BY CORY DOCTOROW
more have friends who can cue up an audiobook
on their Kindles for them), the universe of disabled
people who stand to benefit from the Kindle is much
larger than just those who are totally blind.
All you need to do, blind people (says the Authors
Guild), is abandon the value you get out of externalities from the market for the able-bodied, and limit
yourself to the overpriced, underperforming devices
developed as an afterthought in the market.
The Authors Guild will get their comeuppance, of
course. So will we all. For though I write of disabled
people as “them” and able-bodied people as “us,” it’s
a near-certainty that I will end up with one or more
profound disabilities if I live out my natural lifespan.
It’s a rare person who goes into his seniority with all
of his senses and faculties in perfect running order.
Because when it comes to assistive technology
and externalities, there is no “us” and “them.” We’re
all in the same boat, reliant on technology developed
for toy robots to build our ingenious maker projects,
reliant on text-to-speech for the day when our eyes
dim or our hands stop obeying us.
Even though disabled people are numerous, they aren’t so numerous as the able-bodied, and on average, they have less money than the
rest of us. This is a vicious cycle.
Disabled people have less money, so manufacturers are less likely to make products for them,
so the products they get cost more and are of
lower quality. This leaves them with less money,
which leaves manufacturers less apt to address
their needs. And so on.
But sometimes a technology made primarily for
the able-bodied has a side effect that helps the
disabled. That’s called a positive market externality.
For instance, a disabled person doesn’t need to
wait for a special-needs manufacturer to turn out
a great audio player for listening to text-to-speech
and audiobooks. She can just buy the same cheap,
commodity players that we all buy.
Unless the greed of a small band of vocal dinosaurs
gets in the way.
And that’s just what happened earlier this year,
when Amazon shipped the latest version of its ebook
reader, the Kindle, and included a feature that allows
any text on the device to be converted to audio
through some text-to-speech software. This aroused
the ire of the Authors Guild, a moneyed, litigious
pressure group that represents a paltry 8,500
The Authors Guild claimed that the Kindle violates
copyright (a ridiculous idea to anyone who understands copyright: even if converting an ebook to an
audiobook infringes copyright, it’s not illegal to make
a device that can infringe copyright, otherwise we’d
have to get rid of every camera, phone, computer,
photocopier, and iPod in the world), and demanded
that Amazon pull the feature.
Amazon caved, saying that they’d allow authors to
opt out of having the text-to-speech feature enabled,
and around the country, disabled rights groups let
loose a shout of dismay.
The Authors Guild argued that the Kindle is impossible to operate if you’re totally blind. Even if they’re
right (they aren’t — many blind people routinely
memorize sequences of physical motions that are
performed on largely featureless surfaces, and many
Cory Doctorow lives in London, writes science fiction novels,
co-edits Boing Boing, and fights for digital freedom.