By Kimberly Keyes
My name is Kimberly Keyes. I am a digital creative with a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland at College Park and I recently published my first book called The Cash-Strapped Person’s Guide to Thriving in the Digital Age. My book deals with how people who are cash-strapped can still take part in the digital economy through such things as buying used equipment at various online places like eBay and using free software.
Here are the details of how I came to write it. Ever since my husband abruptly left me in 2011 with zero warning, I’ve had to suddenly deal with being cash-strapped. My husband was the one with the well-paying job so I pretty much went from financial security to financial insecurity while I was still recovering from my second hip surgery just three months before he left. The fact that finding a job has become much harder didn’t help me at all. But then, in early 2012, I managed to run into a friend of mine whom I had lost contact with around 2008 (the year that I got my hip replacement and he had moved from an apartment that he was renting). His name is Phil Shapiro and he is a big advocate of open source software. It was through him that I learned about how there are free alternatives to paying monthly subscription fees in order to access the latest versions of software like Adobe Acrobat and Microsoft Word.
Phil’s biggest cause is bridging the digital divide between the haves and have-nots. His work has led to The Washington Post doing a profile of him in 2000 (https://www.his.com/~pshapiro/themanwhogives2.pdf). When he’s not working at his current day job at the public library in Takoma Park, Maryland, he does a variety of other projects like writing for OpenSource.com (https://opensource.com/users/pshapiro), sharing links on digital-related issues on Twitter (https://twitter.com/philshapiro), and doing video book reviews on his YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/pshapiro/videos).
Phil introduced me to the idea of free open source software that are alternatives to popular paid programs like Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop. At the same time a non-profit makerspace opened in my area known as the Greenbelt Makerspace and I began to learn more about free open source alternatives where people can still be tech savvy despite not having much money in the bank account. (Sadly the Greenbelt Makerspace recently closed because it was having a hard time getting enough funding to pay for rent, utilities, and other expenses.) Last year another makerspace known as The Space (https://www.shaymarwh.com/#shop) had opened and it is also a big proponent of open source as well.
On top of it, I learned that there is a trend towards libraries embracing the makerspace and open source concept. Some, such as the library in Savage, Maryland (http://hclibrary.org/locations/savage-branch/), have entire areas dedicated to STEM and STEAM where people can do things like use a 3D printer and check out a musical instrument just like one would traditionally check out a regular book.
While more and more people are embracing the idea of using free software (that is not bootlegged or pirated) on equipment that’s not exactly top-of-the-line, there are still plenty of people who are unaware that there are free alternatives to paying monthly subscription fees to Microsoft and Adobe that can churn out files that are not only compatible with software from those two companies but are just as good in quality as the files created by the big corporate software companies.
I finally got an idea of writing a book that’s more accessible to non-tech geek people as the result of a job interview I had with a t-shirt printing place that specializes in designing and printing in bulk unique t-shirts and other clothing items to the specifications of the client’s preferences. The place was especially geared towards events and groups like softball teams, family reunions, and printing promo items for local companies. During the interview the hiring manager looked at my resume and noticed that I mentioned Inkscape. She asked me what it was and I explained to her that Inkscape is a vector graphics program that is a free open source alternative to Adobe Illustrator and it is available for anyone to download for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux (https://inkscape.org). When I told her this, her eyes lit up and she said that she needed to look into this because she said she was getting tired of paying monthly subscription fees to Adobe for its Creative Cloud package (including Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign).
I ended up not getting hired by that place but I soon realized that there are plenty of other people who are just like that hiring manager who continue to pay money to use software while being unaware that there are free or low-cost alternatives that do just as good a job as the subscription software. Not everyone knows an open source guru like Phil Shapiro nor does everyone know about how it’s possible for low-income people to access computer technology despite not being able to afford to buy the latest and greatest. I also priced both the ebook and paperback versions cheap enough to make it easier for cash-strapped people to afford.
In the early 2000s I was in a bookstore where I browsed a reprint of an early 1970s book written by Abbie Hoffman called Steal This Book, which was a practical guide for people who wanted to live a lifestyle that’s an alternative to what was touted as the American Dream at the time. (Having a home in the suburbs with a spouse and children while working a job in an office in the city from 9 am-5 pm, Monday-Friday.) By the time I browsed that book, much of the information had become dated but I was impressed with the practical tips the book had tried to convey to the general public (despite Hoffman’s frequent use of incendiary language, such as referring to police officers as “pigs” and the fact that he advocated the use of some illegal tactics—such as shoplifting—in order to achieve that alternative non-conforming hippie lifestyle).
When I was writing my own book I used Steal This Book as a template to come up with equally practical tips on how to gain access to technology despite being broke. The main difference is that my book focuses exclusively on getting access the legal way. (If you want to learn how to shoplift a computer from a local Best Buy, this is NOT the book for you.) I also don’t refer to anyone as “pigs” and my book isn’t advocating revolution or anything like that. I also tried to cut down on the geek speak as much as possible when I wrote it so people who aren’t total computer experts won’t be intimidated.
So if you’re someone who doesn’t have the money to buy a top-of-the-line computer with expensive software but still wants to be able to access technology, The Cash-Strapped Person’s Guide to Thriving in the Digital Age is for you.