Across the digital divide.
I'll start with the clinical: according to the dictionary (and Wikipedia), poverty is "the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions." So if you don't have as much as everyone around you, you're poor.
I'll move on to the personal. Poverty is the state of waking up freezing in the middle of the night because it's a waste of money to run the heat when everyone is sleeping anyway, and you need that money to buy lunch meat from the "eat it tomorrow or it will kill you" clearance bin. Poverty is the state of making that lunch meat last a week and a half, even after the edges have started turning green. Poverty is sending your little sisters to beg staples off the people in the crap-ass apartments surrounding yours, because everyone is poor, and everyone is hungry, and cute little girls stand a better chance of success than anybody else. That's poverty.
The U.S. Census Bureau said that 43.6 million (14.3%) Americans were living in absolute poverty in 2009. According to the report they released this past Tuesday, the national poverty rate rose to 15.1% in 2010...and we still don't know what 2011 is going to look like.
This is the "official" poverty level, by the way; there are a lot of sociologists who think that the actual poverty level is much higher, since we calculate using a "socially acceptable miniumum standard of living" that was last updated in 1955. To quote Wikipedia again: "The current poverty line only takes goods into account that were common more than 50 years ago, updating their cost using the Consumer Price Index. Mollie Orshansky, who devised the original goods basket and methodology to measure poverty, used by the U.S. government, in 1963-65, updated the goods basket in 2000, finding that the actual poverty threshold, i.e. the point where a person is excluded from the nation's prevailing consumption patterns, is at roughly 170% of the official poverty threshold."
Things that did not exist in 1955: home computers. The internet. Ebook readers.
It is sometimes difficult for me to truly articulate my reaction to people saying that print is dead. I don't want to be labeled a luddite, or anti-ebook; I love my computer, I love my smartphone, and I love the fact that I have the internet in my pocket. The existence of ebooks means that people who can't store physical books can have more to read. It means that hard-to-find and out of print material is becoming accessible again. I means that people who have arthritis, or weak wrists, or other physical disabilities that make reading physical books difficult, can read again, without worrying about physical pain. I love that ebooks exist.
This doesn't change the part where, every time a discussion of ebooks turns, seemingly inevitably, to "Print is dead, traditional publishing is dead, all smart authors should be bailing to the brave new electronic frontier," what I hear, however unintentionally, is "Poor people don't deserve to read."
I don't think this is malicious, and I don't think it's something we're doing on purpose. I just think it's difficult for us, on this side of the digital divide, to remember that there are people standing on the other side of what can seem like an impassable gorge, wondering if they're going to be left behind. Right now, more than 20% of Americans do not have access to the internet. In case that seems like a low number, consider this: That's one person in five. One person in five doesn't have access to the internet. Of those who do have access, many have it via shared computers, or via public places like libraries, which allow public use of their machines. Not all of these people are living below the poverty line; some have voluntarily simplified their lives, and don't see the need to add internet into the mix. But those people are not likely to be the majority.
Now. How many of these people do you think have access to an ebook reader?
I grew up so far below the poverty line that you couldn't see it from my window, no matter how clear the day was. My bedroom was an ocean of books. Almost all of them were acquired second-hand, through used bookstores, garage sales, flea markets, and library booksales, which I viewed as being just this side of Heaven itself. There are still used book dealers in the Bay Area who remember me patiently paying off a tattered paperback a nickel at a time, because that was what I could afford. If books had required having access to a piece of technology—even a "cheap" piece of technology—I would never have been able to get them. That up-front cost would have put them out of my reach forever.
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? And can you find a way to completely destroy—I mean, destroy—the resale market for those devices?
Do I sound pessimistic? That's because I am. When I was a kid with nothing, any nice thing I had the audacity to have would be quickly stolen, either by people just as poor as I was, or by richer kids who wanted me to know that I wasn't allowed to put on airs like that. If my books had been virtual, then those people would have been stealing my entire world. They would have been stealing my exit. And I don't think I would have survived.
We need paper books to endure. Every one of us, if we can log onto this site and look at this entry, is a "have" from the perspective of a kid living in an apartment with cockroaches in the walls and junkies in the unit beneath them. A lot of the time, the arguments about the coming ebook revolution forget that the "have nots" also exist, and that we need to take care of them, even if it means we can't force our technological advancement as fast as we might want to. I need to take care of them, because I was a little girl who only grew up to be me through the narrowest of circumstances...and most of those circumstances were words on paper.
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.
We cannot forget the digital divide. And we can't—we just can't—be so excited over something new and shiny that we walk away and knowingly leave people on the other side.