Bill Gates on poverty : LUSENET : Joel on Software : One Thread

Did you read the New York Times article about Bill Gates, technology, and poverty?


-- Anonymous, November 03, 2000


He said things easy to agree with...

I agree with the things he said to a certain degree.

However I think that aid workers, and the other infrastructure necessary to distribute the medicines and food are in obvious need of a strong technical infrastructure. It may only be a cell phone in the hands of a travelling doctor, but the digital divide needs to be addressed by serious people (not the dot-commers I suspect where in the majority at this conference).

I suspect that there were many people at that conference that needed to hear this however I have to admit to a certain foul taste coming to my mouth when I read some of his words.

I guess world hunger and health is a more productive outlet for his geeky self-righteousness.

-- Anonymous, November 03, 2000

geeky self-rightousness

I'm not particularly a fan of bill gates, but....

Is it bad to be geeky? And why do you consider Bill "self-righteous"? (maybe I'm out of the loop on the common-wisdom about Bill) Because he communicates a desire to improve the world? And putting the two together, is "geeky self-righteousness" somehow worse than plain old non-geeky selfrightesousness?

More seriously: addressing poverty issues is important to do, though starting focusing on the "digital divide" is probably not a good place to start; it immediately frames the debate along the lines of "some folks don't have technology, that's bad, what can we do about it?" I gotta agree with Bill that people making $1/day are not worried about connecting to the internet (and I don't think they should be). There are lots of other better places to start the (inherently self-righteous?) discussion, such as the usual suspects of land-ownership, democracy, ownership of the means of production, etc).

I do like the idea of a cell-phone out in the campo, though. That would've been useful several times (seriously) during the few years I worked in rural latin america...


-- Anonymous, November 03, 2000

Yes and No

Well, on the one hand, he is right that there are more pressing needs in the world than those of technology. However, there is a compelling argument that people who are willing to get involved in bringing technology to the needy may not be willing to be involved in other ways. I.e. a person who volunteers to string ethernet to some unconnected place may not be interested in delivering food or medicines. Given the choice between donations of technology and no donations at all, technology seems better than nothing. That doesn't mean that food or other basic needs aren't more important to the recipients, but the "needs" and skills of the givers must be accounted for as well.

-- Anonymous, November 03, 2000

yes and no and maybe

I agree, it's important to take into account the needs and skills of the givers; there's no "best way" to get involved; the body's got many parts.

I don't think, however that the choice between donations of technology and no donations at all is so clear cut. Often times, no donations at all *would* be better, for a myriad of reasons, including local-community power dynamics, polution, and diversion from essential needs.


-- Anonymous, November 03, 2000

The real world

I have to disagree with Michelle. Giving people what they don't need or cannot use is NOT better than not giving them anything at all. It's a waste of resource (natural, capital and people's time), a distraction to the poor and does nothing except help eliminate the self inflicted guilt of the rich.

-- Anonymous, November 03, 2000

I remember hearing an anecdote about Gates going down to a third world country to view his donated computer being put to use. They took him into a little shack and showed him the new computer plugged into the only electrical outlet in the region. I guess you can get a bit out of focus when you forget how a big portion of the world lives. Its no use donating computers unless people have electrical outlets to plug them into. Its no use giving them electrical outlets unless they have access to cheap fossil fuels to generate that electricity (and a power plant). And finally its no use to give people electricity when they don't even have food, or are dying from a disease we can cure but they don't have the medicine for. GE could donate a bunch of fridges and then they'd have nothing to put inside them.

-- Anonymous, November 03, 2000

sustainable tech

One outlet. Of all the appliances you could plug in, would it be an unconnected computer? How about a refrigerator to store medicines? Or a radio to hear news, weather, and sports?

One interesting proposal I recall reading about:

A big stake, about 8 feet tall. Little propellor thingies coming off the top. Sharp end at the bottom. Designed to be thrown out the back of a helicopter or airplane at cruising altitude. Falls to the ground, slow enough thanks to the props so it doesn't break, but fast enough so it is driven into the soil. Solar collector at the top. Mini-cellular node in the middle. Embedded GPS. Simple-UI cell phone attached, to be recharged from solar battery.

Theory is to get price down to $50, make hundreds of thousands of them, and drop them near and between villages, in outback areas, etc. Provide basic, limited voice communication service. You can blanket a nation in months instead of years. National telephone operators to explain how to use the phone and to connect you to nearby villages or government and healthcare and aid services. Make the service free within the country, to support local governance needs. Cellular data to pass along GPS-fed location and phone/tower health so replacements, upgrades, or "build-outs" can occur over time.

Phones provide the first level of information infrastructure to improve lives, public safety, agriculture, defense, etc. Sharing information about problems and solutions is the pro forma justification. But letting people talk to their family, friends, and merchants can bind a people together. Until AIDS hit Africa, much third world poverty and death was a direct consequence of war, so promoting ties has value.

When we figure out how to make really powerful internet connected computers for $2, drawing power from sunlight or a hand crank, we'll be ready to move them to third world homes. Until then we'll have to be both creative and selective.

-- Anonymous, November 03, 2000

I'm progressive enough to think that Gates is spot on about food and medicine being higher priorities than broadband internet gaming ... and then there's what he said about Africa. [biddy-bum] Still, I'm New Democrat enough to believe that the long-term survival of Africa depends on utilizing its greatest economic asset, which is people.

There's a novel by Fredrick Pohl, JEM, which posits a world split into three economic camps: Food, Oil, and People, each group interdependent on the two others for its survival. The greatest export of the "Peeps" was manpower. I don't remember if he foresaw the waves of immigrant programmers in America, but it's not hard to see the correlation.

So rather than scoff at this, I think there's some worthwhile insight here. India is one nation that is attempting a jump directly from an agrarian society to a high-tech one, skipping the messy industrial revolution in the process. I suspect this is a more viable model for Africa than the classical ca. 1965 World Bank model of smiling farmers feeding their nation and the world, given what that model has done to ecosystems in, for instance, Brazil.

-- Anonymous, November 03, 2000

Absolute Technology has never been the answer to anything. ... TECHNOLOGY can help the users be more efficient. But it doesn't give them the absolute answer. ... But the users still needs to think for themselves. Technology will temporarily give the people an advantage until the next model or version or edition.

In the techie biz, I have seen developers/technologists who thinks their brand of technology is the "bomb". Just run it without any thought and everything is ok. ... Then comes along, software quality assurance engineers who has the methodology, experience and tools to test and review whether there is quality and value in the developer's product.

In most cases, the technology is a bomb. A real damm dud!

If Technology is Gold. In reality, it is just Virtual Gold.

Remember this, all that glitter is not gold. ...

Microsoft is the greatest creator of virtual gold.

What do drug addicts and people who utilized computer has in common? They both are referred as "users." ..

Time for me to test some more virtual gold!

-- Anonymous, November 03, 2000

I think that the author of the article wasn't thinking when he wrote it.

What Gates says makes sense, pure-and-simple. Listen -- for one moment, forget that it's Gates talking -- pretend that it's your father or your high school principal...

...bored yet? The thesis of this story is way off point: Bill Gates has become skeptical of digital solutions??? In what way? Having digital solutions save all man kind? Come on! He's just become realistic about them. That's all!

This Sam Howe Verhovek (and many others of his ilk) love to write fluffy articles such as this one...making a big deal out of nothing (and now that it is a big deal, we all jump in). Just because Bill Gates says something that isn't trying to sell a Microsoft product, something that most people would actually agree with, we have to fuss over it...?

-- Anonymous, November 03, 2000

Would it be good to give computers to Africa? Well, AIDS is a mega problem in South East Africa. Could it have been stopped by a few token computers?

Probably not.

But would the problem have been lessened if the population had been generally better informed, had had an internet culture?


AIDS and sex education does help in these circumstances and an internet infrastructure (even if based on one machine per village) and culture of using it, would have helped get the message out. First because general information would have been available. But more importantly because members of the public and medical staff could have used email to ask questions of online experts. "Rumours say X protects against infection is it true?"

-- Anonymous, November 04, 2000

Regarding phil wolff's suggestion for a GPS, cellphone, etc. connected to a plane-dropped stake:

How do you prevent people from ripping the solar panel (or other parts) off the device to resell on the black market? How do you prevent a dictator from saying "if you don't support me, I'll cut off the phone service that is so valuable to your village"?

-- Anonymous, November 06, 2000

Well, about the Digital Divide. I don't know much about the value of wiring third world countries, but I know I have helped several of the have-nots right here in our country.

I am an IT guy; I make $60K a year. My brother is pretty much skilless, bouncing from unpleasant job to unpleasant job; he and his wife net about (I am guessing) $25K a year. He's got a klunky '486 computer that can't run simple word processing software... so I spent $700 of my own cash to get my brother one of those cheap e- machines and a color printer. Now he can better himself, produce attractive resumes, etc.

I've done similar work for my brother in law, giving him a refurbished computer. (He was an ungrateful pus-head, too, bitching that it wasn't a snazzy new hot rod of a machine.)

I've done volunteer work in schools, donating PCs to them (for some godawful reason, they seem to only want to buy Macintoshes, ack!)

But you know... when it comes down to it, the Internet currently serves an elite who have the luxury of sitting at desks all day long instead of breaking our backs, plowing the soil so we can eat. Our sources of stress are things like fluxuating gas prices or the availability of ticklish red muppet toys in department stores. We're a nation of fat hedonists, compared to certain other countries whose worries range from dodging artillery and navigating minefields on the way to school, to facing the slow spectre of starvation.

Airlifting cellular nodes to African villages so they can wire into Yahoo Chat isn't going to help them all that much, when all their RL neighbors are dying of ebola.

I say charity begins at home. Think globally, act locally, as they say.

-- Anonymous, November 09, 2000

Re: Phill Wolff's airlifted GPS suggestion

That sounds like an over-engineered too-techie concept, kind of like a 3rd world version of Iridium. Lots of 'cool' factor, but not much practical use.

In India, what has been happening is some woman in a village gets a small loan, and buys a cellphone with service. She then lets other people buy time on the cellphone. Thus, the people (possibly for miles around) get access to a phone. The woman is able to start a business, and possibly diversify into other ventures, hiring other people, and perhaps bringing a few more people out of poverty.

One of those ventures is based on the kind of technology that's really needed in the third world, and it's not digital. There's a multi-purpose machine that's been developed. It's basically an engine that runs on any sort of oil-like fuel. It can be connected to various attachments, such as simple irrigation pump, a grain mill, an electrical generator - the sort of things people need in such places.

Basically, I think people in the third world would rather have, for example, clean water, than the ability to read about cholera on the web and email their friends about how bad the latest epidemic is.

-- Anonymous, November 10, 2000

Think of what can be done, not what others do wrong.

"Think globally, act locally". Great way to go, but I think the readers of this board can do better.

The majority of readers that visit this board are probably in the software development or IT business. What is the most valuable asset you have? It's not your money, or your old equipment, it's your knowledge.

You want to make a difference? Find a project that truely benefits people and donate your time and energy of your most important asset, or start one.

Example 1) Well deserving charities like the Food for the Hungry or Toys for Tots Foundation probably cannot afford top of the line IT staff. Think what a week of a "donated" IT professionals time could accomplish for charities such as these, or any of the 400+ charities out there.

Example 2) Develop a charitable work in your free time and give it to the world. Many of of us could develop a complete online system for tracking lost children, disease outbreaks, or whatever, that could make a huge difference in any number of areas. Think of a site created for doctors in the third world countries to access for free, giving them up-to-date information about any number of medical issues from a treatment database, to disease diagnosis, to tracking of infectious diseases. And doctors in better situations might be able to donate their time to find answers or do research on behalf of those less able, or give advise, etc.
Then the programs such as distributing wireless PDA's connected to the internet to the poor would make more sense. Of course the poor don't need to access Yahoo and chat about finances, but think if they could access accurate medical information to prevent disease, or information on how to build a well or find clean water. Knowledge is Power, and few of the poor have access to that knowledge.

Well I am digressing from my original point. You want to do the best for the world, then give of the most important thing humans have which is knowledge. Give it for free to help a cause, or give it for free to help educate others. Something I think Joel has done an excellent job of.

Thanks Joel, keep up the good work.

Jeff Hemry

-- Anonymous, November 12, 2000

I think there are some useful things that decent and well designed IT could do for third world communities. That said, I think the cost of making decent well designed devices is probably going to be too much for it to be practical.

I imagine a black pyramid with a detachable power source (solar, windmill, or waterwheel). There are 4 terminals and an ethernet hookup. The whole thing is designed to deal with extreme heat and humidity.

Everyone in the village gets a free voice mailbox, and can participate in discussion groups like this one. There is a little vidcam, and lots of videotutorials have been made about things like different crops and diseases. There's a built in satellite modem but also a CD burner so people can run around and bring their music and tutorials to other villages without wasting bandwidth. Since these communities are almost completely illiterate everything would have to work with voice and pictograms. A small radio transmitter might be useful too, it could play music and public announcements and perhaps even tell people they had messages waiting for them.

IT is useful for information handling problems and there are plenty of these in Africa and places like it. Where are the rebel troops? What are they doing to the locals? What should I do about this fungus that's getting into my crops? How does this sickness spread?

But making usable technology for illiterate people with no money is a tall order. I imagine a final cost of around $20 000 per station. Each station would have a user population of about 2000 to 5000 people, depending on conditions. To get anything out of network effects, you're looking at serious money - into the billions. Putting the internet into repressive countries would also raise serious political questions. Spending 20K per station just to have some tinpot dictator blow them all up isn't so great either.

Mailing 486's to Botswana isn't terribly useful, but I do think that there are worthwhile things to be done.

-- Anonymous, November 24, 2000

Way off topic - free web software for aid organisations

Jeff Hemry wrote:

"The majority of readers that visit this board are probably in the software development or IT business. What is the most valuable asset you have? It's not your money, or your old equipment, it's your knowledge."

I couldn't agree more. I have been developing a content management and publishing engine for the last 5 years. It's now used to build and maintain a range of different types of web sites from on-line communities to ecommerce sites.

I am now in a position to offer this software and my labour to a worthwhile aid project. The resulting web site would be targetted at and maintained by people in developed nations in order to channel funds into developing nations. This could be via the sale of products or sponsorship of children (a la World Vision), projects, etc.

My big problem is having this knowlege and product but not having the time, money, contacts or skill to develop an aid organisation. I am therefore looking for an organisation that could use some powerful web building software. I haven't found one yet so I am making the offer in any forum I can find in the hope that someone somewhere will hear and respond to the offer. Please email me directly if you know of any organisation, forum or person who may be interested.

Please excuse this way off topic post.

-- Anonymous, November 27, 2000

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