We want to social network; Bill Gates wants to save the world

I’ve written before about the dangers of cynicism and the need for optimism when thinking about the future of any idea, in this case the possibility of a free-er Internet and a re-thinking of how information is owned and communicated. 

There are a lot of things coming together in support of free information distribution and the social possibilities of the Internet (for example, the new techno-masturbatory web browser Flock that integrates a blog editor, Flickr accounts, and del.icio.us, and with which I’m writing this post). People are excited about it because they see this type of innovation as ushering a new era of the web — Web 2.0 (I hate writing that, and haven’t yet had to speak it) — in which we will all be even more interconnected, know each others’ likes, dislikes, habits, smells, perversions, etc. Apart from the grand-scale narcissism that a lot of this social software has encouraged (I’ve never understood the appeal of Friendster, which to me looks like nothing more than an electronic mirror that tells you how beautiful you are), there are possibilities implicit in this technology for people who can’t communicate through typically human ways like talking or gathering in actual social spaces to meet, find kindred spirits, organize, do better research, reach out to those that need it, develop advocacy groups, and so on.

However, I wonder how much people are thinking about that. A lot of the hype surrounding Flock, Flickr, Friendster (Fs?) and other social software surrounds the users’ increased ability to interact with the web. When you see a site you like, bookmark it on your del.icio.us account and then you’ll be connected to the other people who’ve also looked at the site. When you read an article that you want to comment on, blog about it and put your voice of opposition out there. If you like to take pictures, post them on a site that allows friends and strangers to view and comment on them. This behavior is in part an acknowledgement that much of our lives takes place online, and we need ways to reverse the increased atomization the web often encourages.

Except, who are “we”? In this scenario (which, admittedly, is my own interpretation of the current techno-climate), “we” are a largely white, middle- to upper-middle-class minority of technologically literate elite. Only a slight majority of the U.S. is even online at all, much less taking advantage of social bookmarking. How many people even know what that is? A lot of the optimism about these things — my optimism included — grows in a bubble largely unaware of the outside world’s indifference or lack of awareness, like one of those little toys that expands when you put in a sink full of water for 12 hours does. Take one of those toys out of water, and it stays big for a day or two, but will eventually shrivel and become a distorted version of what it was before. Does this social technology and and its attendant optimism self-inflate its sense of importance?

The world of technology has faced this criticism before, and the result has been that, like it or not, technology has become a more and more important force in everyone’s lives, not just the small group of developers who initially tout it. Whether or not we agree with the social conditions that give rise to the model of a small group of over-educated, elite men (they’re mostly men) creating tools that will soon be foisted upon the public, that is the model right now, so we should take these social-technology innovations seriously.

But how do we avoid letting these new innovations become simply another set of diversions or new ways to narcissistically admire ourselves and our friends?
Surprisingly, an article in The New Yorker this week about Bill Gates’ efforts to eradicate poverty and disease in the developing world provided a possible solution. As many of us know (who’s “us”?), Gates and his wife have set up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with the sole purpose of eradicating world poverty. They’re a formidable force; according to the article,

the foundation’s endowment is nearly twenty-nine billion dollars — more than the gross domestic product of Tanzania.

I choose Gates because he’s the open-source movement’s arch enemy; his business practices are near (if not completely) monopolistic; he actively tries to eradicate competition and continues to charge exorbitant fees for his software to the extent that Brazil’s president declined Gates’ invitation to discuss that country’s computer needs; Lula wishes to go with open-source models instead.
I believe that Gates really does care about his work, though. From the piece:

“It just blows my mind how little money has been spent on malaria research,” Gates told me as we were waiting for the Taiwan debate to end.  “What has prevented the rich world from attempting this? I just keep asking myself, Do we really not care because it doesn’t affect us? Is that what it is?” Gates looked grim but went on.”Human suffering as a result of malaria is incomparable. By many measures, it’s easily the worst thing on the planet.”

He clearly sees no contradiction between being a technology mogul and the most influential philanthropist of his generation. (Not that he should; Jay Rockefeller probably didn’t see a contradiction in his behavior either.) My point is, Gates likely sees that because he’s involved in technology he needs to help the poor and the sick. The two go hand in hand: as arguably the greatest industrial innovation of our time, the Internet has also created mass inequalities by, for example, allowing companies to relocate abroad and helping facilitate the shutdown of most of America’s manufacturing.
But it’s also provided glimpses of a better future for all, if we use it right. That’s why this social software stuff needs to be looked at differently. As the Global Voices crowd has done, we need to think about how blogging can be used to faciliate democratic change in developing countries; how people in poor towns and villages can use cheap laptops to communicate with others far away and even develp tools to increase their wealth; or to help refugees abroad connect with families in their home countries to recreate their crucial networks of social support. The list wil get longer as we look at the social and political needs of most of the people on the planet and try to address them with the cool software being developed in the West.

Maybe if we develop these tools with the dual purpose of getting a better mirror with which to admire ourselves and a better way to help those in need, we can break ourselves out of the techno-elite ghetto and make the promise of technology a reality.

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  1. Hey there,
    The creator of del.icio.us just spoke at Harvard two nights ago. Sadly, I missed it but I’m sure my reference class will catch me up next week.

    I’m intrigued with your comments and find myself agreeing with a lot of them, in particular the mirror analogy. Just recently I got back into the whole myspace craze because of roller derby and all our events. Sadly, I find myself going to it often, picking through other people’s profiles and spying on old friends. And I like it! Why? Perhaps you’ve hit upon the answer . . .

    In other news, I thought you would enjoy this, as we are always talking about Google in class . . .

    Publishers Group Sues Google Over Book Plan


    WASHINGTON — Google Inc. faces a lawsuit by the Association of American Publishers over the company’s plans to digitally copy and distribute copyrighted works under its Google Print program, adding to legal pressures already surrounding the company’s ambitious

    The lawsuit, which was filed after lengthy discussions broke down between AAP and Google’s top management, seeks a court declaration that Google commits infringement when it scans entire books covered by
    copyright and a court order preventing it from doing so without permission of the copyright owner.

    The AAP said in a press release Wednesday the suit was filed on behalf of five major publisher members of the group — McGraw-Hill Cos., Pearson Plc’s Pearson Education, Penguin Group, Viacom Inc.’s Simon & Schuster, and John Wiley & Sons Inc.

    Google is already being sued by the Authors Guild — a New York nonprofit whose members include author Herbert Mitgang and former U.S. Poet Laureate Daniel Hoffman — which filed its suit late last month, alleging that Google’s plan to create digital copies of books represented “massive copyright infringement.”

    In the Google Print program, the company hopes to create an online, searchable database by scanning and digitizing millions of published books from the collections of three major academic libraries — Stanford University, Harvard University and the University of Michigan. Oxford University and the New
    York Public Library are also participating in the project, but are only making available works in the public domain.

    Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt responded to criticism of the plan in a Tuesday editorial in The Wall Street Journal, stressing that copyright holders are free to send the company a list of titles they don’t want to include in the Google Print Index.

    Despite consenting that its members understand how useful the search engine could be, AAP said it isn’t convinced the program properly compensates authors and publishers.

    Write to the Online Journal’s editors at

    And then one from The Onion:

    Google Announces Plan To Destroy All Information It Can’t Index

    MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA—Executives at Google, the rapidly growing online- search company that promises to “organize the world’s information,” announced Monday the latest step in their expansion effort: a far-reaching plan to destroy all the information it is unable to index.CEO Eric Schmidt speaks at Google’s California headquarters (below).

    “Our users want the world to be as simple, clean, and accessible as the Google home page itself,” said Google CEO Eric Schmidt at a press conference held in their corporate offices. “Soon, it will be.”

    The new project, dubbed Google Purge, will join such popular services as Google Images, Google News, and Google Maps, which catalogs the entire surface of the Earth using high-resolution satellites.

    As a part of Purge’s first phase, executives will destroy all copyrighted materials that cannot be searched by Google.

    “A year ago, Google offered to scan every book on the planet for its Google Print project. Now, they are promising to burn the rest,” John Battelle wrote in his widely read “Searchblog.” “Thanks to Google Purge, you’ll never have to worry that your search has missed some obscure book, because that book will no longer exist. And the same goes for movies, art, and music.”

    “Book burning is just the beginning,” said Google co-founder Larry Page. “This fall, we’ll unveil Google Sound, which will record and index all the noise on Earth. Is your baby sleeping soundly? Does your high-school sweetheart still talk about you? Google will have the answers.” Enlarge Image

    Page added: “And thanks to Google Purge, anything our global microphone network can’t pick up will be silenced by noise-cancellation machines in low- Earth orbit.”

    As a part of Phase One operations, Google executives will permanently erase the hard drive of any computer that is not already indexed by the Google Desktop Search.

    “We believe that Google Desktop Search is the best way to unlock the information hidden on your hard drive,” Schmidt said. “If you haven’t given it a try, now’s the time. In one week, the deleting begins.”

    Although Google executives are keeping many details about Google Purge under wraps, some analysts speculate that the categories of information Google will eventually index or destroy include handwritten correspondence, buried fossils, and private thoughts and feelings.

    The company’s new directive may explain its recent acquisition of Celera Genomics, the company that mapped the human genome, and its buildup of a vast army of laser-equipped robots.

    “Google finally has what it needs to catalog the DNA of every organism on Earth,” said analyst Imran Kahn of J.P. Morgan Chase. “Of course, some people might not want their DNA indexed. Hence, the robot army. It’s crazy, it’s brilliant—typical Google.”

    Google’s robot army is rumored to include some 4 million cybernetic search- and-destroy units, each capable of capturing and scanning up to 100 humans per day. Said co-founder Sergey Brin: “The scanning will be relatively painless. Hey, it’s Google. It’ll be fun to be scanned by a Googlebot. But in the event people resist, the robots are programmed to liquify the brain.”

    Markets responded favorably to the announcement of Google Purge, with traders bidding up Google’s share price by $1.24, to $285.92, in late trading after the announcement. But some critics of the company have found cause for complaint.

    “This announcement is a red flag,” said Daniel Brandt, founder of Google- Watch.org. “I certainly don’t want to accuse of them having bad intentions. But this campaign of destruction and genocide raises some potential privacy concerns.”

    Brandt also expressed reservations about the company’s new motto. Until yesterday’s news conference, the company’s unofficial slogan had been “Don’t be evil.” The slogan has now been expanded to “Don’t be evil, unless it’s necessary for the greater good.”

    Co-founders Page and Brin dismiss their critics.

    “A lot of companies are so worried about short-term reactions that they ignore the long view,” Page said. “Not us. Our team is focused on something more than just making money. At Google, we’re using technology to make dreams come true.”

    “Soon,” Brin added, “we’ll make dreams clickable, or destroy them forever.”

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