Thursday, June 4, 2009

How Did I Get on This Side?

How is it possible that I want to play devil's advocate for the Kindle? I will never want a Kindle. I spend too long staring at a screen as it is. When I want to read, I want a real book, with pages and binding and covers. Sherman Alexie and I should be high-fiving our agreement about the Kindle, right? But I think he's going a little too far with his Kindle hate.

He calls Kindle "elite" and says that is forgetting about poor kids who barely have used books, let alone book-technology:

"I consider the Kindle elitist because it’s too expensive. I also consider it elitist because, right now, one company is making all the rules. I am also worried about Jeff Bezos’ comments about wanting to change the way we read books. That’s rather imperial. Having grown up poor, I’m also highly aware that there’s always a massive technology gap between rich and poor kids. I haven’t yet heard what Amazon plans to do about this potential technology gap. And that’s a vital question considering that Bezos wants to change the way we read books. How does he plan to change the way that poor kids read books? How does he plan to make sure that poor kids have access to the technology? Poor kids all over the country don’t have access to current textbooks, so will they have access to Kindle?"

Certainly, he's touching on a major issue--the literacy/economic divide. There are kids all over the country who can't read. Even if they want to, there aren't many/any outlets for them. That's really terrible, and I consider literacy one of the most important foundations a society can have.

Still, does Amazon have an obligation to change that? Certainly, when companies reach out to the community and do non-profit work, that rocks. The best companies will have a social conscious. But just because they sell expensive book products doesn't mean they necessarily have to worry about illiterate kids, as horrible as that is. Their purpose is to sell things to people who will/can buy them. It's just business. They can sell insanely expensive books if they want to, if someone wants to buy it. Does it help the world at all? No, but they're not in the business of helping the world. I would hope that a major company (especially one that sells a lot of books and book products) would care about literacy, but it's ridiculous to rant about how expensive Kindle is when Amazon is a private company. It may suck, but that's how it is.

I think Alexie is also upset about the attitude associated with Kindle, in particular "Jeff Bezos’ comments about wanting to change the way we read books." Here, it sounds like Bezo is forgetting the people who can't even read. But he's also trying to sell a product, not help illiterate kids. It's all part of the ad campaign.

Does that mean people can't take a stand against corporate policies? Definitely not. Illiteracy is a huge problem, and everyone--from Amazon CEOs down--could be doing more. But selling/buying/using a Kindle isn't a horrible act. (Even though I do scorn them a little.) Again, I'd hope that people at Amazon would care about literacy, but they're not actually obligated to do anything. It would be better to get the company involved in specific literacy programs--donating books, sponsoring libraries, etc.--than to yell about the Kindle.

Still, if Sherman Alexie wants to make "Books > Kindle" shirts, count me in.


Patrick said...

I side with Alexie on this (especially after reading the rest of the interview you link to). Sure, you can argue that companies aren't obligated to address social issues such as illiteracy and lack of education in lower-income areas, but I would argue that that contributes to widening the class gaps. The argument that "it's just business" is an example of the problem with the culture of business that certainly does increase and/or create these gaps. It's a matter of simply being aware of the gap and maybe willful ignorance on the individual or company's part.

That being said, I don't know what kind of charity or community outreach programs Amazon has going for them. They could be doing fantastic things, but "changing the way people read" implies, to me, that the company is focused solely on monopolizing, which I have problems with, even though I don't think the kindle will ever be as popular as the ipod.

I also don't think Alexie's point of view is that outrageous, nor do I think he ever implied that buying a kindle was a terrible thing.