live in poverty. McGuire says that a print book (whether new, used, handed down, or borrowed) will always be more affordable than an electronic copy.
This post really made me stop and think, which is why I wanted to share it with you. First of all, poverty has become the sort of thing that U.S. mainstream society doesn’t want to talk about anymore, at least poverty in these here United States. When we continue to espouse a mentality that “anyone and everyone can make it here,” it glosses over the inequalities that keep a lot of people across racial lines oppressed. Poverty is a reality, and that reality is closer to us than we think. McGuire points out that the “official” definition of what counts as living below the poverty level is outdated and therefore leaves out a lot of people who have trouble making ends meet on a daily basis, something that is left out of many conversations about poverty.
Not only that, but there are a lot of things that we think make our first-world lives easier, more fruitful but that are inaccessible to those without the means. Gadgets like smartphones and tablets and e-readers are touted as revolutionary devices that will change the way we learn and read. We, especially in higher ed, talk a lot about the importance of access to knowledge and how those gadgets enable access to knowledge. Take for example universities like Seton Hill University that are providing iPads and Macbooks to their students for free. Obviously someone thought this would be a good idea for students, that this would enable learning in some shape or form. I for one can say that even though I don’t read long texts (like novels) as much anymore, I do a lot of reading on my tiny smartphone. However, these conversations about technology and how useful it can be ignore one major issue: what about those who can’t afford it? Systemic oppression can’t be fixed by giving away iPads.
This is why McGuire’s post hit me so hard: she pointed out how so-called outdated forms like print books are actually necessary to keep around. At one point she confronts possible naysayers:
Some people have proposed a free reader program aimed at low-income families, to try to get the technology out there. Unfortunately, this doesn’t account for the secondary costs. Can you guarantee reliable internet? Can you find a way to let people afford what will always be, essentially, brand new books, rather that second- or even third-hand books, reduced in price after being worn to the point of nearly falling apart?
She is not calling upon her readers to walk away from their e-readers, but to consider the importance of keeping print books around. Like McGuire, I like that I can access books that are hard to find or out of print. For example, I recently purchased an electronic version of an academic book that I needed for my dissertation but couldn’t find anywhere, at least not for a reasonable price. Indeed, e-books have made my research easier and cheaper to the extent that I can live in Kansas City and continue working on my PhD even far from my home campus. So in this sense e-books (and technology in general) have made knowledge more affordable for me. But what McGuire points out is that if we were to forego print and go electronic all the way, there would be a lot of people left behind. If e-books make research a little easier on my pocket, it is only because I have the resources for it. There are thousands of people who do not have the means or the literacy to access all of this “affordable” information.
I want to leave you with a thought by McGuire, and hopefully it’ll make you think about the digital divide too: “Libraries are losing funding by the day. Schools are having their budgets slashed. Poor kids are getting poorer, and if we don’t make those books available to them now, they won’t know to want them tomorrow.”