Will Digitization Transform Reading in the Developing World?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

The very presumption that the developing world needs “transformation” may be wrongheaded and culturally biased.

By Edward Nawotka

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Cultural bias is inherent in each of us. Americans tend to think they are superior to Canadians (and vice versa), the Dutch look down on Belgians (and vice versa), the Argentines view themselves as more sophisticated than Brazilians (and vice versa)…the list goes on and on. And it’s not just the large, powerful developed countries that indulge in such silly — in not outright ugly — self-satisfaction: one of the first things my new roommate in graduate school told me was that the people in his home country of Burkina Faso spoke “much better” French did the French in France…

Perhaps one of the most damaging myths being perpetrated by the global publishing industry is that the digital models that are transforming publishing in places like the United States and the UK will be applicable to the rest of the world. This idea is also self-serving, especially when one considers that there is much profit to be made by those companies that have an interest in seeing those models succeed globally.

But, argues Octavio Kulesz in today’s feature story, “the interesting thing would be to find out what digital models might be a hit not just with the wealthiest 20% of the citizens of developing countries, but with the rest of the inhabitants, that is to say with the bulk of humanity.”

Kulesz, generally speaking, divides the describes the developed world as countries of the “North” and the developing world as countries of the “South.”

He continues:

…given the enormous population, and above all the accelerated economic growth observed in many countries of the South, it is hard to believe that the developing world isn’t making its own contribution to the electronic age. In addition to the countless IT service providers in India and hardware manufacturers in China that support the Western platforms from behind the scenes, there are original and innovative digital publishing projects being carried out at this very moment in the South –- local platforms that will one day be able to compete with foreign ones. In fact, some of these ventures are so dynamic that instead of debating who will be the future Apple of China or the Amazon of South Africa, perhaps we will soon be asking ourselves who will be the Shanda of the US or the m4Lit of the UK.

It’s a valid and important point, not the least because it challenges the underlying assumption in many of these conversations that digitization, because it has potential to allow greater and cheaper access to information, has the potential to transform reading in the developing world.

Implicit in so many conversations about publishing is that people in the “South” don’t read as much as they do in the “North.” Of course this too is a wrong-headed cultural bias, as anyone who has visited Buenos Aires, where Kulesz hails from, will note the surfeit of books on sale (many of them philosophy and psychology books). Ditto that for someone visiting India, China, Russia and, yes, Africa. Books are a universal medium; reading — and learning — is universally accepted as a means of improving one’s lot in life.

So, does the very idea that digital reading will “transform” the developing world presume, incorrectly, that the developing world needs transformation?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.