In The New York Times today, there is an article about Paulo Coelho, author of among other works, the best-selling novel, The Alchemist.
This guy gives away his work online ... and appears to be no worse for the wear. Impressed by the innovative chord he has struck for himself, and how he encouraged his publisher to move accordingly, I also sensed how this approach speaks to a quality rarely discussed in IT circles: fairness. Here I am talking about fairness as a matter of social policy generally, not a process to evaluate contractors or give promotions within an organization. Equity and justice might also creep into this vocabulary.
Over 13% of the world's population are chronically hungry and suffer from malnutrition. The percentage of people living in poverty is yet higher. We have not yet even begun to touch levels for literacy.
There are some countries, mostly in Africa and Southeast Asia, where the vast majority of the population falls into these categories. And then there are countries with extremes between rich and poor. Brazil, the home country of Coelho, is one such place (and the United States appears to be moving in that direction, sadly, so let us not assume a them-us perspective on that trend). In countries where the standard of living is moving upward for at least a critical mass of the population, as might have been said about the United States over the long course of its history, and certainly with significant statistical evidence after the Second World War until the 1970's, two statistics matter a lot: fertility rates go down and literacy goes up.
Historically libraries played a critical role in certainly the latter, and who knows, perhaps indirectly in the former (I can hear the jokes now, but what I mean is that as people get more education they may choose to have fewer children to marshal resources in non-agrarian economies). In an information age mediated by information technologies, let us not expect that in countries where upward mobility is occurring, that they will go through all the steps that the United States did over the course of its two hundred plus years of history. In other words, upwardly mobile people today will jump start to Internet technologies, mobile in particular.
My point: we will perpetuate the distance between haves and have-nots if we squirrel the information and knowledge and culture for which young and intellectually hungry people crave. Needlessly. Cruelly. Inhumanely, if you believe that once an individual's basic needs are met, knowledge and culture can create a desire as deep as that for food, water and shelter. Without government intervention -- a feature that seems irrationally to create dissonance in this country -- a business model such as the one that Coelho pioneered within his publishing house addresses this issue perfectly. Make it available so people who can afford to buy it in a better formatted form (physical or electronic) can try it out. And for those who cannot afford that "better formatted form," make it available. Period.