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The World at Your Fingertips

As far back as April 4, 1993, an article about TeleRead appeared in an education section of The Washington Post, several years before an op-ed. At the end of this article, see comments on the evolution of the TeleRead idea.

By David H. Rothman

The Kid Next Door helped confirm the Big Bang theory. He was no longer T.K.N.D. of course--rather, a bearded professor of astronomy--but I could still see him as a gangly child perusing his father's physics journals. Ned was always a reader. Even before he could puzzle out words on paper, he was begging his mother to read to him about internal combustion engines. Years later he relied on public libraries, not just the local junkyard, when he built his first telescope. Luckily for science, Dr. Edward L. Wright grew up in Fairfax County--not in an inner-city neighborhood where the libraries were wanting and where he could never have found those arcane journals.

We just cannot say where potential Wrights will show up. Given current demographics, more will have to come from ghettos, barrios and other book-short areas. Suppose, however, that we live out an old dream of hackers and librarians. What if computers can lower the cost of providing books to inner-city kids, Appalachians and, yes, Fairfax Countians?

Already politicians have proposed online libraries. In the Scientific American of September 1991, for example, Al Gore wrote: "We have the technical know-how to make networks that would enable a child to come home from school and, instead of playing Nintendo, use something that looks like a video game machine to plug into the Library of Congress." A technology plan released on Feb. 22 in Silicon Valley, helped confirm the White House's interest in computer networks for the masses.

Questions, however, abound. How much will it cost to dial up books, articles, government records, phone directories and other material? And what about Al Gore's mythical child? Just how many books will he or she be able to retrieve without impoverishing the whole family? If commercial databases are any clue, the news will be bad. Extensive online research on just one topic can cost hundreds of dollars today, a real burden for students or small business people.

What's more, special databases for education would not be the final answer, even if they were free. The Edward Wrights of this world need all kinds of information, not just facts from designated journals. Except for proprietary material, we should put almost everything online for Americans to dial up for free or at little cost; and reading-computers should be affordable to potential users of online libraries.

Technology is destiny. What is our destiny, though, if video stores are everywhere yet half the school libraries in California have closed since 1982? Even the libraries in Fairfax County have cut back their hours.

Let me, then, propose a three-part plan, TeleRead, which would help students, other readers, writers and the American computer industry, too.

I. Impose a five-percent tax on TV-related sales

Many foreign countries tax television in one way or another. Why shouldn't the United States? And why can't we use the money to promote the activity that television has most imperiled: reading? Extrapolating from Commerce Department figures, we could collect about $3 billion a year for TeleRead if we imposed five percent taxes on cable revenue, advertising sales of TV stations, and retail sales of new television sets and other video products.

The taxes would hardly bankrupt consumers. You would pay the equivalent of just $3.50 annually if you kept a $350 set for five years. If small merchants groused about new paperwork, the government might instead collect at the wholesale level.

Unlike many taxes, this one would directly benefit millions of Americans. Go to typical suburban public libraries on weekends, and you will see crowds of frugal citizens borrowing books toimprove themselves professionally. Some college texts can cost $75 or more. Even rabid tax-haters might champion TeleRead as a way to slash the acquisition costs at local libraries.

II. Make powerful, affordabl laptops available to all

The student-computer ratio in American public schools is about 16- 1; imagine a bureaucrat at Agriculture or Exxon sharing a PC with 15 colleagues. So let's use part of the $3 billion a year to help subsidize a long-range program to buy laptops that schools and libraries can lend to students and the public at large. Eventually the schools could even give away "TeleReaders" to many students from low-income families. By encouraging mass production, the TeleRead program would make laptops almost as cheap as calculators, so that middle-class children could buy them without any subsidies. The procurement program would award contracts in stages, of course, to avoid locking into outdated technology.

Equipped with TeleReaders or substitute machines, students would learn word-processing, swap electronic mail, and work with personal databases, spreadsheets and other applications, such as educational programs. Especially, however, TeleReaders would encourage reading, the most vital skill. They would be small and affordable and boast sharp, American-made screens that you could read more easily than you could a paper book. If you wanted, you might even detach a TeleReader keyboard and curl up in bed with just the screen. You could instantly "flip" the "page" or move on to another chapter by pressing a button or by touching the appropriate part of the screen with a pen-like device. The same stylus would let you jot notes electronically, or underline or highlight key paragraphs.

Different TeleReaders might serve different needs. Some machines, for example, might be able to read material aloud and highlight the spoken words on screen - one way to help bring books to the very young, the vision-impaired and the semi-literate. Voice recognition could pick up commands from the handicapped. Eventually, some TeleReaders could take dictation; users could write in corrections with the stylus.

Besides supplying computers, TeleRead could make certain that equipment was used regularly and well - it could help pay the salaries of computer instructors to bring teachers and librarians up to speed. Let's not turn teachers into programmers, however. Rather, the instructors could show teachers how to apply high-tech effectively to their respective disciplines.

Teachers in the future should be able to tell students how to write clear, well-organized prose with a word-processor, use spreadsheets such as Lotus 1-2-3, dissect electronic frogs, retrieve facts on a proposed national budget, or mail electronic notes to local members of Congress.

III. Set up a national database as soon as possible

TRnet, part of the TeleRead program, would offer an electronic cornucopia. Like most public libraries, it would avoid pay-per-read. TRnet would be free or would charge reasonably for an annual subscription based on family income, and perhaps included as an option on federal tax forms. The poorest Americans, of course, should be able to dial up TRnet without paying a penny. Consider TRnet an investment in our economic and intellectual development, and, if need be, use general revenue money to make the network affordable to all.

Reachable from anywhere in the U.S., TRnet would carry the full texts of all new books and other publications. How? All material longer than 10,000 words, and intended for publication, would have to be in digital form before the government would grant copyrights. Washington could phase in this change with a voluntary program. As for undigitized material shorter than 10,000 words, scanners could pick up the images, either for conversion to computer text or as pictures to be dialed up on TRnet.

To transmit books and other material, TRnet could use old- fashioned phone lines, fiber-optic cables, radio or cable television connections - whichever cost the least. The Great Gatsby could reach you in a fraction of the time it took to watch a rerun of "I Love Lucy."

Before you hooked into the network, you would answer a series of easy questions to pinpoint exactly what you needed. You might punch in the name of an author, dial up the network and instantly get a list of all of his or her works, with quick descriptions. Then your TeleReader would disconnect you from the network. At your leisure, without tying up the phone lines, you would go on to choose which books you wanted sent into your computer when you logged on a second time. Besides selecting by author, you could pick by publisher, editor, general category, subject, search words, geographical setting or other criteria.

TRnet could also transmit a wealth of educational software, of course, and teachers could choose the best programs for their students. Math and science students could especially benefit.

And young immigrants could use software rich in moving images and synthesized speech to help them learn English. Normally, however, TRnet would favor the written word, which is so often the best way to pass on detailed instructions and convey feelings and abstract ideas.

Whatever the medium, TRnet would pay fairly. Software houses or independent programmers would receive royalties based on the number of times the public dialed up their creations. And the same arrangement could apply to individual articles from newspapers and other publications. In cases where writers kept rights to the articles, payment would go to them.

How about compensation for professional writers of books - and their publishers? Writers could sell to TRnet directly or, armed with this new bargaining power, could sign contracts with publishers. Without heavy production and distribution costs, publishers could pay far better on the average than they do now. Under TeleRead, writers and publishers would earn fees based on how often people dialed up books. Publishers could set advances by the expected number of dial- ups.

Yes, if TRnet gouged readers, then the public would bootleg books electronically and cheat authors and publishers; but if network use were free or low-cost, piracy just would not be worth the trouble. TRnet would actually safeguard literary property better than any copy- protection scheme that publishers might be contemplating.

Of course, TeleRead and its TRnet should be just one option for readers. We should still be able to buy electronic or paper books from publishers, stores and authors. That would be one way to cope with the risk of censorship by officious politicians (another way would be to make TeleRead an independent agency with long-range funding).

Skeptics might dismiss TeleRead and its TRnet as socialistic; but they are not, any more than a public library. If Andrew Carnegie - the 19th-century capitalist extraordinaire - were alive today, he would probably be funding demonstration projects, just as he helped small-town libraries across the United States, hoping that ambitious Americans could use the technology of the day to better themselves.

2002 Comment: TeleRead  has evolved since the above was written. No longer does the plan advocate putting every book automatically in the library system, for example. Nor would every book in the library be free. Needless to say, an all-inclusive library with free books would be preferable, but in the present climate, any TeleRead-style approach would be better than none at all. The idea of the TV tax has also beeen dropped, not just in the interest of practicality but also become lines are blurring between computers and televisions.

David H. Rothman is the author of "The Complete Laptop Computer Guide."