Add it up

Not another blessed word about that endless presidential election. (Shouldn't we have had lapel ribbons or something, like with the Iranian hostages? The Election Crisis: Day Seven!) I'm not going to point out that the mass conversion of the Jews is, according to Revelations, one of the signs of the imminent Apocalypse; although, mentioning "Buchanan" and "Apocalypse" in the same sentence seems entirely right to me, and I'm pretty sure, in any case, that even the Apocalypse would be sitting in the Florida courts for at least six weeks at this point. I'll stay off that bromide about how Every Vote Counts and how the history books will be teaching about the legal implications of this election for years, except in West Palm Beach where, with any luck, they'll be teaching a little freaking graphics design.

No, let us look away from that sorry spectacle. (And if you kick a Floridian for Nader while my head is turned, I'll never know.) Over in Redmond, Bill Gates was up to interesting things recently. He's managed to get called, and by The New York Times no less, the world's richest Luddite (see "Bill Gates Turns Skeptical on Digital Solution's Scope," NYT, 11/3/00). That's quite something coming from the newspaper currently in the throes of intense self-examination after one too many utter misfires (I'm thinking of the Wen Ho Lee-Los Alamos witch-hunt here, but I won't deny you your own favorite flameout).

Bill G. appears to be having his own moment of introspection: He's talking a lot less about Internet everywhere and ubiquitous computer access and more about haves and have-nots—not even the well-known Digital Divide here in America, but the absolute-poverty Poorest of the Poor. Mother Teresa was big on the poorest of the poor, and if this column carried an illustration, I'd get you a nice sketch of Bill in a blue and white sari. As it is, you'll be carrying the mental image around in your head all day now. No, really, it was my pleasure.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is still streaming lots of money to education and computers for libraries and so forth, as you can see from their Web site (www.gatesfoundation.org). But at the Digital Dividends conference here last month (don't ask me, no one takes me anywhere), suddenly, he wasn't talking about dividends of the digital sort, but of more basic things: water, food, schools, and health care. Coming from a man who has more digital dividends than anyone in the world, that's worth a closer look.

I can remember a period even 10 years ago when, if Microsoft reps were questioned about Bill's rapidly amassing wealth, they said that he'd be giving to charity when the time was right and that when he did you'd know it. He did, and we do—and it was all quite impressive. Whatever you think of Microsoft's riches and how it got them, there's no denying the fact that giving bo-coo bucks to schools and libraries is a fine thing, at least in theory.

Over the years, I've talked to recipients of the Gates' generosity, and though they're grateful, some have suggested that implementation doesn't match up to theory. Computers are great, they say, but the rest of our system is hurting badly. Even if Gates can't be expected to fix the basics, donations of computers and software warp our system. If we were allocating, we'd like to allocate for the things he's given us, but only after basic needs have been met.

By moving his sights beyond the Digital Divide (again, another worthy cause but one that won't necessarily be fixed only by throwing money at it), Bill and friends are at last getting down to basics. A computer in the local community center does you jack if you're too ill or hungry to get there. As Bill pointed out to the seeming amusement of the Times reporter, there are many, many people in this world that subsist on much less than $1 per day. (And no, that's not one-fifth of a venti latte. Marie Antoinette didn't get away with that attitude, and I won't let you, either.)

Grub first, said Brecht, then ethics. After that, we can start talking about computers. After that, maybe we'll let Al or Dub-ya or whomever into the conversation, and they can whine about introducing free-market economics and military alignments and forcing antichoice gag rules on other governments and cultures. Bill appears to have come full circle: from BASIC to true basics.

 
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