SINGSONG AND SILICON
Thomas Russell Wingate
Sturdy arguments often get you nowhere.
Every writer should know this—as every lawyer does.
In June 2002, nine months after taking office as CFO of Project Gutenberg¹, I approached a foundation which was funding medical projects in impoverished countries.
There was no response.
My letter surfaced this month in a rearrangement of files.
The world might as well read it (in shortened form).
Whatever raises the level of literacy raises the level of medical care and public health.
Whatever lowers the cost of literacy raises the level of literacy.
Project Gutenberg lowers the cost of literacy,
Therefore, to improve public health and medical care, Project Gutenberg should be strenuously assisted.
The medical needs of developing countries are too vast to be described without statistics. Important persons in prospering countries know clearly and feel deeply that something drastic must be done.
The drastic need not be dramatic. A simple undertaking could prove effective if computerization kept its cists down and its scale great.
Consider Albert Schweitzer. His hospital in French Equatorial Africa provided care for Gabonese too poor to pay anything. European contributors provided funding at their pleasure, which varied—unhelpfully from any Gabonese point of view.
But what was the Gabonese point of view? One day Schweitzer treated a man with an injured arm. He gave the patient pills to be swallowed over the next five days. An African nurse saw him toss the pills into a bush. Knowing that the hospital’s supplies were not to be wasted, she accosted the man and asked him why he had chosen and dared to throw away something so expensive. He told her: “Foolish doctor! The pain is in my arm, not my stomach.”
Had the man with the injured arm been able to read books, he would have known the worth of that hospital and the goodness of spirit that brought it into being.
Literacy is medicinal. Multiply the episode just cited by millions over centuries and you will not wonder at the odious conditions cameras capture.
In much of the world today, children are instructed by singsong. What they read is written in chalk on slate. They have no books to cherish, no flights of imagination in black or white, no moral instruction made palatable because unnoticeable.
This should not continue. The Internet reduces the cost of self-education and directed education.
Plain vanilla text (ASCII) is suitable for computers of generations so early that advanced countries do not keep them. Those computers end up overseas, among the poor, often among children.
Books placed in ASCII without restriction are useful to anyone, young or old, who loves reading or who is apt to develop the taste. Moreover, anyone wishing to learn English will find joy in its great and minor classics.
Where will doctors, nurses, and sanitation directors be found if there are few readers? Where will readers be if books are too costly? Physical books wear out. Books in cyberspace live forever and all their costs are behind us.
Had Schweitzer’s missionary hospital been blessed with an infinite supply of medicine and limitless access to research, Gabonese health would have soared. Something like that is now among us: Project Gutenberg.
For thirty years Project Gutenberg has been putting public domain texts into ASCII. Six thousand titles² have been sent to all the world and all the future so far. As copyrights expire, the task increases, cyberworld without end.
As long as there are volunteers, Project Gutenberg will be sustainable. But the need for thoroughgoing organization is undeniable. Albert Schweitzer set up a hospital on the European pattern. He did not assemble do-gooders with self-selected and incompatible first-aid kits.
Medical succor, if it is to be self-reducing, must be matched by Internet succor—which acts slowly but surely, is irreversible and easily enjoyed, and is inexhaustible in novelty and scope.
Project Gutenberg’s volunteers, many of whom are handicapped or disabled, have made their work a cottage industry located everywhere and, in terms of profit and cyberspace, nowhere. The ripple effect of their digitizing will never be unfelt, for thousands of titles are forever beyond decay. …
Project Gutenberg, though enormous, is lean. Its mission and the personalities drawn to it will keep it so. But far more would be accomplished with a stable financial base.
Until now, literacy has moved slowly, like glaciers, like rust, no faster than singsong and chalk on slate. Through silicon, we can make it attractive to habitual readers. Cultural friction can be overcome so that medicines will no longer be thrown into bushes.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is known to be serious about sponsoring catalysts. Project Gutenberg, in being thirty years so far, is among the worthiest applicants.
My letter³ nominating Michael Stern Hart for the Presidential Medal of Freedom had no result.
A future President should remedy this injustice.
Obituary (in public domain) by Dr. Gregory B. Newby, head of Project Gutenberg (and much else).
Michael Stern Hart was born in Tacoma, Washington on March 8, 1947. He died on September 6, 2011 in his home in Urbana, Illinois, at the age of 64. He is survived by his mother, Alice, and brother, Bennett. Michael was an Eagle Scout (Urbana Troop 6 and Explorer Post 12), and served in the Army in Korea during the Vietnam era. He graduated with honors from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1973, and is a Bronze Plaque Honoree.
Hart was best known for his 1971 invention of electronic books, or eBooks. He founded Project Gutenberg, which is recognized as one of the earliest and long-lasting on-line literary projects. He often told this story of how he had the idea for eBooks. He had been granted access to significant computing power at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. On July 4, 1971, after being inspired by a free printed copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, he decided to type the text into a computer, and to transmit it to other users on the computer network. From this beginning, the digitization of literature was to be Hart’s work, spanning over 40 years.
Hart was an ardent technologist and futurist. A lifelong tinkerer, he acquired hands-on expertise with the technologies of the day: radio, hi-fi stereo, video equipment, and of course computers. One of his favorite speculations was that someday, everyone would be able to have their own copy of the Project Gutenberg collection or whatever subset desired. This vision came true, thanks to the advent of large inexpensive computer disk drives, and to the ubiquity of portable mobile devices, such as cell phones.
Hart also predicted the enhancement of automatic translation, which would provide all of the world’s literature in over a hundred languages. While this goal has not yet been reached, by the time of his death Project Gutenberg hosted eBooks in 60 different languages, and was frequently highlighted as one of the best Internet-based resources.
A lifetime intellectual, Hart was inspired by his parents, both professors at the University of Illinois, to seek truth and to question authority. One of his favorite recent quotes, credited to George Bernard Shaw, is characteristic of his approach to life: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Michael prided himself on being unreasonable, and only in the later years of life did he mellow sufficiently to occasionally refrain from debate. Yet, his passion for life, and all the things in it, never abated.
Frugal to a fault, Michael glided through life with many possessions and friends, but very few expenses. He used home remedies rather than seeing doctors. He fixed his own house and car. He built many computers, stereos, and other gear, often from discarded components.
Michael S. Hart left a major mark on the world. The invention of eBooks was not simply a technological innovation or precursor to the modern information environment. A more correct understanding is that eBooks are an efficient and effective way of unlimited free distribution of literature. Access to eBooks can thus provide opportunity for increased literacy. Literacy, and the ideas contained in literature, creates opportunity.
In July 2011, Michael wrote these words, which summarize his goals and his lasting legacy: “One thing about eBooks that most people haven’t thought much about is that eBooks are the very first thing that we’re all able to have as much as we want other than air. Think about that for a moment and you realize we are in the right job.”
He had this advice for those seeking to make literature available to all people, especially children: “Learning is its own reward. Nothing I can say is better than that.”
Michael is remembered as a dear friend, who sacrificed personal luxury to fight for literacy, and for preservation of public domain rights and resources, towards the greater good.
1 See Links on website.
2 Ten years later, the number is over forty thousand.
In December 2002 Project Gutenberg took the prestigious
Stockholm Challenge Award.
3 During the Bush administration.