One Kindle per child: who are they helping?

I was pretty bullish on the One Laptop Per Child program for quite some time, and even participated in the ‘Buy One Give One’ program. I recognize that OLPC represents a long-term project, and that the fruits of that project are not likely to be visible for years. While we’re waiting, we can watch One Kindle Per Child, an initiative from to improve literacy in Africa through the use of Amazon Kindle e-readers.

I’m extremely skeptical of this project. I forwarded the story to my friend Rich, who grew up in Africa, and his immediate response was “Well intentioned people who are really good at X look around and say, ‘how can X solve this problem?’, rather than saying ‘what is needed to solve this problem?'” Like Rich, I’m not convinced that the Amazon Kindle is the right solution to the problem of literacy in Africa, or anywhere else. The Kindle is a closed platform. It is a fragile device, and not the kind of thing anyone in Africa is likely going to be able to repair. Even though it has a long-lasting battery, it still requires electricity to charge that battery. And don’t get me started on DRM, or vendor lock-in, or walled gardens, or any of the other subtle gotchas associated with a proprietary device like the Kindle.

Rich reminded me of the Literacy Bridge project, which aims to address the problem of literacy in Africa through similar means, but with a decidedly different fundamental starting point:

The model at LiteracyBridge is that the device is durable, so that it can withstand african conditions. It is simple, and local folks are trained in how to repair it. It is powered by regular batteries, so that they can buy them at a local store, which not only ensures that the device remains powered, but contributes to the local economy. They can put their own content on it, which also encourages local economy in recorded books.

And of course, there’s still the Peace Corps, and countless traditional teaching opportunities to help address the issues of literacy in Africa and around the world. Technology may be one part of the larger puzzle, but I think that the Worldreader project is profoundly overestimating the value of technology for this problem.