Bill Gates: The true world-changer in selfish Silicon Valley

The tech industry talks big about fixing societal ills, but few are engaging -- much less supporting -- the outside world

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Twitter and Facebook did not invent the Arab Spring

Remember the Arab Spring? The press was filled with stories about how it represented a triumph of technology, particularly of social media services like Twitter and Facebook. Video-enabled smartphones were a great tool for the insurgents, and because Silicon Valley is so focused on itself, it was easy for techies to believe the revolutions wouldn't have happened without iOS, BlackBerry, and Android devices or social media services.

It's no great logical leap, then, to believe that spreading technology will fix the world's worst problems. "Connecting the world is one of the greatest challenges of our generation," says Zuckerberg. Connectivity, he says, is a human right.

Contrast that with Gates's view: "Innovation is a good thing. The human condition -- put aside bioterrorism and a few footnotes -- is improving because of innovation," he says. But while "technology's amazing, it doesn't get down to the people most in need in anything near the timeframe we should want it to."

As you probably know, Gates is not just bloviating. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which he set up with his wife in 1997, gives away nearly $4 billion a year. Because ill health and poverty go hand in hand, much of the foundation's money goes to fighting malaria or paying for vaccination drives against infectious diseases. As the Financial Times pointed out, that $4 billion is nearly half as much as the U.S. government spent on global health initiatives in 2012.

A modest first step: Out-to-lunch Thursdays

It's too simple to inveigh against the conspicuous consumption of bozos like Napster founder Sean Parker who spent millions on a wedding in the redwoods or say that the tech aristocracy is selfish. After all, Zuckerberg and his wife have given very serious money to charities, as have Valley executives like Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff and Oracle's Larry Ellison.

But what is lacking in so much of Silicon Valley is the wisdom and the empathy that comes from contact with the with the rest of the world.

Consider Facebook's plan to build housing for employees, housing that will include daycare for dogs -- but not for children. It's more than ironic that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg counsels women to "lean in" if they want to advance but doesn't know enough about the lives of ordinary people to understand that leaning in when you have a kid or two under your watch can be next to impossible without affordable daycare. Of course, when you're worth upward of $1.5 billion, that's not a problem.

Gates was a child of the upper-middle class and by all accounts is not a very nice man to work for. No matter -- he managed to break out of the bubble and developed a clear-eyed vision of what's really wrong with the world and how it might fixed.

Here's a very modest suggestion: Companies like Twitter that have employee cafeterias should shut them at least one day a week; maybe call it "out-to-lunch Thursday." That would force their employees to venture into the community for coffee or a meal. That would aid local business, and in San Francisco it would help justify some of the substantial tax breaks the tech companies got for moving here.

More important, getting out into the community would be a good first step away from the digital bubble and into the real, analog world.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here (Add a comment) so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill@billsnyder.biz. Follow me on Twitter at BSnyderSF.

This article, "Bill Gates: The true world-changer in selfish Silicon Valley," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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