Gates Sends a Message: A Wired World

Gates Sends a Message: A Wired World


Bill Gates for President–next time. Now that we’ve gotten used to millionaires running for the presidency, why not a billionaire and a self-made one at that? At least Gates is aware that the biggest problem in the world is not how to make some Americans even wealthier but how to deal with the abysmal poverty that defines the condition of two-thirds of God’s people.

Odd as it may seem, it took the richest man in the world in a dramatic speech last week to remind us that no man is an island, and that when most of the world’s population lives on the edge of extinction, it mocks the rosy predictions for our common future on a wired planet.

Gates shocked a conference of computer industry wizards with the news that the billions of people who subsist on a dollar a day are not in a position to benefit from the Information Age. He charged that the hoopla over the digital revolution, which he pioneered, is now a dangerous distraction from the urgent need to deal seriously with the festering problem of world poverty. Gates, who has donated an enormous amount to charity, also made the case that private donations alone will not solve the problem, and that massive government intervention is needed.

“Do people have a clear idea of what it is to live on $1 a day?” Gates asked the conferees. “There’s no electricity in that house. None. You’re just buying food, you’re trying to stay alive.”

The “Creating Digital Dividends” conference he addressed was one of those occasions in which the computer industry indulges the hope that as it earns enormous profits, it is solving the major problems facing humanity. The premise of the conference was that “market drivers” could be used “to bring the benefits of connectivity and participation in the e-economy to all the world’s 6 billion people.”

As reported by Sam Howe Verhovek in the New York Times, Gates, who was the conference’s closing speaker, doused that hope by denying that the poor would become part of the wired world any time soon. In a follow-up interview, Gates amplified his view of what occurs when computers are suddenly donated to the poor: “The mothers are going to walk right up to that computer and say, ‘My children are dying, what can you do?’ They’re not going to sit there and like, browse eBay.”

Gates, who has long extolled the power of computers to solve the world’s problems, criticized himself for having been “naïve–very naïve.” He has shifted the focus of the $21 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation from that of donating Information Age technology to meeting the health needs of the poorest, beginning with the widespread distribution of vaccines.

The New York Times reported that Gates “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. He added that more philanthropy and more government aid–especially a greater contribution to foreign health programs by American taxpayers–are needed for that.”

Given that Gates is presumably the biggest of those taxpayers, that is the most provocative challenge to the complacency of the “free-markets-and-trade-will-solve-everything” ideology that dominates the thinking of both major parties. US foreign aid to the poor represents a pathetic fraction of our budget, while we devote ever larger sums to building a sophisticated military without a sophisticated enemy in sight. Yet those misplaced priorities went totally unchallenged by the presidential candidates of both major parties.

Poverty is the major security problem both within and without our country. These days the have-nots have many windows to the haves, and resentment is inevitable. It is the breeding ground of disorder and terror, and it is absurd to think that a stable new world order can be built on such an uneven foundation.

One of the ironies of the wired world is that those terrorists in their remote mountain camps are wired into the Internet, which has facilitated the coordination of their evil plans. The terrorists have all the laptops and cellular phones they want, but they depend for their effectiveness on recruiting from the ranks of the alienated poor who don’t have medicines, food or a safe source of water.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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