Last week, the BBC had a story of a small Venezuelan university which is using mules to bring books to villagers in very remote Andean mountain villages, where they are eagerly devoured. The story says, “They are known as bibliomulas (book mules) and they are helping to spread the benefits of reading to people who are isolated from much of the world around them.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the success of the project has opened up a plethora of ways of expanding access to broader information resources.
Somehow there is already a limited mobile phone signal here, so the organisers are taking advantage of that and equipping the mules with laptops and projectors.
The book mules are becoming cyber mules and cine mules.
“We want to install wireless modems under the banana plants so the villagers can use the internet,” says Robert Ramirez, the co-ordinator of the university’s Network of Enterprising Rural Schools.
Like other rural efforts in agricultural communities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the ability to determine the best market prices for agricultural products in the regional area can free peasants and their families from being bound to traditional, and often exploitive, local market relationships.
As we think about the possibilities for education enabled by Internet access, and portable computing devices such as cheap mobile phones or even laptops, we will do well to remember the avidity with which these Andean villagers treat books.
Books are going digital. We have a responsibility to think about how to maximize access to literature and science under very favorable terms whenever possible to areas of poverty, and third-world nations more specifically. There are selfish pecuniary motivations: education enables more diverse economic growth, which drives consumption, which is likely to propel consumers and business up the commodity pricing curve. More importantly, morally, it is the right thing to do.
Yet as one of my friends at Google observed, from his perspective of trying to broaden access to journal literature, while the effort is incredibly worthwhile, progress is slow going. Often, less-developed country internet access is bottlenecked through university or government organizations for either economic or political reasons; IP address ranges, which might provide elemental but acceptable content access restriction, might be too loosely associated with specific countries in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa to effectively serve this purpose; international agencies and foundations attempting to further open access are already overwhelmed; and library and cultural institutions are often too enervated to provide marketing assistance, educational support, or infrastructure.
We must start working to move access to valuable educational content forward, as our books go digital. OLPC is interested in making libraries of books available, but they are largely restricted to works in the public domain. There are hundreds of thousands of orphan works whose broader access in the third world would arguably have minimal impact on publisher sales. Can we – publishers, libraries, search engines – work together to make this happen? Can we, for example, agree to a set of basic content protections, which if met by a country with people in need, would permit us to provide free access to many thousands of these increasingly digital books?
It is important for us to remember also that poverty is a global problem. The Andean villages in Venezuela are in a country with relatively rich resources; the poverty of an area a few miles from my home called the Iron Triangle, left bereft when shipbuilding and industry abandoned the East Bay of the San Francisco area after WWII, is merely America’s own shadow of the desperation of third-world nations.
We must start with those most in need, the most under-served countries, and touch them; let us remember there are those we must embrace digitally close at home, and we must work to connect to our neighbors as well, as fast as we humanly can.