Bill Gates Turns Skeptical on Digital Solutions
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BILL GATES TURNS SKEPTICAL ON DIGITAL SOLUTION'S SCOPE
By Sam Howe Verhovek
The New York Times
November 3, 2000
REDMOND, Wash., Nov. 1 As the "Creating Digital Dividends" conference drew
to a close in Seattle recently, the final speaker arrived and started asking
skeptical questions. The premise was that "market drivers" could be used "to
bring the benefits of connectivity and participation in the e-economy to all
of the world's six billion people," according to conference materials, but
the speaker would have little of it.
"I mean, do people have a clear view of what it means to live on $1 a day?"
the speaker, William H. Gates, asked. "There's no electricity in that house.
When a moderator brought up solar power, Mr. Gates shot back, "No! You can't
afford a solar power system for less than $1 a day." And, "You're just
buying food, you're trying to stay alive."
It is a theme to which Mr. Gates, the world's richest man, returns in an
interview at his office here at the Microsoft Corporation, the giant
software maker he founded. Pacing the room, waving his hands, he conjures up
an image of an African village that receives a computer.
"The mothers are going to walk right up to that computer and say, My
children are dying, what can you do?" Mr. Gates says. "They're not going to
sit there and like, browse eBay or something. What they want is for their
children to live. They don't want their children's growth to be stunted. Do
you really have to put in computers to figure that out?"
For a man often thought of as the world's chief evangelist for technology,
Mr. Gates is assuming a surprising role these days, in which he seems to be
taking his own industry to task for having far too much faith in digital
solutions to the planet's worst ills. He openly dismisses the notion that
the world's poorest people constitute a significant market for high-tech
products anytime soon. Such thoughts, he says, may undercut the case for
urgent aid to the most impoverished people.
But in a way, the man who has also become the world's biggest philanthropist
seems to be taking himself to task, offering the confession that he himself
was "naïve very naïve" when he began his charitable endeavors six years
When he did so, he said in the interview, he expected that projects
involving computers and information technology would make up the bulk of his
giving. But now his priorities are otherwise, with health care, especially
development and distribution of vaccines, soon expected to account for at
least two-thirds of the grants offered by the $21 billion Bill and Melinda
Or, as he put it at the Seattle conference, the world's poorest two billion
people desperately need health care right now, not laptops.
Mr. Gates said he had certainly not lost his faith in the long-term promise
of technology to deliver a better world. But he has lost much of the faith
he once had that global capitalism would prove capable of solving the most
immediate catastrophes facing the world's poorest people, especially the
40,000 deaths a day from preventable diseases. More philanthropy and more
government aid especially a greater contribution to foreign health
programs by American taxpayers are needed for that, he says.
And it also explains, he said, why he has taken on the unaccustomed role of
self-described "troublemaker" about the promises of technology. It is a role
he assumed at the Seattle conference, which created a stir in his industry
and irritation among at least some of the organizers, but one that he seems
to have played at other recent appearances.
"Whenever the computer industry has a panel about the digital divide and I'm
on the panel, I always think, `O.K., you want to send computers to Africa,
what about food and electricity those computers aren't going to be that
valuable,' " he explained in a speech last month before the Global
Foundation in Melbourne, Australia.
"They want to sit on the panel and talk about how the computers will solve
all the world's problems," Mr. Gates continued. "They're amazing in what
they can do, but they have to be put into the perspective of human values.
And certainly as a father of two children, thinking about the medicines I
take for granted that are not available elsewhere, that sort of rises to the
top of the list."
Some people in Mr. Gates's industry have commended him for his recent
comments, while others have accused him of setting up a straw man. Nothing
in the quest for a more wired world, they say, is at odds with the notion
that food and health care remain a more immediate concern.
And still others, including some of Microsoft's principal competitors, argue
that Mr. Gates is downright wrong. They say there are all kinds of tangible,
profitable products that their industry is developing that will help improve
people's lives, including the world's poorest people. Some directly involved
in the conference here, sponsored by the nonprofit World Resources
Institute, seemed annoyed by Mr. Gates's comments.
"After listening to three days of serious analysis and work, and then to
have Gates rather flippantly say, `You've got to have clean water and food,'
to hear that simple repetition of Maslow's hierarchy, that wasn't exactly
furthering the point of the entire meeting," said John Gage, the chief
research officer for Sun Microsystems and the founder of Netday, a global
volunteer effort to connect schools to the Internet.
Mr. Gage's reference was to Abraham H. Maslow, the psychologist who
suggested that human beings reach fulfillment through satisfying a series of
needs, which begins with basic physiological needs like food and water and
rises to others that include love, self-esteem and personal expression.
Where Mr. Gates has it wrong, Mr. Gage argued, is that technology is rapidly
being used to satisfy even the most basic needs on the hierarchy.
Mr. Gage, known as a periodic critic of Mr. Gates, said that the declining
cost of cell phones and other hand-held mobile technology would soon make
them immensely useful for even the poorest people. They might use the
devices to share important information about health care and food
conditions, he said.
Others in the industry were more measured in their response to Mr. Gates's
recent comments. "I think he's right and he's wrong," said James F. Moore,
chairman of GeoPartners Research Inc., which specializes in technology and
economic- development issues. "He's right, and I'd emphatically support him
on this, that other divides are more important than the digital divide: the
divide on health care, the human- rights divide, the education divide."
But in the view of Mr. Moore, a policy adviser to Hewlett-Packard, which
recently announced a $1 billion program to focus on new markets in the third
world, "what's going on here is that people are really trying to think about
the essence of high technology and what it can do. And I would say I think
he's missing something by being so dismissive of these markets."
Mr. Gates, however, seems adamant on the point. "Anybody who says, `Oh sure,
we'll sell to the people who live on a dollar a day,' they just don't get
it," he said.
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