Saturday Blues

29 January 2005

Just past eight in the morning on Saturday morning…the cold outside is intense, of the order of minus twenty…I slip into the main Congress Hall, noticing how lonely my coat looks on the expansive racks that normally hold up to 1.500 coats, hats, gloves, scarves and bags…it is the last main day of Davos, and people are resting, exhausted by bilaterals, panels, issues and, most of all, that so human activity contact and communication.

My last event of Friday night was a ‘night cap with bill gates’…Bill took the floor in a small room with a selected 100 or so people invited to ‘listen and learn’…his remarks were wide ranging, on the technology side, he talked about computers that will speak, listen and learn…we sold a million tablet computers last year…particularly doctors and insurance workers…convergence and internet and loadsa other goodies, competition with Google and Linux, the ups and downs of open source…and then to the different world that he had been part of a few hours ago when he spelt out the need for $4 billion to safe the lives of 5 million people, the strength of the proposed financing facility, the opportunity to make a difference, the importance of collective action…

…his amiable romp through these aspects of his and our lives left be wondering about their connection. No one doubts the potential of e-communication to enhance lives of the rich and also in many ways the poor…but is there a deeper dilemma here. Bill’s key remark about emerging technologies and their application was that the individual would increasingly lie at its core, not the applications…makes sense of course, for everything from playlists to knowledge banks to be ‘with me’ rather than me having to find them and make sense of their technical and so content-based connection, easier, more individual-centric and of course, as ever faster…but how does this square with our need to reflect, to become wiser not just more information-rich, to seek collective strength not individual focus, to engage and empathise, not connect voyeuristically. Part of the answer to this is certainly that e-communities, blogs and indeed basic information can make a positive difference…the response to the Tsunami would not have been so powerful without technology, and we have seen the potential (although not the success) of internet communities in Howard Dean’s UK presidential election campaign. But this is only one part of the story…the increased pace of e-life is part and parcel of the very short-termism that drives us to seek immediate gratification on all fronts, from investor behaviour to fast food to famine relief…short termism is an enemy of development, not because we are not urgent, but because we do not really engage in understanding and change. When Sharon Stone received incredible applause for her inappropriate high-style philanthropy, she was feeding the disease of short termism…is it the same with our e-world, and is Bill Gates part of that development.

Mr Gates has done some brilliant stuff in business and indeed now in the development space, he is far from a modern Rockefeller, whose motto of make any way you must and then give it away has (perhaps permanently) blighted the US approach to corporate responsibility. But the night cap did leave me uneasy that he too easily slipped between his two worlds uncritical in their possible tensions and perhaps even contradications.

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