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Posted on February 21st, 2011 by Stuart Turton

Don’t send the developing world PCs: send them Kindles

Amazon Kindle and booksI was in India recently, spotting tigers in the jungle. I was about five hours north of Nagpur in Central India, which is a bit like pointing to the moon and telling somebody to take a left. There was no internet access, my mobile phone worked sporadically, and the nearest village was so poor there was a hint of Hollywood to it. You know, the kind of place where you start thinking “children in rags carrying water home from a well 3km away, I’m not falling for that.” Or “fifteen people living in a house with their cow and chickens, pull the other one.”

Nobody’s that poor, not really, because if they were that poor Bob Geldof would immediately start singing at them, and if that’s not reason enough to be upwardly mobile then nothing is – I mean, look at Ethiopia. The entire country gave up famine just to get him to bugger off.

So I’m waiting in this village for my lift to arrive, reading my Kindle to pass the time, and all of a sudden I look up to discover about 20 kids stood in a big group, just watching me: big eyes, curious expressions, ridiculously cute and all intent on the Kindle.

Now to be fair, I’m 6ft 2in and look like something a particularly stupid child would make out of Plasticine. I’ve travelled right around the world and been an object of fevered fascination almost everywhere I’ve visited. Having a daft face tends to draw the crowds, but these kids were enraptured by the gizmo in my hands, despite the fact that they couldn’t possibly know what it was.

I think a charity could do a lot worse than to load a few up with dictionaries, school books and novels and send them to some remote schools in developing nations

So I sat down on the kerb and showed them. Their reaction is the point of technology. It’s what every device maker should aim for, and what every owner wants to inspire in others. Their wonder reminded me just how much I loved it, and why. Just turning the page caused them to drag their friends over, and there’s no reality where changing the font size of your book should make you cooler than a Jimmy Hendrix guitar solo.

That was just the warm-up act though, it was the text-to-speech feature that pretty much made me the best friend of the entire village. Old men, young men, a few old woman, it was a trick they made me repeat half-a-dozen times, drawing a few more out of their homes with every mangled vowel.

After about ten minutes, I let one of the kids play with it, but instead of trying to mess with the bells and whistles, he just started reading aloud. I was wrong before: this is the point of technology. Debating the implications of eBook readers on education is an entire blog in itself, but I think a charity could do a lot worse than to load a few up with dictionaries, school books and novels and send them to some remote schools in developing nations.

There’s probably reams of soul-crushing statistics on why it wouldn’t do any good in the long run, but I’m sick of charities telling me that by not giving them £10 a month I’m indirectly clubbing poor children to death with dolphins. Show me something positive for once and just maybe I’ll open my wallet and break my long-held embargo on sending perfectly good cash to people I don’t trust to scratch a moral itch I don’t have.

I considered leaving my Kindle for them, I really did. There’s a ton of self-justifying reasons why I didn’t, but the truth is that I’m just not that nice a person and I was really enjoying the book I was reading (Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey). Now that I’m back though, I think maybe I made a mistake. I like my Kindle, but for an hour on a miserably hot afternoon in Central India, an entire village fell in love with it. Sometimes technology is brilliant, and perhaps I should have let them discover that.

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24 Responses to “ Don’t send the developing world PCs: send them Kindles ”

  1. Susan Says:
    February 21st, 2011 at 10:23 am

    I want to draw your attention to Worldreader- a non profit who has the largest e-reader pilot in the developing world- 500 Kindles in Ghana. Reading your article made me smile- you mentioned all the reasons why e-readers make so much sense for the developing world! They have long battery life, use widely prevalent cell phone technology, and hold thousands of books! Please check out when you have a chance. Cheers!

  2. Matthew Sparkes Says:
    February 21st, 2011 at 11:16 am

    This reminds me of a TED talk which related the story of an experiment with computers embedded in walls in developing countries.

    With no formal training kids got up to all sorts of interesting stuff, and even developed their own vocabulary to describe alien concepts like the cursor.

    Well worth a look.

  3. JohnAHind Says:
    February 21st, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    To update the old saying about fishing equipment: “Give a man a Kindle and he’ll read the books in it (not being able to afford to buy any more); give him a PC and he’ll write the next Kindle App, his own books, …”

  4. John Bailo Says:
    February 21st, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Send them Androids.

  5. Xynobooks Says:
    February 21st, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    The Kindle is only the tip of the iceberg. What happens when those people, untouched by the world, start writing their stories for the rest of us to read via this brave new eBook format?

  6. Ben Alexander Says:
    February 21st, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    What about OLPC? Getting non-DRM books written and shared – especially educational ones – is an important part of the plan (I thought). And OLPC based books could be shared from one device to another, even in places without cell phone networks by using the mesh wifi built-in to each device.

    I’m just saying…

  7. David Robson Says:
    February 21st, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    Stuart — you said “…he just started reading aloud.” Can you elaborate? Which language was the Kindle text, and which language was the boy speaking?

  8. Justine Saidman Says:
    February 21st, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    Stuart, send the address of the village and I will send them a kindle loaded up with all sorts of stuff.

  9. Megha Shyam Says:
    February 21st, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    Actually I know two compenies that have developed and use solar technology to powerup PCs. I was want to say sone 15 years or so, I had a mtting with the Superintendent of Schools in Washington State who lamented that thet had passed a referrendum to make schools technology savvy. The spent 150 million dollars to buy hardware; there was no money (nor were they authorized to purchase) software. Training forget it. They were all collecting dust at a storage place.

  10. Grams Says:
    February 22nd, 2011 at 12:55 am

    I substitute teach in a somewhat affluent school district in South Texas and I find this same kind of fascination even among these students. They are all intrigued by the Kindle technology.

  11. Sonik Porwal Says:
    February 22nd, 2011 at 1:40 am

    Would like all to know that Ministry of Human Resource Development of India has worked with technology companies to prototype a ebook reader which will cost $35.

  12. Gary Says:
    February 22nd, 2011 at 11:46 am

    If you want to send the developing world some books, then send them on a device which does not have ‘centralized revocation’ control.

    Kindle does.
    Some tablets do not.

    Education was never about having a teacher that could take the books back at will.

    Student annotations should not be lost because of a later revocation order against the book item.

    These things are not something we should impose on the developing world.

    Put devices which incorporate DRM technology where they belong … at the recycle disposal site.

    Send devices that allow all ebooks (unrestricted) and support true education in the developing world.

  13. Shane Curcuru Says:
    February 22nd, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    For an infinitely cheaper and nearly as useful device, head over to the Talking Book project:

    The wow factor of an eReader is certainly useful in somewhat developed areas. But to truly serve the poorest and least technical areas, Talking Books are much more practical for use in the real world.

    They’re all great ideas – but the key is in actually following through to make them happen. Good luck!

  14. Shinner Says:
    February 22nd, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    What a smug, self-centered bastard! This may just be your warped sense of humor, but I have lived in Brazil for 40 years, and I can ASSURE you that there really ARE places where people have to walk miles for water (EVERY DAY!!), where they live in hovels with their goats and chickens, and where mobile phones don’t work even sporadically!! I think you are just showing off you have enough cash to go tiger spotting. These people don’t need Kindles. And they don’t need your unfunny remarks! They need a chance for self-respect! What a fathead!

  15. Loquitur Says:
    February 24th, 2011 at 7:11 am

    Shinner! WTF! Maybe you have spent too long in Brazil, but are you unable to see irony and humour when it is written down for you? That’s very sad! This was an excellent article, humourous but it made a valid point about mobile technology. Don’t be such a smug B*&^%$d yourself; or better still – go back to Barzil!

  16. Simon Says:
    February 24th, 2011 at 7:37 am

    “I’m sick of charities telling me that by not giving them £10 a month I’m indirectly clubbing poor children to death with dolphins. Show me something positive for once and just maybe I’ll open my wallet…”

    Well, you justify being a miser in which ever way helps you sleep at night.

    I, on the other hand, sponsor a child through ActionAid for just under £20 a month. I get regular letters and updates to show me exactly the good my money is doing. I don’t do it to feel morally superior. I do it, because for a fraction of what it’s possible to waste on DVDs, gadgets and pub nights, I can see someone else’s life become a great deal less terrible.

  17. Dave Says:
    February 24th, 2011 at 8:47 am

    “I don’t do it to feel morally superior.” Oh really, no, right enough, it doesn’t sound like it either…..Have a look at the poverty in your own country! Or is that not your concern?

  18. William King Says:
    February 24th, 2011 at 8:52 am

    Thare Machi Education is far ahead of what Stuart describes. To read about the technology, go to To understand the charity better, click to the Home page. It’s very impressive

  19. Larry Boyd Says:
    February 24th, 2011 at 9:38 am

    As nice as my Kindle is it isn’t suitable for poor communities in the developing world. For the price of Kindle you can fund a small library through Book Aid International. This will allow more than one person at a time to read. Or to support IT try Computer Aid International. No guilt trips included.

  20. Simon Says:
    February 24th, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    “Dave Says: Oh really, no, right enough, it doesn’t sound like it either”
    - I know it doesn’t sound like it. I clearly stated the reason I do this.
    “Dave says: Have a look at the poverty in your own country! Or is that not your concern?”
    - Ah yes. Are you suggesting that an individual can’t consider more than one issue at once? The article was about the developing world. Did you notice? That’s why I mentioned ActionAid. Anyhow, since you ask, I also have a monthly direct debit set up for a UK children’s charity. So that’s my concern as well.
    What do you do Dave, apart from criticizing from the sidelines?

  21. Dr.Gopi Says:
    February 25th, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Notvlogical. With a low cost PC kids can learn using Office Software, Linux, use Google to trawl for info, and even start to learn the basics of programming to prepare them for later- but Kindle !! Do what with it? Catch up with the latest Jack Reacher novel or read Tom Sawyer? Then what?

  22. Peter Says:
    February 28th, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    The problem is “poverty”. Poverty is far worse than simply being “poor”.

    I too make a regular contribution to attempts to reduce poverty, and I contribute to all the various appeals when there are disasters.

    I don’t presume that my contribution is any more than a miniscule drop in the ocean of poverty that is drowining the 3rd World, and destroying many lives at home.

    Yes it would be lovely to provide Children in Underdeveloped countries with Kindles and PCs, and any number of useful and\or enjoyable gadgets.
    But first we need to provide the tools for impoverished people to get themselves clean water, communications & transport infrastructure, Education, Jobs, etc etc.
    In order to be able to do that we desperately need to stop supporting regimes who oppress and impoversih in order to provide us (in the “West”)with a reliable supply of cheap goodies.

    In a more generalised way we need to do something tangible to try and stop uncontrolled gangs of mercenaries and renegades who literally rape and pillage their way around such places as Congo…

    Yes its down to corruption, but it takes two to tango….

  23. Peter Says:
    February 28th, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    @Shinner – on reflection I rather agree.

    I understand that Stuart was attempting a “light” tone, but to be honest it really comes across as being a bit crass.

    As you say there really is NOTHING “light” let alone funny about the sort of grinding poverty many people are forced to live in.
    A bit less ‘humour’ and a bit more empathy would have helped.

  24. Peter Jackson Says:
    July 10th, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Don’t send a Kindle to the developing world: with much of the developing world “embargoed” by Kindle which will not even allow downloads of content to PCs, the device is next to useless in those countries. That includes e.g. Singapore which is hardly a developing country.


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