Guest Post: David Rothman on the iPad Stimulus Plan

Below, a guest essay by David Rothman, of the Teleread site and the DC roman-a-clef The Solomon Scandals. David was one of the journalism world's earliest adopters of computers and related technology. Since 1992, when many people (including me) could barely imagine what a Kindle/Nook/iPad-style "e-reader" might be, he has been analyzing these devices and their social, economic, and political implications on his site. Previously on this site about such implications here and here. By the way, he is running a nice Fake Tony Hayward diary on his site.

In this essay, he proposes ways that radically speeded-up adoption of the iPad-style devices could serve economic-stimulus and social-equality needs at the same time. Although he doesn't put it this way, it's his counterpart to a post-Sputnik technology-promotion plan. I'll leave the rest of the argument to him. You can follow up directly with him at or via his sites.

A national information stimulus plan: How iPad-style tablets could help educate millions and trim bureaucracy--not just be techno toys for the D.C. elite
By David Rothman

The Washington elite is discovering the Apple iPad. 

Vice President Joe Biden, White House aides, and gadget-loving members of Congress are starting to tote the same evil tablet that the President denounced as an info-overload threat to young minds.

Might iPad-style technology in fact be a godsend for millions of schoolchildren with obsolete textbooks? And could e-books benefit the elderly, the disabled, and other library users, too, including U.S. workers eager to upgrade job skills?

If nothing else, the iPad and similar machines could drive down library costs per book. That could help keep reading alive in places like Hood River County, Oregon, where the 98-year-old library system plans to close for financial reasons --just one of many cash-strapped U.S. libraries.

Along the way, as the technology's price declined, the mass automation potential of the tablets could justify the cost of a national digital library system. Such potential might count even more than the library initiative itself. Call it a national information stimulus plan or NISP. The stimulus would be in the form of more and better information, as well as greater efficiencies in both the public and private sectors. 

Politico's Erika Lovely recently told how the iPad "may be the ultimate paper saver for an institution that prints millions of pages a year and still piles huge stacks of bills outside the House chamber every day." She quoted Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican on an information-policy-related subcommittee: "The thing is the bomb." The new BlackBerry for some on the Hill? Meanwhile The Washington Post says White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and some other Obama staffers use iPads, and that Apple tablets will soon be standard for the power people of the West Wing.

Newspapers and magazines are among the "apps" in use on iPads in the West Wing; and economic adviser Larry Summers has even started to download e-books, including The Federalist Papers.

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So what's the school-and-library angle? Well, think of the iPad and similar devices as one way to help spark a greater interest in books and other long texts that encourage sustained thought. Let's work harder to bring books, not just videos and games, to The Screen. 

Barack Obama is more comfortable with bits and bytes than were earlier presidents, but in knocking iPad-style machines as wicked distractions adding to young people's information overload, he failed to allow for the positives. We can't stop Americans students from watching YouTubes or playing video games online. But technology can make it much easier for them to read books that reflect their needs and interests and help them sort out the facts. 

Though iPaddish machines can display text crisply, just a fraction of modern books are online now. Along with private bookstores and commercial lending services, the public library model for e-books and other content could at least help change that and maybe grow the number of bookstore customers since reading would be a part of the routines of more Americans. Storage and handling costs are minuscule compared to those for paper books, which, along with other content, are just a fraction of a typical library's operating budget (yes, librarians add value, through such services as reference work, especially for the machine-adverse). Price per book would be lower, potentially allowing a much larger selection. E-books also would be easier on young backs and could reach Butte just as easily as Bethesda, or at least provide one more justification for decent cellular and broadband infrastructures. DVDs and satellite-linked WiFi at public libraries, meanwhile, would be alternatives for neglected rural areas. 

Neighborhood libraries serve as community gathering places and for many other reasons are preferable to digital collections alone. But a national digital library system able to serve library-bereft neighborhoods--and places like Hood River County, where recession-racked voters voted down a referendum to finance brick-and-mortar libraries--would be better than no library service at all. Local librarians could still help choose books to be offered. 

Other potential benefits would accrue from a well-stocked national digital library system. Better-read voters will make wiser choices at the polls. And some experts say, correctly or not, that novels in particular can build empathy, a trait said to be increasingly rare in schools, politics and the rest of American life. What's more, the same tablet hardware could make it easier to read newspapers at length online, because of superior interfaces, either through improved browsers or publication specific apps. Furthermore, multimedia e-books and related tech could provide special benefits for the people with disabilities and help Americans learn new skills in fields ranging from wind power to auto mechanics and culinary arts.

Imagine, too, the upside for older people who cannot drive or take the bus to the library. And how about e-books as the new large print? Definitely. This could be AARP catnip, then--not merely the K-12 variety; if nothing else, keep in mind that iPad-style machines can be simpler for older people to use than the usual desktops.

Like far less versatile Kindles, iPads can even read e-books aloud to the elderly and others. And on a large scale, the library model of compensation could make it easier to address the tricky issues of copyright and audio performance rights that have been bedeviling private companies such as Amazon. The expanded market would harder for recalcitrant content-providers to ignore.

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Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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