The Audio Medium: A Third World Revolution Waiting to Happen

A significant percentage of the world’s population cannot read.

In India, home to a seventh of the world’s population, functional literacy rate stands at an abysmal 20%. This, in spite of heavy investments in improving literacy. The story probably repeats itself in other parts of the developing world. Indeed, in the last 50 years, the revolutionary information media – like TV and radio – have been revolutionary precisely because they did not involve the written word.

And yet, the written word remains even more important than before. TV and radio cannot deliver the long tail of content that is available through books. The small-town plumber or the rice farmer cannot rely on TV or radio to deliver all the specialized content they need. Worse, the advent of the internet has significantly increased the volume of information stored in text form.  And yet, this content remains inaccessible to the large numbers of citizens of the world who cannot read.

Does there exist a better medium than text which might make this long tail of content more accessible to under-privileged of the world?

Ideally, a replacement solution for books must satisfy three criteria.

Space-decoupled Time-decoupled Cheap to consume Easy sharing
Books
Radio
TV
TV with DVR
Internet
video on
cellphone
?
Internet
audio on
cellphone
? ?

A comparison of solutions based on various media
The more the checkmarks in a row, the better the medium is.
A “?” means that the solution does not satisfy that property today,
but it is technically feasible to support that property.

First, it must decouple content publishing from content consumption, in both time and space. Before books became popular, knowledge transfer happened through the spoken word. However, the spoken word required the listener (content consumer) to be in the same place as the speaker (content publisher), at the same time. Books removed these restrictions – that is why they were so revolutionary. It is interesting to note that both TV and radio decouple publishing and consumption in the space dimension, but not in the time dimension. In other words, a consumer can consume TV content anywhere in the country, but must tune in at the precise time the content is broadcast. Aside from books, I can think of only three solutions that decouple publishing from consumption in both space and time: TV set with DVR, Video over the internet and Audio over the internet.

Second, the medium has to be cheap to consume. Only then would it be accessible to the developing world. Ideally, the consumption cost is so cheap, that each person can consume content independently. TV with DVR fails this requirement – even without DVR, a TV set is expensive enough that villages in India can afford only one for the whole village. Video over internet/wireless also fails this requirement, since it drains too much power to render video, even on a cellphone. This is no small matter in a country where villages don’t have electricity, and people pay mobile charging stations just to get their cellphones charged. On the other hand, audio (i.e., podcasts and audiobooks) sounds promising. Even a cheap feature-phone can be made to play audio content. And cellphones have high penetration in the developing world, which ensures that the medium is very accessible.

Third, the medium has to enable easy sharing of content. A farmer in rural China is not going to download audio content off the internet. He will most likely acquire audio content from an acquaintance. In fact, it is desirable that he acquire the content from an acquaintance in a way that does not involve the mobile provider’s network (for example, bluetooth). This would save mobile bandwidth, reduce the cost of consuming the content and make the solution easier to scale (also see footnote). This is technically feasible, but not implemented today. Cellphones will need to support easy phone-to-phone transfer of audio content (with appropriate safeguards for paid content) using bluetooth or other such technology.

But even if cellphones support easy sharing of content, will there be enough free content to make this feature useful? I believe there will be. Podcasts may be a niche medium in the U.S., but there will be enough demand for audio content in the developing world that it will be as ubiquitous as blogs are in the western world.

Finally, the audio medium has two other advantages that no other medium has.

  • All the existing content in text form can automatically be converted into audio form. This is huge, because it makes all existing text content accessible to the developing world.
  • And most importantly, it is a medium that doesn’t require your full attention – you can listen to audio content while performing other tasks.

In summary, I believe that cellphones with  (a) the ability to listen to podcasts/audiobooks and (b) easily share audio content with other people, could usher in a revolution in the developing world.

5 centuries ago, the written word replaced the spoken word as the dominant means of information transfer. I am rooting for the spoken word to stage a comeback.

Note: This is also the reason why personalized feeds of audio content will never work for a country like India. Each feed would need to be delivered by a central system over the mobile provider’s network, and would take too much bandwidth to ever be viable. Go back to reading the post.

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4 responses to “The Audio Medium: A Third World Revolution Waiting to Happen

  1. Very well laid out thought process and structure. I think it will be a combination of audio (does not require your complete attention) and video (if you need to pay complete attention) on mobile devices of different form factors.

    • @QQ: Thank you for reading through a (fairly) long post. I agree that video will never completely go away. It is (and will remain) popular in urban and developed parts of the world.

      But if everybody began relying on video, the demands on mobile provider bandwidth would be unsustainable. Mobile providers would respond by carefully regulating bandwidth usage (perhaps by having bandwidth limits on your data plan), which in turn will cause users to shift to efficient means of information transfer (i.e., audio) – which can give them more information for the same money.

      In particular, people who are not rich, will attempt to save money by moving to audio. And because there are far more poor people in this world than rich (a fact not likely to change), this will, I think, result in a tectonic shift in favor of audio.

      But you’re right, video will never completely go away.

  2. Audio over the mobile web might be what you are getting at. And, by the way, where did you come up with that 20% figure? I thought it was more like 60%.

    The Mobile Web, The Audio Medium, The Global South http://goo.gl/fb/oKlYU

    • Paramendra – the 60% figure is self-reported by people on census forms (at least in India). Very few people realize it is a gross over-exaggeration; when independent studies have been done to find out how many people can read a page of text well, the number is closer to 20%. This is why I use the term *functional* literacy. More details here: http://www.prb.org/articles/2008/censusliteracyindia.aspx.

      I am also arguing for something *more* than the mobile web. I do not think that sharing scales well over the web. There needs to be a mechanism that allows for sharing of content *without* using the mobile provider’s bandwidth – only then will the solution scale for large populations. Think of how books work. I can loan a book to a friend without anybody else being involved. Similarly, we should be able to transfer audio content from one person to another (using bluetooth or something else) without involving the mobile provider. Of course, adequate DRM restrictions need to be maintained.

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