Gutenberg 2.0: Kindling the Reading Habit

Few events in history, if any, are simultaneously as innocuous and revolutionary as the invention of the printing press. As a fundamental enabler of the Reformation and Renaissance, it helped lay the intellectual foundation for the modern world. Cheaper, mechanically printed books meant access to knowledge, ideas, and expression for a much broader cross-section of humanity than ever before.

This 15th century revolution has today reached a phenomenal inflection point with the emergence of e-readers and e-books. Gutenberg wrestled the privilege of intellectual engagement out of the hands of the domineering elite and gave it to the masses. E-reading can do the same for the under-privileged in developing countries.

David Risher of Worldreader is determined to write history this way. Worldreader is focused on making e-books (and e-readers such as the Kindle) available to school-going children in the developing world -- where severe cost limitations often mean that books and libraries are out of reach. I talked to David about how Worldreader is reimagining reading, e-readers, schools, teachers, libraries, and philanthropy all at once. Below are some excerpts from our musings.

The evolution of e-reader technology

DJ: Currently manufacturers of e-readers are focused on an upper-middle class market in North America, Europe, and a few other countries. Do you think e-readers will evolve suitably for the needs of schools and libraries in hot, humid, dusty, and power-starved regions?

DR: Worldreader is a catalyst, not the whole solution. We are coordinating an ecosystem of partners to deliver e-books into the hands of thousands. The upshot of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program has taught us that we should swim downstream, i.e. swim along with where corporations and markets are going. OLPC didn't have Microsoft or Intel on-board, and decided to go it alone. We have the exact opposite approach. We have Amazon, RandomHouse and many others as our core partners. We believe that allying closely with these organizations (and we give Amazon a lot of feedback on how they can make the Kindle more suitable for our needs) will make it easier for us to leverage their work for maximal impact successfully.

DJ: I understand that power has not been a major pain-point due to pre-existing cell phone penetration and the lasting charge of the Kindle and that durability-enhancing cases have performed well. Are there other e-reader features that are limiting impact in the near-term?

DR: Yes, we are working hard on many fronts. I think we will see solar cells, more durable screens, and the like all come out soon. One big problem that we need to solve is integrating a system of "scratch-off" cards as a method of payment. These cards are a popular mechanism to pay for mobile services in Africa. We hope to use this to enable students to buy additional books through their Kindles.

Sparking an African Renaissance

DJ: Just before the Renaissance sparked off in Florence, many forgotten texts from the Mediterranean civilizations had been re-discovered. As I understand, in the process of spreading reading in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and other countries, Worldreader is digitizing local content and "publishing" it so that anyone around the world can buy it on Amazon. What kinds of downstream implications do you see of this?

DR: Let me tell you about a story by Peggy Oppong called The Shark. It is about love -- not unlike many other stories. But it is set in Ghana. A Ghanaian or African reader can relate to the landmarks, culture, and innuendo in The Shark as it is not set in New York or Tokyo, but at home. This impacts how interested a child is in such a story, how much a child can grasp the events described, and ultimately how much a child gains from such reading. This is where we see great value in digitizing and distributing local content. In addition we are giving African authors a global platform to publish their work. I hope this encourages more local writing, publishing, reading, and all the social goods that come with these things.
A Kenyan girl reading aloud.

(Copyright (C) Worldreader. Permission obtained for use in this article only.)
DJ: I remember, growing up, books are a window for me to picture what other cultures and places were like. I certainly hope to read many of the books you're making accessible. Do you have any recommendations?

DR: Absolutely. Most of the books we have digitized are available on Amazon. Many more are coming. I particularly like The Canoe's Story.

Literacy is not enough

DJ: Literacy rate, though commonly used, is a pretty blunt measure. It doesn't say how fast someone can read or how well-read someone is. It doesn't reveal whether someone has read 20 novels or 200. Have you thought about developing more refined metrics for how "well-read" someone is?

DR: This idea is at the core of Worldreader. Basic functional literacy (i.e. ability to read a soup-can label) is critical but our goals are bigger. We will not be content with students merely reading / writing the basics or engaging in assigned textbook reading. We want students to have access to books that stimulate their curiosity. We want them to enjoy reading. In our pilots, we have seen students spending as much as 50% more time on reading and that students proactively download one item for every two items we pre-load into their e-readers. Numerous children have read well north of 50 books. All this is happening because the books are relevant and interesting. However, these are still early days, I am sure many more refined metrics will come.

DJ: But you have also helped in the area of textbooks, correct?

DR: Absolutely. For instance, Ghana has 19 languages for primary school instruction. The government today has to deal with the logistics of updating, printing, and delivering textbooks in different languages around the country. Through e-readers and Worldreader, this can be done relatively painlessly -- with simple, software-aided translation and nationwide distribution at the push of a few buttons. We are solving a huge problem for teachers, governments, and students even with regards to textbooks. So, yes, we are enabling the content "pushed" out by schools but we are greatly interested in creating curiosity among students so that they actively "pull" content and demand books.


DJ: The library is an expensive institution and many argue leaves a lot to be desired. Billions are spent annually on libraries in the US (per Association of Research Libraries). The University of Michigan (with one of the world's largest library systems) alone spent $53 MM on its libraries in 2009. Library-goers are also dissatisfied regarding availability of popular books, the logistics of borrowing and returning books, and the wear and tear of the items. Worldreader's ideas can be very relevant in the developed world in a time of grave fiscal imbalance and expanding consumer expectations. Are we heading towards a future where the entire US public library system and all US universities have all possible content in the world in the cloud and any library member can access (borrow) any book for a limited amount of time over the mobile network?

DR: The fundamentals are certainly there. It is hard to imagine a future where this is not the case, but it is equally difficult to predict how things will evolve. Borrowing/lending of books is as old as books themselves. This will get more interesting with e-books and e-readers. However, publishers and authors have a great stake in the current system, and it is important that in a future system these players continue to play their roles. How the cloud-based libraries and e-book-stores work out the economics to make this happen, I don't know. Whether we will get there in 5 years or 50, I don't know.

Philanthropy, virtually

DJ: Worldreader raises an interesting set of questions regarding e-goods donations. In today's world you can have your cake and eat it too. The marginal cost of donating an e-book for a publisher is zero. But if a publisher is further allowed to take a tax deduction for such a donation, then we're looking at a negative marginal cost. Yes, a negative marginal cost for doing good!! Additionally if a consumer wants to donate an e-book he owns, then are there platforms that allow this? What are your thoughts on virtual philanthropy?

DR: This is really thought-provoking. We also think about it: when we want to report how much we have raised, a perennial question for us for in-kind donations is whether we consider the item's cost or its market price. There are some other similar types of donations that are hard to account for -- our mobile 3G partners and Amazon both subsidize bandwidth to enable e-book downloads. That too is an in-kind, virtual donation. To your question specifically, I'm not a tax expert but it seems reasonable that donations of e-goods and e-services such as bandwidth and e-books qualify for charitable deductions.

But here is where your observations are particularly encouraging: look at how fast Worldreader has been able to take off and how receptive our partners have been to us. I think part of the reason is that our partners are able to support us without much additional marginal cost. Indeed, as you point out, the marginal cost could be negative. This makes it easier for social entrepreneurs to gather support from corporations and generate accelerated social impact.

Vision from the nucleus: the reading ecosystem of the future

DJ: Philanthropists such as Carnegie are often credited for being "smart givers" as they setup institutions that have lasted and endured in social causes. What institutions do you want to create or strengthen?

DR: I envision Worldreader having an impact on several different entities. African schools, teachers, and governments will feel encouraged with more tools. African telecom networks will have more domestic demand. African authors and publishers will have global access and hence will be incentivized to write/publish more. Worldreader's institutional impact will be the formation of bonds between consumers, authors, publishers, governments, schools, and technology/telecom companies to create a better and lasting learning ecosystem.


It is apt to conclude this article on a bookwormy (sic) note: in chaos theory, there is this thing called the butterfly effect. The effect demonstrates how seemingly small but critical changes in status quo can manifest as major changes in the future state. It is hard not to think of e-readers, reading, and Worldreader in that light. A well-read, educated, and globally-aware generation of hitherto under-privileged children is likely to generate huge waves of development for their countries, their continents, and all of us.

Read more about Worldreader, or consider donating.

Dinkar Jain holds a Bachelors in Computer Science Engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Dinkar was the President of HBS' non-profit consulting organization from 2009-10. To read more articles by Dinkar, click here.