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Information Access for All
What If TV Sets Cost a Little More, Computers Almost Nothing, and Everyone Could Tap into National Databases Containing Anything in Print?

This Computerworld piece appeared on July 6, 1992. A television tax has long since been dropped from TeleRead, and in many other ways, the proposal has evolved.

By David H. Rothman

Nine high school students in Silver Spring, Md., have been working on an affordable virtual reality system for small business. While a finished system won't go on sale next week at Radio Shack, the students' work has been good enough for a top Army laboratory to hire one of them for the summer. Ten years from now, all three students might be cherished employees at Intel Corp., IBM or another high-tech company.

Gloria Seelman, a research coordinator at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, sees the ongoing project as an educational success. Students' brains and tenacity have helped. But so has something else. Via Dialog data-bases, students at the school can dial up many facts missing from the school library.

Without databases, Seelman says, the work done so far might have taken twice as long. As it happens, even the University of Maryland lacked perhaps half of the books helpful to the project, and interlibrary loans would have meant weeks of waiting. The databases, unfortunately, offered citations but not full texts of books.

Imagine how much the Blair students could have accomplished by now in their three-semester course in Independent Research if they could have downloaded whole books, if they had not been limited to the offerings of libraries nearby. Suppose that they could easily hook up with an electronic version of the whole Library of Congress. In fact, suppose that millions of other students, parents--anyone--could retrieve technical tomes, novels, articles--almost anything ever published. Suppose, too, that they could read the material on laptop computers that sold for $50 or, even better, were provided free of charge by the government.

Farfetched? No. For years, computer hackers and librarians have dreamed of being able to read any book on-line. And now technology has come far for this to happen in the next two decades, through a plan that I'll propose here. My TeleRead plan would promote literacy, increase general exposure to computer technology and aid our domestic high-tech industry.

Under TeleRead, millions of Americans could deal up books from home via a giant computer network. The government would encourage Silicon Valley to turn out small, affordable computers with sharp American-made screen that you could read more easily than a book.

No, Washington wouldn't pay laptop makers for research and development. Rather, the government would use revenue from a tax on television sets and other video products to buy laptops for schools and libraries, guaranteeing enough of a market to justify the R&D in the private sector.

Extrapolating from a Department of Commerce statistic on annual sales to consumers, such a tax might raise $2 billion a year. This tax needn't be burdensome. Let's say a television cost $350 and the owner kept it five years. He would pay a tax of $35, or 10%, when he bought the set; that would break down to just $7 annually, or about the price of a pizza.

A tax would hardly kill off television or double SAT scores, but it would send a message about new priorities for the country.

Some general tax revenue might augment the money from the Tube Tax" if need be, but not necessarily forever. The TeleRead program could also collect subscription fees, determined by family income, from people downloading books and other material from the network.

Spending spree

Just how would TeleRead spend its money at the start? One of the program's goals would be to develop an instant market far trailblazing U.S. companies in areas such as screens and memory chips. With massive procurement contracts, the government could hasten the coming of powerful, toaster-simple laptops selling for a tenth or twentieth of the cost of today's models. Right now such machines seem to be at least two decades off, if you want them to have sharp color screens.

TeleRead contracts would clearly favor computers with screens and other parts designed and manufactured in this country. Domestic companies couldn't avoid all foreign technology, at course. But the TeleRead program would nurture our R&D as much as possible, especially in crucial fields. such as laptop screens and memory. Simply put, the program would make high tech safer for our often skittish venture capitalists without setting up a massive research bureaucracy or resorting to an onerous tariff, such as the one that the Commerce Department slapped on some LCD screens.

Promotion of U.S. high technology, of course, would be just one of TeleRead's purposes. With money from the Tube Tax, the federal government could give away laptops to many schools and libraries and ultimately to bright students from low-income families.

Our schools need more computers. According to statistics published in the 1992 Computer Industry Almanac, U.S. public schools had one computer for every 20 students last year. What's more, programs for the gifted and talented enjoy a disproportionate share of the machines.

Corporations donate equipment in sane districts, but the flow of gifts is too small and too haphazard to do much good nationwide.

Even in affluent areas, many schools are hanging on to Apple Computer, Inc.'s Apple lls and other antiques and are wishing they could offer their students something better, according to Vicki Hancock, an educational technology expert at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) in Alexandria,Va.

Benefits on every level

TeleRead, of course, shouldn't just buy computers, It should also help pay for it computer literacy instructors for students, teachers and librarians so the machines wouldn't sit around unused in closets. Everybody would master the basics of on-line searching, the high-tech equivalent of the Dewey decimal system. Teachers would learn how to dial up books and other material in their specialties to enrich their classes.

"This program would benefit average a students as well as gifted ones, and it would better prepare Americans for work in an information-dependent society," says Hancock, editor of ASCD's Curriculum/Technology Quarterly.

"Schools should teach everyone to find and analyze facts from many sources, not just regurgitate from textbooks," she says.

Jeremy Gordon, a just-graduated senior who worked on the Montgomery Blair project, agrees. "When I go to the public library," he says, "I see long lines of students in front of the CD-ROM magazine index. An on-line national database would be incredibly useful."

TRnet, part of the TeleRead program, would offer Gordon and his peers an electronic cornucopia. This national network would carry the full texts of all new books and other publications.

Operation phase in

The way this would come about is that the government would begin to require all material longer than 10,000 words to be in digital form in order to be copyrighted. The government would phase in this requirement gradually, perhaps with a voluntary program. Many authors and publishers would rush to take advantage of TRnet, seeing it as a new market; after all, most publishers today are already using computers to set type. As for undigitized material shorter than 10,000 words, scanners could pick up the images.

In all cases, TeleRead would pay fairly. If you wrote a book, for example, your earnings would depend on how often people dialed it up. Of course the network would not need to pay anyone for items already in the public domain--for example, government publications, statistics and old literary classics. So the basic TRnet service might be free or cost very little, even for nonstudents.

Mind you, TRnet would be just one option for readers. People could still buy books, either the old-fashioned kind or the electronic variety, from publishers or authors themselves. That would be one way to cope with the risk of censorship.

Using what we've got

A public network is an essential, however, if we want broad-based, affordable access to a wide selection of books and other material.

Some skeptics might call this plan socialistic, but it isn't--any more than a public library.

If Andrew Carnegie, that 19th-century capitalist extraordinaire, were alive to-day, he would probably be funding demonstration projects, just as he helped small-town libraries across the U.S., hoping that ambitious Americans would use the technolgy of the day to better themselves and their earning potential.

Sidebar: The TeleReader circa the year 2012

It is the year 2012. TeleReader designs have evolved slowly over the years. Washington did not just ask for bids and then a settle on a permanent design. Instead, it has awarded contracts in steps.

The first machines cost a great deal and were far less powerful than the model you own today. But they did encourage the use of TRnet, which the government started as soon as possible to get publishers to digitize their offerings. Here's what the TeleReader looks like and what it can do after 20 years of evolution:


The machine comes with two detachable parts. The first is a key-board with a built-in trackball. The keyboard is big enough for typing but small enough to carry around comfortably, and it can even fold up.

The second part is a thin, lightweight, detachable screen that contains the CPU and memory chips, which are the true guts of the computer, as well as a tiny loudspeaker.

The screen measures 12 inches--small enough to be compact, but large enough to be read comfortably. You do not see even the slightest flicker. Also, the screen uses vivid color to help bold your attention, and it can offer charts and drawings in detail.


--Access. You fetch books books and articles via phone wires or cellular radio. Throughput at the start of the TeleRead project was as high as 38.4K bit/sec. and now, after 20 years, can exceed 1M bit/sec. in many cases. Superfast speeds are possible even without fiber-optic wiring in homes, schools and libraries if telephone companies update their switching equipment.

--Search. You can use the trackball to work your way through a Macintosh-like menu. Your screen shows that you have millions of choices from books. newspapers, magazines and professional journals. But not to worry. You needn't structure your queries much at all. TRnet uses artificial intelligence to help you zoom in on your exact topic.

--Knowledge collection and perusal. You can read directly from the screen, open up another window and take notes or use the built-in speaker to listen to audio material (such as a speech you are reading). You can prop up your TeleReader screen on a table using a built-in stand, place the keyboard on your desk for extended work sessions or detach the screen for comfortable reading.

--Knowledge retention. The TeleReader stores at least a gigabyte of data, the equivalent of some 500,000 double-spaced typewritten pages. You can hold thousands of books, and if you want to exchange data with friends, you can plug in memory cards. Because TeleRead relies on flat subscription fees and reaches a huge market, sensible authors do not really mind people sharing their books. As a rule, writers get paid more handsomely than when readers spent so much money on cardboard, paper and ink.

2001 Comment: Remember that this is a 1992 article and TeleRead has changed in many ways. It is no longer so tied to "anything in print," a rather anachronistic notion--now that the Net is so far along. Also, the TRnet is gone because of the flexibility of the present Net. To offer another example of the plan's evolution, the proposal would no longer influence the geographical origins of TeleReaders or parts for them. In today's globalized world, such limitations would be plain impractical. For an up-to-date summary of TeleRead click here. Also see a U.S. News & World Report article.