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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