OPINION: Let's use 4IR to make reading fashionable again
In a recent television interview about the national reading revolution, the anchor questioned the relevance of books in this digital era we live.
He wondered if books as we know them would not become obsolete due to social media and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
His question highlighted the unfortunate misconception that 4IR diminishes the importance of reading.
The 4IR improves the ability of access to information, accelerates the sharing of information and complements whatever we are doing to make reading fashionable again.
As the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT), our ongoing campaign to foster a national culture of reading within the National Reading Coalition (NRC) is impeded by many things.
Key among these is the lack of access to age-appropriate reading material for our children. Books are generally expensive in South Africa and our unfortunate insistence on taxing knowledge requires urgent attention.
For now, however, improvements in the cost and speed of connectivity call upon us to closely explore and exploit the positive correlation between 4IR and overcoming the shortage of reading material.
When Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph founded Netflix in 1997 they wanted to conflate the arrival of DVD technology and mail order commerce to build a sales-and-rental business. In a year they dropped the sales component to focus on rentals. Over 95 percent of their business was rental –nobody seemed interested in owning DVD; as millennials are also not that keen on ownership for its own sake.
Today, Netflix has over 140 million subscribers and through its online library offers a range of content it produces and distributes.
This $16-billion company offers a lesson to us, if we are to harness 4IR to promote the culture of reading.
We will probably examine and research this further at the NECT for empirical data; but we probably hoard more books than we read. Knowledge is worthless unless it is shared. To reach a wider audience, we must develop effective sharing and distribution solutions.
If Netflix demonstrated that rental (not ownership) is a more successful business proposition, 4IR can help us facilitate book-sharing.
Imagine depositing books in a virtual pool with others. In return for our deposits, we could borrow books from the collections of others in the network.
Any South African would access the reading lists of their icons; share their own books and insights.
Consider it the uberisation of book clubs. It would expedite the connection of readers from all over and improve the quality of our national discourse, while helping to mitigate the effects of the high cost of books.
Incidentally, the President told the 2020 Basic Education Sector Lekgotla in Ekurhuleni that he would “soon launch a virtual book club in an effort to turbocharge reading across the country”.
Godwin Khosa, CEO of the National Education Collaboration Trust.
Among the most consistent supporters of the work of the NRC, the President further said: “Known as the President’s Reading Circle, this virtual book club will allow readers to share their views on the books with me through the chat service on the club’s website”.
More than just sharing views on books, though, 4IR could extend the President’s and similar community initiatives to the sharing of the books themselves. What better way to bolster the national quest to ignite a reading revolution.
From the CEO of a multinational corporation to a school teacher in far-flung areas, a retired nurse in a township and a factory worker who travels for hours by bus or train every day, we would be able to give practical expression to one of our six focus areas towards creating a reading culture.
According to a report by GSMA titled Connected Society – The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2019 – “continued investments in mobile network roll-out have resulted in a significant reduction of the coverage gap, that is people who live in areas that are not covered by mobile broadband” from 24 percent in 2014 to only 10 percent at the end of 2018.
It was in 2014 that mobile broadband shot up 90 percent in Africa, against a 5-percent decline in fixed line technology, according to Tele-Geography 2019. In the last quarter of 2019, the Competition Commission of South Africa directed mobile network operators to slash prices substantially.
These changes translate into faster, cheaper and higher-capacity telecommunications devices that could boost the creation of digital libraries and knowledge repositories.
Our work at the NECT will be more impactful and widespread with faster information and communications technology, especially if we can find creative ways to increase the sharing of books among book lovers nationally. Watch this space; even better, join us in making 4IR a tool to share more than just status updates. Help us take advantage of 4IR to accelerate book-sharing towards becoming a reading nation.
Godwin Khosa is the CEO of the National Education Collaboration Trust.