Guest Post: David Rothman on the iPad Stimulus Plan

Healthcare is just one example of how a coherent and comprehensive strategy for iPad-style machines and others could empower individual Americans in new ways and improve life in areas besides literacy, education, and training. Furthermore, the right information policy could help build a constituency for the library initiative far beyond teachers, librarians, and book-lovers. Here are suggestions that might help.

ONE: FAIR TREATMENT OF CONTENT PROVIDERS

Allow for proper compensation for writers, America's besieged publishers, and other providers of content for the national digital library system, so that the quality of books and other offerings does not decline. Of course, readers could still read and download newspapers and magazines and non-library books without any tax money directly involved. They would already have the right hardware--iPads and other devices--in their hands.

TWO: PROPER PREPARATION OF TEACHERS AND LIBRARIANS

Prepare teachers adequately so that e-books and other online material truly became part of courses. Librarians, too, could receive proper training. No more reflexive, "Don't trust the Internet."  Get good material online in a systematic way and tell the teachers and librarians where to look and how to use it and teach students to do the same.

President Obama, the threat isn't from information overload; rather it's from out-of-touch librarians and teachers, many of them still technophobic. Students could learn how to identify credible information and tune out distractions like Twitter. What's more, iPad-style software could come with a user-operated toggle to block Twitter notifications and other interruptions of the moment when students were reading books.

THREE: MAKE THE DIGITAL LIBRARY SYSTEM EASY TO USE

Simplify the fiendishly difficult steps that most library users must now endure to be able to read e-books. One way would simplify digital rights management or even come up with business models to do away with it entirely. A truly librarian-run system could address these issues better than the proprietary approaches now in use at the local and state levels.

Librarians are far, far from the ultimate interface designers, sometimes evincing more of an eagerness to teach their online systems to users than to simplify the technology for them. But a well-run national system could use focus groups and other techniques to deal with issues like DRM and interfaces in a standard way rather than forcing taxpayer-users to cope with all of the current complexities. 

FOUR: TAX CREDITS TO PROMOTE PURCHASE OF THE RIGHT TABLETS FOR READING BOOKS AND OTHER LONG TEXTS 

Give away book-friendly multiuse machines only to the poorest of the poor, but for now promote their use among others via tax credits and otherwise, even outside the business world. Besides, sooner or later, iPad-type machines will go for $50 at Walmart, which in fact may start selling iPads by the end of the year --the ultimate proof that this technology isn't just for the wealthy and the D.C. and corporate elites despite the current prices. Already the iPad is a hit among opinion leaders in Springfield, Missouri, and considering that Apple has moved some three million $499+ Pads since the machines hit the store shelves in early April, I'm not surprised.

Future iPad-style machines will inevitably be cheaper, lighter, smaller and more powerful and rugged than the current tablets, which, however, are still a good start regardless of their prices and fragility (stay tuned for more rugged machines using different screen technology).

The proposed program could help drive down prices somewhat from the iPad's current ones by spurring demand, since producers could gear up for a bigger market. Econo-tablets with WiFi are and will be appearing at lower prices, but let's shrink the costs still more, while maintaining iPad-level capabilities. 

FIVE: OPEN TECHNOLOGY AND TECHNICAL STANDARDS TO DRIVE DOWN COSTS

I've focused here on the iPad simply because it has caught on so quickly and is a media darling. Don't expect iPad love to last forever. Better machines will inevitably appear in the future.

Let's reduce expenses for everyone via open technology and tech standards--to the maximum extent practical--and avoidance of a one-vendor approach. Scads of companies should be able to compete against Apple. Too, Americans need to be able to call up books and other content with many different kinds of machines, including the Kindle-style E Ink variety, as well as laptops and desktops of all kinds. No one-gizmo-for-all madness, please, not when individual preferences vary so widely. Furthermore, a variety of hardware and software options could be available for blind people and others with disabilities such as dyslexia.

To address one issue, yes, you can prop up an iPad on a stand and use it with an auxiliary wireless keyboard. But the proposed program could encourage the use of built-in stands to simplify matters. Compatibility with a mouse would also be nice; the iPad's touch interface is lousy for long writing sessions, which can be torture if you're on a deadline but must constantly reach for just the right part of the touch screen.

SIX: INTELLIGENT COST-JUSTIFICATION

Use cost-justification inside and outside government, as I've emphasized above. Imagine all the forms, both government and private, that the average American fills out. In effect, iPad-style technology could help redirect wealth from paperwork to knowledge. 

Granted, taxes might go up slightly to pay for the plan, but with our Gross Domestic Product of some $14 trillion, the investment would be trivial in context. 

Say, we waited until costs per machine were down to $200-$250--almost surely possible in the near future if suppliers minimize use of proprietary technology. And let's say the tax credit on 100 million devices amounted to $50 each for those made with X percentage of domestic parts (a way to slightly reduce the impact on the trade deficit). Or perhaps instead we would have income limits and increase the break from $50 to $100. Either way, the total direct costs to the U.S. Treasury would be $5 billion, plus maybe $1 billion to buy tablets for the very poorest of the poor. Just one machine per household would be eligible for the credit. The idea isn't to give everyone a free ride--rather to encourage widespread participation. What's more, the figures here are not iron-clad. Perhaps we could expand outright purchases for the poor in cases where it was obvious they could benefit, maybe after they passed a simple test, not that big a challenge for a device as easy as an iPad. Must so many Americans continue to go to the library to perform even simple paperwork?

The national  digital library system and related costs such as preparation for teachers and librarians might come in at another $5 billion per year, after the start-up, and shrink or grow from there in accordance with the public's interests in various kinds of books and other content. Lowering communications expenses, most Americans could reach the library through their existing Net connections, and if need be, reasonable surcharges could be imposed for use of videos and other bandwidth-gobblers. Subsidies could go to the poor, especially those in vocational training programs for which relevant books and other media existed in the library. Needless to say, the library's communication costs would be one more reason to turn over more of the spectrum to WiFi or turbocharged variants.

Now let's say we spent an additional $10 billion in information-related goods and services for government and kept up the pace The current amount probably exceeds $70 billion a year, and I'd like to allow for programming costs at both the government and user ends. The $10 billion estimate may actually be too high. In many and perhaps most cases, the software for the public's individual machines could be developed privately and certified by the federal government or by independent contractors--or simply malware-checked if no security, health or safety reasons existed for further precautions.

The grand total in the federal budget would be $21 billion a year following a preparatory stage--a very imprecise, arbitrary, and hardly scientific guestimate offered as a discussion starter, but still just a faction of the several trillion that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are costing. Even though much of the $21-billion sum would be recurring, it would be tiny compared to the burden of the wars or the $700-billion + expenses of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which already includes some tech-related components. In the end we'd be spending many billions less on bureaucracy in the public and private sectors. Remember, healthcare paperwork alone costs hundreds of billions a year, so even a tiny reduction would make a difference. 

As the cost of the iPad-type machines declined, we could reduce the $5 billion cost of the tax breaks and divert more money to the library system itself or else cut back on the tax burden if we chose not to expand the library. Similarly, the related government automation costs might go down with the right infrastructure in place and further technological improvements.

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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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