Gates’s call to make technology address inequities: Who buys?

About a month ago, I received a forwarded e-mail highlighting Bill Gates’ commencement speech at Harvard University last June 7. I thought that people were made interested by his sounding like a born-again billionaire or by his supposed eye-opener propositions in that speech. Largely, those centered on the need to use scientific advancement in reducing global inequity. And no less than Inquirer columnist Wilson Ng echoed this call by Gates. (And thanks to him, I managed to get a glimpse of the speech’s full text.)

Says Gates: “But humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries – but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity – reducing inequity is the high best human achievement.” He also confessed that he found out about the “unspeakable poverty and disease in developing countries” only decades after he left school. Or after he became the world’s richest man, being worth over 50 billion US dollars.

Much as I empathize with Gates on his view that technology must be used to solve the world’s inequities, I still cannot buy his philanthropism. In the first place, he has become the richest man alive just because he monopolized the software industry and, worse, made software development a huge enterprise instead of a motor for social development. This is even though he was able to employ millions of people and provided large discounts for software packages and free training programs for less privileged countries. I don’t buy the idea of “donating back” a seemingly huge sum of money to the less-developed countries, which is actually just a drop in the bucket and a marketing spiel that aims to spur more profits for the business.

Until Gates wakes up one morning and realizes that software must be free, as in free and open source, and gradually gives up monopoly over it, he does not need to continue donating for whatever humanitarian purposes. Giving up the proprietary software business model lends to levelling the playing field in software development, so that the “digital have nots” can catch up and utilize technologies for their own good. Software applications are social tools more than they are business tools, as they have become since the 80s.

Had Gates explicitly explained why he actually became the richest man here on earth, admitted his faults (e.g., monopolizing software industry), and asked the Harvard graduates to learn from these, people would have felt the sincerity and accepted all his advice.

It’s not that I’m being a super kill joy here. I agree with him that technology must help fill up the development gaps. But I just don’t buy into his “more creative capitalism” proposition to make that call a reality. Besides, it’s like not trusting a national leader calling for unity and forward march to development despite his/her questionable morals and abominable anti-people agenda under the disguise of economic growth-oriented development.

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