I specialise in travel and technology writing, which is what happens when you have a wandering soul and restless hands. As complementary as these two things are, they hadn’t met in my work – until a few weeks ago.
I was about five hours north of Nagpur in Central India, the sort of place where running water and electricity can’t be taken for granted. I’d arrived there by accident, having gone hiking, got lost, and pointed myself at the first commotion with a road through it. Waiting in this village for my lift to arrive, I’d started reading my Kindle to pass the time, happily oblivious to the world around me. After half an hour or so, I looked up to discover about 20 kids stood in a big group, just watching me: big eyes, curious expressions, ridiculously cute and all intent on the Kindle.
Now to be fair, I’m 6ft 2in and look like something a child might make out of Plasticine. Having a daft face tends to draw the crowds, but these kids were enraptured by the gizmo in my hands, despite the fact that they couldn’t possibly know what it was.
So I sat down on the kerb and showed them. Just turning the page caused them to drag their friends over, and there’s no reality where changing the font size of your book should make you cooler than a Jimmy Hendrix guitar solo. Their reaction is the point of technology. It’s what every device maker should aim for, and what every owner wants to inspire in others. Their wonder reminded me why I started writing about these things all those years back.
That was just the warm-up act though, it was the text-to-speech feature that pretty much made me the best friend of the entire village. Old men, young men, a few old woman, it was a trick they made me repeat half-a-dozen times, drawing a few more people out of their homes with every mangled vowel.
After about ten minutes, I let one of the kids play with the Kindle, but instead of trying to mess with the bells and whistles, he just started reading aloud. I was wrong before: this is the point of technology. Debating the implications of eBook readers on education is an entire blog in itself, but I think a charity could do a lot worse than to load a few up with dictionaries, school books and novels and send them to some remote schools in developing nations.
There’s probably reams of soul-crushing statistics on why it wouldn’t do any good in the long run, but I’m sick of charities telling me that by not giving them £10 a month I’m indirectly clubbing poor children to death with dolphins. Show me something positive for once and just maybe I’ll open my wallet and break my long-held embargo on sending perfectly good cash to people I don’t trust to scratch a moral itch I don’t have.
I considered leaving my Kindle for the kids, I really did. There’s a ton of self-justifying reasons why I didn’t, but the truth is that I’m just not that nice a person and I was really enjoying the book I was reading (Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey). Now that I’m back though, I think maybe I made a mistake. I like my Kindle, but for an hour on a miserably hot afternoon in Central India, an entire village fell in love with it. Sometimes technology is brilliant, and perhaps I should have let them experience it for a while longer.