Books and Technology – E-reading and the strange case of Africa

The following is a repost from Smart Monkey TV

ImageSmart Monkey says:

Reading e-books has become more or less mainstream in many parts of the developed world. What appears to be a change spurred by technology is actually probably as much a cultural shift. It’s actually easier in many circumstances to read using an e-reader than to carry a print book. But this cultural change may also begin to challenge long held perceptions about reading in developing countries.

I’ve got a 100 Mb device with instant access and it uses pictures. What is it? A book. The current generation of e-reader devices have challenged this flip joke about print technology. Some of them can do sound and video while also being mainly lighter to carry around and in many cases, easier to use.Nico Macdonald, Chair of Media Futures describes in his video clip interview how several interesting things are happening. The sale of fiction e-Books has outstripped hardback sales of the same item and will in two years time probably outstrip paperback sales. The existence of e-books is unlikely to consign print and paper to the dustbin of history because some books do not lend themselves to e-book form (childrens’s pop-up books) and some people still like the physical print object, especially for high-end subjects like design.
For developing countries, e-books have until recently been something beyond their grasp. They rely on having reasonably good Internet access at an affordable price. But things have changed considerably… take the case of the African content. Whereas ten years ago, there were no international and national fibre cables, they are now more plentiful and there is wider Internet access on mobile phones at increasingly affordable prices. But the long-accepted wisdom – oft-repeated by private sector managers, NGO people and Africans themselves – is that these are oral cultures and there is not much reading. Looking at the few local bookshops you’d be forced to agree. Each seems to have what seems like a disproportionate number of self-help and religious books. These are combined in titles like Prayer Thoughts for the Successful. Local literary cultures are in the main tiny and not very high profile. It is rare (in my 12 year experience) to meet educated Africans who discuss books.One of the problems according to Nigerian author Adaobi Tricia Nwabani (I Do Not Come To You By Chance) is the same as for many francophone African films. There is a high-end fiction that does well overseas but is hardly ever read at home. She believes that there needs to be a Nollywood version of fiction that tackles every day life in the countries that Africans live in rather things that tackle the past.
This is the counter-narrative to the idea that Africans don’t read. Give people stories they can identify with and get them distributed more easily and things will change. This counter-view is borne out by the experience of biNu. What, I hear you ask, is biNu? It’s an iPhone/Android-style browser that you can use on a cheaper featurephone. biNu went into partnership with World Reader (who put Kindles into schools in Africa) to deliver books on to mobile phones through its browser. In a very short period of time, it has got 0.5 million book readers on mobile phones, 42% of which are in Nigeria. Among the books that are most popular are the less literary Harlequin/Mills and Boon romance titles. However, among the most used search terms is the title of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which is probably a schools text.
Another piece of evidence in this jigsaw is the work of Bozzathat provides a mobile platform that encourages Africans in townships and slums to write, make films and music and distribute them on the Bozza platform. It has 2,000 poetry contributors and 17,000 people reading this poetry. If someone in Europe got that many poetry readers, they would have thought they had died and gone to heaven. But this is the point that Nico Macdonald makes about e-books and reading cultures. It is not just a question of a technology change but whether we want a reading culture and of what kind. One e-book imprint from a traditional publisher has put together a title for poet T.S.Eliot’s The Wasteland which includes Fiona Shaw reading the poem and a copy of the poet’s annotated manuscript. So maybe e-books can both help us share different reading experiences and create reading cultures where they didn’t seem to exist before.

Culture and Travel and Life’s Technology are features on Smart Monkey TV. To see all the subject areas we feature, go to our beta website:

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