Global personal digital library for every human

Jim Whitehead
Tue, 30 Oct 2001 11:19:21 -0800

We're all familiar with the basic trends: disk storage costs, CPU costs, and
display costs are all dropping, following Moore's Law (or better) trends.
This suggests that, within the next 15 years (perhaps even 10), it will be
possible to create a device with the following characteristics:

 * 1 Ghz CPU
 * 512 MB RAM
 * 500 GB HDD
 * 17" display
 * solar panel (or fuel cell)
 * battery
 * portable
 * extremely rugged
 * 802.11 integrated
 * built-in radio
 * integrated microphone

... at a production cost of well under US$100, perhaps even USD$10 (in 2001
dollars), in *mass* quantities.

One thing you could do with this device is create a digital library
containing a healthy selection of the literary and musical masterworks of
*every* culture in the world, along with translations of said into most (if
not all) languages. I estimate you could have around 100,000 textual works
within the device (500GB/100K per work/50 translations per work). Add in a
bunch of textbooks on useful K-12 subjects, along with construction
techniques, sanitation, first aid, etc.

Then, give one away to every person on the planet. The cost? Equivalent to a
major military procurement -- to make it sustainable, you'd want to keep the
cost to around $3-$5 billion per annum over ~10 years. With production runs
of around 500 million units/year, with long production runs, it'll be easy
to get production costs *way* down.

Of course, there are many difficulties. The device would require software
that could teach interested people how to read. You'd have to figure out
some way of discouraging people to rip the devices apart to construct solar
panel arrays. Some mechanism for replacing the devices as they break would
be needed. Lots of research needed. But, my sense is these engineering
difficulties could be overcome.

Once we do, imagine the effect of giving everyone a portable, easy to access
device that could be used to learn how to read and compute figures, for
teaching children, improving quality of life, and getting a glimpse into
every other culture on the planet. I believe it would lead to a global shift
in human consciousness, in the direction of improved understanding of other
people. No, a piece of technology cannot solve all the world's problems.
But, it seems to me this device's capabilities could be used as
infrastructure to help many issues.

Why would the US want to do this? For the right to choose what content is
included, and excluded, from the device. Even without being overtly
political, the choice of materials can have subtle and far-reaching
consequences.  As well, the UI could be skewed to make it slightly easier to
access specific content. No, I don't mean commercial advertising.

- Jim