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Saturday, August 11, 2007

The role of technology in reducing inequity

By Wilson Ng
Last updated 07:48pm (Mla time) 07/10/2007

Last month, June, was wedding month. It was also back-to-school month. In the United States, which does not have the same academic year as ours, June was also traditionally graduation month.

Two years ago, Stanford University, one of the most prominent universities in the United States and acknowledged as the thought and education center of Silicon Valley, invited Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computers, to be their commencement speaker. His speech, entitled, "Stay Hungry, Stay foolish," was a very big hit and it was talked about in various articles, and I received many copies of that through my email where many people thought it was inspiring. That speech, delivered on June 12, can be found here.

This year, on June 7, 2007, Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, was invited to be the commencement speaker for Harvard University. Gates, who famously dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft, has been the world's richest man for the last 10 years, as well as the world's most generous philanthropist, having donated over 30 billion dollars of his wealth to philanthropic causes.

In his speech, Gates lauded the new ideas in economics and politics that he learned from Harvard, as well as the rapid advances made in various sciences. However, he says the most important advance and achievement that we can rightly say that should be our focus reducing inequity.

He says his greatest regret was that the school or even the system did not allow its students to understand better the millions of people who live in unspeakable poverty and disease in developing countries. He says he read about millions of children dying every year of measles, malaria, pneumonia, heptatitis B, and yellow fever, and could not understand why it was not apparent to Americans. In fact, a disease called rotavirus kills 500,000 kids a year, but most Americans probably never heard about it, because it is almost unheard of in the United States.

Apparently, the reason why people died of such diseases, he said, is that the market, or the democratic economy did not reward the saving of lives of these children, and government could not, and did not subsidize therefore its cure. So the children died because their parents had no power (no money) in the market, and no voice in the system.

He challenged the people to work so that market forces can become more responsive to the poor, so that capitalism can reach its hands so that more people can make a profit, or at least a living, by serving people who are suffering from the worst inequities. He stresses on how to enable policies of government, as well as spend public money in the government so that profits for businesses and votes for politicians will come to those people who help reduce inequity for the poor?

He also said that it is not because we as human beings, don't care. All of us, he says, have seen human tragedies. In most cases we did nothing, not because we don't care, but because we didn't know what to do. If we have known how to help, many of us would have acted. So the barrier to getting people to change is not that they don't want to, but because it was too complex. So the solution is to get people to start to see the problem, forward a solution, and enable the people who are helping to immediately see the impact.

He believes that pretty soon, emerging technology which is making our world smaller, more open, more visible and less distant will help solve these problems as more and more people are able to use technology to cut through the complexity.

Largely responsible for helping people gain access to technology is the emergence of low-cost personal computers, which has created opportunities for learning and communicating between and among people, where there used to be none. He likens this to magic, because this newly created network “collapses distance and makes everyone your neighbor.” This network links together brilliant minds that can work together in solving the world’s problems. But of course, not everyone can have access to technology and this leaves out much needed ideas and cooperation from those left out.

By allowing more and more people to have access to technology, a digital revolution is sparked that enables human beings to help one another and allowing governments, corporations and other organizations to identify and help solve the global problem of hunger, poverty and desperation.

It is a moving speech, and forces us to think through our goals. If you want to read the full text, it can be found here.