Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the big dreams and grand visions of my distant relative, Robert Fair DeGraff—a publishing innovator who co-founded Pocket Books in 1939. His idea was a simple but game-changing one: reprint bestsellers and classics in small paperback editions and sell them for just 25 cents apiece. The success was instant and lasting. Twenty-five years later, in 1964, Pocket Books sold around 300 million volumes annually.
But Robert DeGraff didn’t start Pocket Books because he wanted to make money. What drove him was a much deeper and larger cultural ambition: he thought that by making classic books so easily and cheaply available to masses of people, Pocket Books would eliminate illiteracy. Of course, this didn’t happen. The proliferation of accessible and low-price books did not change American literacy rates.
Why didn’t more people read just because books became inexpensive? Because they didn’t see what reading would do for their lives. Making the books accessible is only half of the project. The bigger part is showing people what major uses reading can have in their lives, how to apply reading and the skills of reading to better themselves.
The lesson here is this: technical innovation doesn’t change culture. We often assume that technology will change everything—that technological advancements will make things easier and better and solve larger problems. The truth is that technology is just one aspect in a larger web of cultural issues and changing only technology will not have an effect on these broader cultural issues.
Robert Fair DeGraff’s Pocket Books reminds me of a project I worked on with one of the largest public school systems in America that wanted to apply computer-based training to its curriculum to improve functional literacy. The assumption was that access to a computer and technological competency would enhance the education of students who otherwise would’ve struggled. This wasn’t the case. The technology we brought into the classroom didn’t bring out the kind of fundamental shift that we expected it to.
Regrettably, I suspect the same will hold true for most massive open online courses from the Khan Academy to Coursera. While some primary school standardized testing scores have improved during the last decade there is little credible correlation between the availability of laptops and tablets and any significant progress in closing the alarming achievement gap. New technology in itself will not set us free. Sorry.
So how exactly can we start the kind of larger-scale cultural change that technological innovation on its own cannot bring about? The key is to use technology not as an end by itself but as a means to reach something else. Here’s what I mean:
What would Robert F. De Graff see in the world if he were still alive today? He would understand that technology is simply the binding and paper that contain the book as a physical artifact. While the narrative may be written on the pages in between, the real story is how we make sense of it all. Your challenge is to move innovation beyond the technology to the desperate places where it may first enable and at last enlighten.