How Chips and Wires Could Help Build National Pride, Not Just Wealth

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Peace Corps Library: Reference: Issues: July 12 - It's time for an Electronic Peace Corps: How Chips and Wires Could Help Build National Pride, Not Just Wealth

By Admin1 (admin) on Wednesday, November 21, 2001 - 5:07 pm: Edit Post

How Chips and Wires Could Help Build National Pride, Not Just Wealth

How Chips and Wires Could Help Build National Pride, Not Just Wealth

How Chips and Wires Could Help Build National Pride, Not Just Wealth

By David H. Rothman

This is an expanded version of a talk given April 21, 1998, at the World Bank, home of InfoDev. Please note that I am not affiliated with the Bank, and that the views here are entirely my own.

I'll be speaking today about roots, culture, and national pride--and how the wise use of technology could strengthen them and foster economic progress, too.

The Washington Post was obliging enough to make my topic a little timelier than I had anticipated. This month it ran a front-page story about a struggle between the Dinosaurs and the Technocrats in Mexico. Both are factions of the reigning PRI party. The Dinosaurs feel nervous about globalization and free trade. The Technocrats are U.S.-educated in many cases, and they're trying to break up some old monopolies and privatize away the inefficiencies of the Mexican economy. I myself believe in free markets and competition, and in the Internet and other demons of the Dinosaurs. And yet I can also see the Dinos' side. Iíve just come back from Monterrey, Mexico, and parts of it look like satellites of Los Angeles, complete with Office Max and Office Depot--not to mention all those satellite dishes that can pull down Terminator movies from the States. Some old fears of cultural imperialism are alive and well even in the era of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mexicans are hardly alone in their worries. Some readers and writers in another country now fret about foreign domination of culture, or at least of book-publishing. You see, conglomerates from Germany and the United Kingdom will soon be publishing most of County Xís best-sellers. There is fear, too, that a giant retail operation owned by foreigners could pose a threat to the bookstores of Country X. So is X Argentina? No. Thailand? No. India? No. X is none other than the United States. Bertelsmann, the German corporation, is about to buy Random House, Inc., and compete against U.S. bookstores--with a giant Web site, a kind of that would build on existing efforts. Bertelsmann is an old, respected company, and, no, I donít expect it to rewrite the histories of World War II. But somehow I'm at least a little queasy when Alberto Vitale, the president of Random House, says Bertelsmann is out to become the "premier publisher of English language books."

So what is the answer to globalization and the technology that it encourages and thrives on? Does all this mean that Mexico should shut down Office Depot and banish AT&T and MCI, that Mexicans should forbid U.S. publishers from operating down there, and that here in the States, the public should boycott Random House in its new German incarnation. Or that nations should try to ban the use of foreign words on domestically based Web sites, as some chauvinists tried to do in the case of a site mounted by a U.S. university in France? Of course not. If, however, free trade is to thrive, we must use technology in ways that build rather than eradicate national identity and pride. You cannot do business confidently with Everybody from Everywhere if you feel that you yourself are Nobody from Nowhere.

Today I'll be discussing two partial solutions to Nobodydom. One is a proposal to encourage developing countries to start their own electronic peace corps to foster domestic volunteerism in ways that build national pride. I'll suggest that international agencies could support this concept. The second proposal is related. I'll be calling for the creation of TeleReads, as I'll describe them--or national digital libraries that could contribute to development efforts and along the way distribute the works of local writers over the Internet. Let me emphasize that neither of these proposals would be world-savers by themselves. Both projects would be long-range and would require careful integration into existing efforts in education, public health, agriculture, and other areas. And I'll add another caveat. I plead innocent to being an officer or staffer of any development group. I'm just a writer who has been tracking these issues for many years, and who has found some common interests with kindred spirits in Mexico and elsewhere. Still, when I spoke at Monterrey Tec, which in some ways is Mexico's Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the newspaper El Norte picked up my speech on technology and development. And favorable reaction came from Alvaro Martinez Parente Zubiria--the young head of a Mexico City chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers--who, as it happens, works for a major telephone company. What's more, Monica E. de Leon, the interpreter of the speech, has kindly and perhaps a little masochistically offered to translate the 8,000 words into Spanish for the Web.

I'll steal from some of this previous talk and hope that it draws the same interest. Proposals that might intrigue some Mexicans won't necessarily work for Swaziland or Haiti, or at least not right now; but perhaps eventually these ideas just might help address some rather common problems in many developing countries.

Arguing for the model of a domestically run electronic peace corps, let me first introduce you to two hypothetical Mexicans, Juan and Roberto1; and then I'll elaborate on my idea. Juan cannot read but is ambitious enough to have left Chiapas or the Yucatan and taken the bus or hitchhiked to Mexico City. His wife and children must remain behind until he finds work as a laborer. Juan breathes smog. It's what one would expect in a city where 25 million humans coexist with a vast fleet of rusty old VWs and other clunkers without pollution controls. He lives in a tin hut. No plumbing. Filthy water. Garbage in the alley. No familiar surroundings. And of course, no faces that conjure up old memories. Each week thousands of Juan drift into Mexico City--resigned to lives of Nobodydom.

Meanwhile, in an air-conditioned high rise across town, a young technician is experiencing Nobodydom of a different sort. Roberto sits at his Pentium computer with a connection to the Internet. Through the Net--now or at least in the near future--Roberto can bank overseas. He can buy stocks in companies headquartered in Chicago or Madrid. He has e-mail contacts all over the world; geography matters less than common interests; in fact, he himself works for a U.S. multinational, and he is diligent and well paid. But something has given in this man's life to make way for his career. Roberto identifies less and less with Mexico and Mexico City and more and more with the world at large, or at least with overseas people who themselves are members of local elites. In the past he might have worked for a domestic company, perhaps a state-run monopoly, but the old roots are gone. Roberto may be confident about himself. But collectively, what happens in Mexico if too many of its brightest citizens no longer feel the same national loyalties? The result could well be the anti-Technocrat reactions that we're seeing from the Dinosaurs.

Suppose, however, that a way existed to encourage Roberto the techie to take more of an interest in his country and in Juan the laborer.

What if young Mexicans could volunteer to help wire up the rural parts of the country and urban slums? And suppose their efforts fit in with existing programs in health, education, agriculture and other areas? What if they helped establish small, community-oriented phone companies that larger firms might help finance in return for partial ownership? Or set up community communications centers of the kind discussed on TechNetís electronic forums? Is possible that the Technocrats and others could systematically use the telephones and computers to help allow Roberto to remain prosperously at home in the Yucatan with his wife and family? I think so. A partial answer for Mexico and some other Third World countries just might be a modernization of the peace corps model that John F. Kennedy created.

A Mexican Electronic Peace Corps or the equivalents elsewhere would differ in four important ways from the original U.S. version; and I don't just mean in terms of the use of gadgetry.

First, this kind of peace corps would be run by the people of a country it was helping. I know, I know. The old wisdom is that the tradition of volunteerism isn't as strong in many Third World countries as in the United States or Western Europe. I'll address that point--by distinguishing the idea in a second way from the U.S. Peace Corps. That is, an organization like a Mexican Electronic Peace Corps could market itself to the young as a career-builder, not just as a chance to do good. I'll explain. In fact, I'll tell of special entrepreneurial and professional opportunities that could arise for the members of such a corps. To mention the third distinction, yes, a locally run electronic peace corps would make heavy use of computers and network as ways to spread knowledge--much more than the U.S. Peace Corps does now. Fourth, because such a corps was domestic in origin, it could be an important part of national policy. It could help spread technology in ways that created new jobs in rural areas, promoted social stability, and reduced the need for Juan to live in Nobodydom in Mexico City. And it might work with a outside electronic peace corps, or a number of them--but only if this were desired.

Let me return now to the first distinction between the present U.S. Peace Corps and a domestic electronic peace corps for a developing country. In other words: the fact that a domestic electronic peace corps would be--domestic. No, I don't see such domestic organizations displacing the U.S. Peace Corps or the Canadian International Development Agency or other agencies that send volunteers into the field. We need both approaches. I'm delighted to hear of plans to expand the present Peace Corps by thousands of volunteers. But much has changed since John Kennedy came to the University of Michigan back in 1960 and, on the steps of the Michigan Union building, dreamed aloud of a Corps-style endeavor.

For one thing, even more than in the '60s, developing countries want to do as much as possible by themselves. Let me tell you a little story from my recent trip to Monterrey Tec. Monica E. de Leon--the translator whoís now enthusiastic about the idea of a Mexican Peace Corps--almost went on strike when she read the title of my speech, "How Technology Could Help Chiapas--and Mexico City." What; a gringo telling what Mexicans should do with technology and Chiapas? But then? Oh, yes, so Señor Rothmanís premise was that Mexicans know what's best for Mexicans! And it was an easy row from there. For she was perceptive and realized that a domestic electronic peace corps could work closely with Mexico's own Ministry of Education and its universities, much more so than could an agency North of the border. Last I knew, the existing U.S. Peace Corps was not even active in Mexico, for want of an invitation. Indeed, at Monterrey Tec, a student or professor asked: "Whatís a Peace Corps? A body? A corpse?"

I'll leave it up to President Zedillo and others as to whether the U.S. Peace Corps should now be invited in. But suppose Mexico organized a domestic electronic peace corps to raise living standards and promote social stability. And what if, as I said, a U.S. Electronic Peace Corps might work with Mexicans either remotely or in the field? Or for that matter, what if there were a United Nations or World Bank Electronic Peace Corps? Or better still, what if a number of groups operated under the electronic peace corps name, but ultimately were coordinated within Mexico or another developing country by a domestic agency?

Now, on to the second way in which a domestic electronic peace corps would differ from the existing U.S. Peace Corps. It could, as I said, be a career-builder, not just a chance to do good. This would help answer the objection that the tradition of volunteerism isn't as strong as in the States. I'll leave it to others to compare volunteerism in one country with that in another. But it's hardly as if Mexico is now devoid of volunteer efforts. During my Mexican trip, for example, I learned that hundreds of Monterrey Tec students had volunteered to work in rural areas during spring break. Perhaps even more important, the university is consciously trying to build a tradition of volunteerism; an undergraduate can not even graduate from the school without devoting 240 hours to community service of one kind of another. The school believes that community service will lead to someone who is better as both a citizen and employee. Perhaps not so coincidentally, within the Student Affairs Division, there exists an Office of Community and Professional Development. The two functions actually go hand in hand. As employers often have discovered, U.S. Peace Corps volunteers ended with new skills in language, in management, in a number of areas. And volunteers in a Mexican Electronic Peace Corps could gain technical skills and business skills and would get mentoring from older volunteers, via phone and computer networks. Acquainted with real-world needs, the members would be more valuable as corporate employees and as entrepreneurs later on. I'll offer more details on this later.

What about the third way in which a Mexican Electronic Peace Corps would differ--more use of technology. Chips and wires and satellite links are not the same as volunteers on the scene, but they can vastly increase the amount of information that is available to local educators, public health officials and others in developing countries. And Iím not just talking about static databases. With the right equipment and training--and perhaps arrangements for translation--it would be possible for a local public health official in the most isolated areas of Mexico to send e-mails directly to the Mexico City. Or perhaps to programs supported by the World Health Organization or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Already, a number of the larger medical institutions in Mexico have their own Web pages, and there is even a Mexican Anesthesiology Network to help spread expertise within that medical specialty. And a domestic electronic peace corps model could take advantage of existing connections, both human and electronic, and develop new ones in ways that a developing country did not consider intrusive. Mexico perhaps would not want the U.S. to send many volunteers there--and very possibly none, given the fact that the U.S. Peace Corps has not been invited. But it very well might welcome help in developing Spanish-language databases as well as electronic access to U.S. specialists in important technical areas. And whether remotely or in the field, Mexico and other developing countries might take advantage of the expertise of present or returned Peace Corps volunteers like Patrick and Jacqueline Duffy-Saenzes, a couple who served in Uruguay. With great satisfaction they tell me how they up hooked up Uruguayan schools to the Internet, and they would love to be use the Net to share with rural Mexico their expertise in education and networking. A domestic electronic peace corps in Mexico would make it much easier for this to happen without all the costs and international complexities of sending the Duffy-Saenzes into the field.

Now on to an elaboration of the fourth way in which a Mexican Electronic Peace Corps would not be as the same as the existing U.S. Peace Corps:

Enjoying greater control of the domestic organization, the Mexican government could make it an integral part of national policy that used better telephone service and computers as a way to upgrade living standards and slow down the disruptive flow of people from rural areas to Mexico City. The agency might be either a public-private venture or a division of an agency such as the ministry of public education; either way, it could be one of the cornerstones of the Mexican Informatics Development Program. In Telecommunications and Economic Development (a World Bank Publication from The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), the authors make the case that returns on investment from telcom projects supported by the World Bank may reach as high as 40 percent in some cases if you consider not just the revenue from the phone systems but also the benefits to transportation, tourism, banking and other endeavors. Imagine, then, all the prosperity that a domestic electronic peace corps could help Mexico enjoy with the Internet technology in the hands of the rural masses as well as the business community.

The Mexican Electronic Peace Corps wouldn't blithely parachute telephones, computers, and modems into little villages or urban barrios; volunteers could patiently show how to use them to improve lives. Small telcom companies nurtured by the corps would offer public phones, not just private ones, as well as low-cost or free Net access via community centers--rural cybercafes with not only telephones and computers but also food and drink. Call them munytels, my own favorite term, or community communications centers. Whatever the name, weave them into the lives of the people. Small farmers in rural regions, for instance, could use these community centers to track commodity prices abroad and more comfortably switch from growing staples to growing crops for which there is international demand. Farmers and others could get micro loans through the munytels--small loans that representatives of banks could administer more easily from afar because of the efficiencies of computers and networks. And the children of illiterate parents could go to the munytels and boot up PCs and type letters for mothers and fathers, just as they are doing in some villages in Africa today. Use educational video games to help hook the children on computers in the first place. What a combination: technology and education. Imagine the new incentives for learning how to read--and the new opportunities for young literacy instructors in isolated villages to communicate with each other and improve their professional techniques. Machines by themselves are not enough to triumph over the circumstances that sends the ambitious poor to Mexico City and to the Rio Grande. Nor are people working in isolation. But together they just might be invincible. This isn't to mention all the other things that could happen--for instance, helping town halls and grassroots civic organizations go on the Web in anticipation of the time when many more people would be on line than is the case now. Already, in Guatemala, efforts are being made to get community groups on the Web in a major way. A Mexican Electronic Peace Corps could use similar strategies--and teach Web writing in community communications centers or, to use my term, munytels. If grade schoolchildren in the U.S. can create their own pages, surely some children and adults in rural Mexico could learn to do the same with proper instruction. And the more local content was online, the more likely people would be to buy their own computers. Used PCs in the States already are selling for less than $100, and a group called LINC is distributing old computers for free with the proper software for accessing the Web. LINCT encourages communities to award computers to people who teaches others how to use the machines. What an excellent way to use an electronic peace corps and munytels to spread hardware and knowledge!

In areas that already had relatively heavy penetration of telephones, the Mexican Corps might work with existing phone companies to develop munytels, but what about the most isolated parts of the country with virtually no service? Or very small numbers of phones? This domestic electronic peace corps could help set up small local telephone companies as sustainable businesses that eventually would earn profits. Perhaps they would be somewhat like the electric co-ops that brought lights and washing machines to millions of people in the States during the Great Depression of the 1930s. But there could be differences, too. Maybe Telmex and the like would hold large large minority interests in order to make this approach attractive to existing phone companies, which could help pay for the services of the Corps members. The big telcom companies would benefit from the marketing along with the research and development; they could experiment in the hinterlands with new technologies, everything from cellular to TCP/IP-transmitted voice--yet another way to refine the technical skills of the young corps members. Modern phone systems could be built from the ground up. After leaving the Corps some of the members would be free either to work for high-tech companies, as they had originally planned--or to find new careers with the small rural companies. Or perhaps they could even start their own companies. Remember, Mexico plans to deregulate not only long-distance service but also local service, and the new cellular technology reduces the infrastructure costs.

With better telecommunications, Mexicans could help change the face of their country. Let's return now to this issue of disruptive migration. If Mexico simultaneously upgraded both educational and telecommunications standards, it eventually would be possible for the back-office operations of large corporations in Mexico City to expand into the most remote rural areas and offer jobs in data entry and even in programming. It might even be possible to encourage mass telecommuting from homes from the very start and reduce the need for road building--and the potential for pollution. Let the new infrastructure help reduce the need to expand the old infrastructure. The idea here wouldn't be to turn every Mexican into a clerk or programmer. What would happen, however, is that these more prosperous people in turn would be customers for traditional kinds of businesses, everything from restaurants to shoe stores. Along the way, Mexico City also would come out ahead. Munytels--in other words, the community communications centers that TechNet members have discussed--could also be started in slums. What's more, Mexico City would suffer less crowding, less smog. The Juans of the future would find less need to go to Mexico City and save up for a smelly old VW bug without air pollution controls. A Mexican Electronic Peace Corps would make this possible; Roberto the techie volunteer really would be helping Juan.


Besides the idea of an electronic peace corps, Mexico and other developing countries might consider another program in the informatics realm, a national digital library full of books that any schoolchild could read for free, or at least at much less cost than if such a library did not exist. Under TeleRead, as Iíve called it, books would be on the Internet or available through CD-ROM and similar technologies. It is urgent for Mexico and other countries to wrestle now with the intellectual property issues, rather than seeing the "pay-per-read" ethos reign unchecked. We cannot get everything online for free. But with books, especially, we should try as best we can; for they encourage sustained thought--a prerequisite for the growth of meaningful democracy, not to mention the full development of the workforce.

In today's era of paper, a serious shortage of books exists, and not just in Mexico. Patrick and Jacqueline Duffy-Saenz recall their Peace Corps days in Uruguay, where "a teacher earned about $90 a month, a book cost over $100, and teachers had no idea how to use the Net other than to send and receive electronic mail." In the United States, books aren't such luxuries, but in one recent year, the Shasta County library system in the state of California was spending 25 cents per year per citizen in tax money on books and other intellectual property. Meanwhile in the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of Beverly Hills, the library system has spent as much as $34 per citizen, or more than 100 times as much as Shasta did. The answer is not to take away books from Beverly Hills or the elite sections of Mexico City, but to put them online for all students to share simultaneously--whether their parents drive Mercedes or donkey carts. The screen technology for electronic books is improving, and new equipment prices are falling; eventually computers will cost no more than radios. Besides, there are ways around blurry screens if the need for books is great enough. Librarians in rural areas, for example, could scour a TeleRead library for books on topics of local interest and print them out (on inexpensive dot-matrix machines using recyclable ribbons and the least expensive paper) to be passed around from reader to reader. The elite may care about packaging, about leather-bound editions; the masses if need be could do quite well with just the words, thank you. Child respond best to books on topics about which they most care. The right book just might make the difference between a reader and nonreader.

Yes, TeleRead-style national libraries would also benefit academia. Funding woes have beset university libraries throughout the world. Even in the United States and Canada, some universities are cutting back on the number of subscriptions to scholarly publications because publishers are charging them excessively. Some scholars are publishing directly on the Web, of course. But, as much as I love the Web, it is not a substitute for a library. The right information can be hard to find, and in most cases there are not the usual mechanisms for evaluating the quality of the information.

Beyond that, consider the benefits that TeleRead-style libraries could offer to the corporate world. It is no coincidence that some pro-business conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr., are the among the most vigorous proponents of TeleRead. Researchers and entrepreneurs, the very ones most likely to pave the way for a new cancer drug or a practical optical computer, would fare better with a wider selection of books and articles.

Just who would choose the books for inclusion in a TeleRead library, though? Many librarians in many cities, as well as librarians at universities and elite research libraries, would designate those eligible for royalties. And commercial writers and publishers could gamble money up front to qualify for royalties on books, or to increase the amount of money that individual titles could earn in the future. Payment would be by the number of dialups, just as the present system rewards popularity; let us avoid a Soviet-style cultural bureaucracy. Whatís more, a TeleRead-style library would not force publishers to participate and they could publish the usual paper books or engage in pay-per-read. In most cases, however, they eventually would also want to be in the TeleRead collections; thatís where the real market would be. TeleRead could even rely on some of the same pay-per-read tracking mechanisms that publishers are developing for tracking sales of individual titles, except that the a national digital library, not the individual readers, would pay for the the books.

Properly enlightened, many publishers might actually support such an idea. Despite all the excitement over online book-sellers like and the recent Bertelsmann deal, books are not faring well these days under the current system, even in the United States. The number of hardback adult-level books sold in the U.S. has actually declined, what with all the competition from other activities, including, yes, the Internet to a small extent. This distraction will only grow in the future.

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Special Interests - An Electronic Peace Corps



By Admin1 (admin) on Wednesday, November 21, 2001 - 5:07 pm: Edit Post

Continued ---

Properly enlightened, many publishers might actually support such an idea. Despite all the excitement over online book-sellers like and the recent Bertelsmann deal, books are not faring well these days under the current system, even in the United States. The number of hardback adult-level books sold in the U.S. has actually declined, what with all the competition from other activities, including, yes, the Internet to a small extent. This distraction will only grow in the future.

Even without the Net in widespread use in Mexico, writers and publishers of books have suffered. Writing in the Los Angeles Times of September 19, 1997, a Mexican publisher named Rafael Perez Gay observes: "In the golden year of 1976, for every book printed in Mexico, two were printed in Spain; today, for every book published in Mexico, Spain publishes more than 20." The Net, however, could eventually change the economics of publishing and help writers in Mexico and other developing countries find audiences at home. Even in the United States, writers must struggle. All the writers in my country earn maybe $6 billion a year from domestic book royalties, or around a third of the amount by which Bill Gatesí wealth grew in less than 12 months through his own activities in the intellectual property area. When it comes to compensating the typical writer, even my country is still one big sweatshop. An author earns less than 10 or 15 percent of the cover price of a book, on an advance that may be only $5,000 or even less--even though he or she may have worked on the project for years. Might it not be wise to refine the technology so readers didn't have to pay for cardboard, ink, transportation, and marketing bureaucracies that consume most of the cover price? Which isn't to be anti-publisher. The good ones would add value to the works of writers, though intelligent editing and other services, and so they would both survive and thrive.

But how would a country like Mexico pay for a TeleRead-style national library? It could start very small and grow as it cost-justified itself. For years I have been proposing the refinement and use of tablet-shaped, sharp-screened machines with pen interfaces that would be good not only for reading books but also for filling out forms for electronic commerce. By tapping the screen with an electronic stylus, you could move from place to place with a book, for example, and to write you could use voice recognition of a plug-in keyboard (with the machine held up at a comfortable height by way of a retractable wire stand). With the same stylist or voice recognition, you could fill out tax forms. You could use such computers on couch or on the kitchen table, rather than having to go to your den and boot up your computer every time you wanted to go shopping to transfer funds electronically. Let me add that in the next five or ten years we might even get books with ever-changeable electronic ink so that one physical book could display an unlimited number of virtual ones. Researchers at MIT already have developed a rather primitive prototype with a limited number of pages, but eventually this device could store and display a full-length novel or history--and work with a stylist so that electronic forms would be possible. Moreover, do not think that this technology will be forever unaffordable to the developing countries. With mass production, such book-readers would eventually cost no more than transistor radios.

The potential benefits to business and government are huge, and over the long run they would easily cost-justify TeleRead in the end. Consider a bank. Electronic transactions cost but a fraction of those done the old-fashioned way--so that banks could spend less on paperwork and pass the savings on to customers. Smart forms, capable of flagging or eliminating erroneous entries, would reduce the number of mistakes on mortgage applications or income tax documents. Build your economy around automated customers, not just automated bureaucracies and corporations, and the savings over the years will reach well into the billions. Governments, perhaps acting jointly, could hasten the process with a carrot to Silicon Valley and computer manufacturers in other countries besides the U.S. They could promise to fund libraries to buy TeleReader computers to assure a core market. Just about all TeleReaders, though, would end up being privately owned--since the library machines would pique the interest of consumers who borrowed them, and they would go out and buy their own. That would mean higher sales and, in turn, lower prices. What's more, do not think that this technology will be forever unaffordable to the developing countries if we plan right. With mass production, such book-readers would eventually cost no more than transistor radios.

Still another issue is whether to work toward a true world library or a series of national libraries. I myself would prefer at least to start with national libraries, given the challenges of overcoming cultural and political differences. Via master catalogues, interested readers could eventually do worldwide searches for literature of interest to them from different national libraries. Of there might be a system under which readers could directly purchase individual books from other countries' libraries--or from foreign publishers--or maybe avail themselves of inexpensive subscriptions. But the actual financing of the books would be handled on a country-by-country basis, so that, for example, Iraqis or Iranians wouldn't be continually at odds with U.S. librarians. Otherwise, without a country-by-country approach for global libraries, what happens when a Salman Rushdie novel is up for consideration. And what about the classics? Will the Mullahs appreciate Voltaire? Or the unfettered lyricism of the late Octavio Paz? As I see it, then, a well-executed national digital library approach would allow more freedom of expression than would a dogmatic reliance on one big global library, which, rather than building national identity and pride, might actually diminish it.

Enough questions exist now even with private publishers. What happens if you're HarperCollins, and you're part of Rupert Murdoch's international media empire, and Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, writes an outspoken book called East and West? The Chinese Government wouldn't be pleased. In fact, HarperCollins did cancel East and West, and a headline in the Christian Science Monitor summed up the situation well: "Murdoch Puts China Billions over Books." So much for the traditional Western pride in freedom of expression. And looking ahead, what happens if Bertelsmann dominates both the creation and distribution of books in the United States and its future managers are less enlightened than the present executives? Suppose, yes, anyone can publish on the Internet, but, as today, suppose the marketing muscle is behind a few big titles, as seems to be the trend. Hence my fears. Few permanents exist in publishing. Who would have imagined that Harper & Row, one of the most distinguished houses in literature, would have disappeared down Rupert Murdoch's corporate maw? No, I don't think that the Bertelsmann or Murdoch should be kept out of the States or out of Mexico or other developing countries. Quite the contrary. I'm merely calling for national digital libraries as alternatives--libraries with many librarians in many cities, and with ways for publishers and authors to be able to gamble money up front to assure the electronic publication of books no matter how the librarians felt. Simply put, we're talking about wise use of technology and about people's control over their own cultural and literary destinies, and that is a question of national pride and national identity.


As I finished the writing of this speech, an internationally distributed network was on the radio, and I enjoyed the programming. But it was no substitute for a local newscast or entertainment show. The announcer had just proclaimed that it was "45 minutes past the hour." But which hour? And was it London time? Mexico City time? Washington time? And I see a good metaphor here. Let global computer networks and databases give us the 45 minutes; let Bertelsmann and the British own big publishing houses in the States; let the Japanese buy movie chains in the U.K. if they should choose; let international corporations hire Roberto in Mexico City; let there be electronic banking and investment across many borders. But let us also build the networks and the databases so we'll never forget the hour. Thank you. An English-language version of this talk is available at


1 A World Bank economist has called my attention to Juan-and-Roberto-style contrasts in Disconnected: Have & Have Nots in the Information Age. I have not read William Wresch's book--now on order--but I am hardly surprised by the laborer-techie comparisons from Windhoek, Namibia. So many Third World problems are unfortunately generic. [Return to main text.]

David H. Rothman ( is author of NetWorld! (Prima Publishing, 1996) and other tech-related books as well as a contributor to Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier (The MIT Press and the American Society for Information Science, 1996) and the author of Copyright and K-12: Who Pays in the Network Era?, an online essay published by the U.S. Department of Education. The opinions here are his own and not necessarily those of any other person or any organization. He wishes to credit Douglas J. Kennett for that inimitable green line. Rothman encourages others to link to this talk and make printed or electronic reproductions. No permission needed for noncommercial use. Original material for this page © 1998 by David H. Rothman.

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