Regardless of how one feels personally about the widespread impact of technology, it is hard to deny that technology is changing our lifestyle and our perception of the world in very fundamental ways. Today, we can call a friend on the other side of the globe at rates cheaper than what it once cost to make local calls. With the availability of low-cost, high-speed internet, one now has access to a platform of information and knowledge on nearly any subject in the world. Surely there are still many unrealised miracles that lie ahead of us in the coming decades, often of a nature that we cannot even foresee right now. Twenty years ago, who would have imagined a social network that people use to stay in touch with friends, find potential buyers for their product, or even run an election campaign on?
Personally, I have always felt that the best use of technology is as an equaliser between the privileged and less privileged members of society. There are several examples in history of how every major breakthrough in technology has provided the common people of the time with opportunities that they did not have before. To name just a few, horse-driven carriages involved a lot of associated costs for maintenance and operation staff. With the advent of the steam engine and automobiles, these means of private commute became more affordable and accessible to less wealthy people. Another example could be how at one time in the past, books were handwritten and also copied by hand, thus involving both substantial time and money to make multiple copies. When the modern printing press came into being, printing multiple copies became a faster process. With the existence of a large number of copies, the price of these books also became more affordable.
I am sure a more thorough analysis will reveal many other instances where technology has been leveraged to make a product or service more affordable for the common people. This remains just as valid today. If used properly, technology can still make orders of magnitude difference in the costs and utilities of nearly any product or service. However, I am mostly interested in how this could be achieved in pursuits like creative writing, composing music, or even with movies. A lot of people complain about how books, music CDs or movie DVDs are expensive, and it seems to me that there are ways in which technology could be leveraged to make them more affordable.
Let me focus on the one thing I feel most passionately about – books. A few weeks ago in my column, I lamented the fact that most people these days do not read much, and reading as a hobby is slowly falling out of fashion. This is true even with the advent of many modern gadgets that enable one to read books on the go, including several devices designed with the express intent of reading books on them. People do not read as often and as widely as they used to in the past. Of course, one reason for this is all the other modes of entertainment that now vie for our attention. This is surely unfortunate, because no other media can provide the depth of content and imagination that books can. However, another reason often cited by people is the steep price of books. Ideally, this problem would be addressed by having libraries in every school, college and neighbourhood. Unfortunately, this is something that has not really worked out in Bangladesh and might be harder than ever to setup now. However, there are ways to use technology to address this issue.
There are various different types of costs that go into publishing a book. A large portion of this is the raw materials like paper and ink. If more authors and publishers began to make digital copies of their books available for download, it would definitely be possible to offer them at cheaper rates. At those cheaper rates, and with some feasible electronic payment option, more people might be willing to buy books. Further, this would also help avoid the tendency many people have of only buying best-sellers or books they have already heard positive reviews of. It makes sense that one is less willing to buy such books when books cost prohibitively high amounts. With low-cost digital books, one could pay a nominal fee to download a book even if they are only marginally interested.
A lot of readers are probably shaking their heads right now, muttering how digital books are just not the same as the feel of paper and the smell of a new book. I wholeheartedly agree, but do keep an open mind. People before us probably felt the same way about printed books replacing handwritten tomes, or gramophone records circulating instead of live musical performances.
This is not the only advantage to be obtained from technology either. Any upcoming writer knows the struggle of trying to get his or her work published. With the cost of printing books, and the reluctance of people to buy books by relatively lesser known names, one cannot blame the publishers either. This is a business for them, and it makes sense that they would be unwilling to take significant risks.
But now think of a strategy where new writers initially only get their work published online, either for free or available for purchase, again at a much lower rate than possible for paper books. If samples of their works are available for free, this gives potential readers a chance to learn a little about their style and then decide whether they want to buy a book by this author. Models like this are already working for some writers, who first published in online blogs and developed a degree of fan following, which then was more than eager to buy books by these authors. On the other hand, making ebooks available for sale at a nominal price makes people more willing to take a risk with a book, and gives publishers some data to base their eventual publishing decision on.
The same arguments I present here work equally well for the music industry and upcoming artists, or for people who want to watch the latest movies and TV shows right on their computers without having to go the illegal route of piracy. I am afraid the scope of the article does not allow me to explore each in depth, but this could be something I would like to write about in the future. The bottom-line remains the same, however. We live in a time when technology is making myriad things possible, and one of the best ways we can use this technology is to bridge the gap between the privileged and less-privileged members of society. Further, such leveraging could also help creative endeavours and make for a level playing ground. I think the biggest lesson we have learnt in the past decade as far as technology is concerned, is that the only limitation here is our imagination. There must yet be numerous possible applications of the internet and smartphone-centred world we are entering, and definitely one of the best avenues to explore would be bridging the digital divide.
Hammad Ali is a teacher at BRAC University.