TechCrunch misses Lessing’s start-up idea

The speech of Doris Lessing, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, was referred to in TechCrunch as “the ditherings of an ignorant old woman”.  Lessing describes how people in Zimbabwe yearn for books to read, whilst [in the developed countries] “the internet… has seduced a whole generation with its inanities”.

I don’t wish to enter the discussion in favour or against Lessing’s alleged bias against the internet.  But I’m surprised that no-one in TechCrunch picked up on the basic need (non-for-profit startup idea?) that Lessing offered.  She describes the lack of literature, “novels of all kinds, science fiction, poetry, detective stories” because there are no books.  Books?  It’s actually knowledge and contents the Lessing is talking about.  What does it matter if a child in Zimbabwe reads Charles Dickens on a paperback book or through a WAP-browser of an 10-year old Nokia 2120 device?

With plummeting prices for mobile devices with basic WAP and J2ME functionality, I can easily see books (“contents”) provided through phones rather than physical books.   CelTel and other Africa-based network operators are already spread out across the continent.  They might not have coverage in every village, but downloading books would be possible whenever someone goes to a town with coverage. 

Classical books themselves are virtually free, since all pre-1923 texts are not protected by copyright.  Whilst Harry Potter might be available, thousands of classics are (from Charles Dickens to Jules Verne).  Data costs are a different story.  David Copperfield’s text, for instance, is about 2MB or 800kb compressed.  My guess is that NPOs could work with carriers to subsidize these data costs, but the economics are still significantly better than physically distributing books.

I’m not aware of any team working on such a solution.  With the ubiquity of mobile everywhere – including Africa – this is something that could definitely work.

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