Is Technology the Best Charity?

by Sam Kean

BROKENGLASSCHRISTMASORNAMENTONWHITE-main_Full The interviewer asked Bill Gates flat out: “Bill, even your harshest critic would have to admit that your philanthropy work is, you know, planet-shaking, incredible, and could be, if you make it, a second act so amazing that it would dwarf what you’ve actually done at Microsoft … If you had to choose a legacy, what would it be?”

Bill demurred: “Well, the most important work I got a chance to be involved in, no matter what I do, is the personal computer.”

Wha? More important no matter what, than anything else he could ever do?

During the height of the Evil Empire Gates reportedly glanced at the newspaper one morning and became absorbed in an sadly unremarkable article about a disease ravaging the third world—malaria, or polio, or a miserable tapeworm, something along those lines. Gates famously (even a little infamously) had no idea diseases like that still existed in the 1990s, much less that they dominated health care in poor countries the way cancer and heart disease do in the first world. Call him sheltered, but the Gates Foundation was more or less founded that day over coffee. Its goal: to rid the world of such scourges. Bill Gates had a road-to-Damascus moment.

And yet—given the choice between being remembered as the man who liberated humankind from, say, malaria more or less single handedly—and being remembered as the person who foisted PowerPoint on the world—Gates is choosing PowerPoint? Really? He’s picking AutoCapitalization and a dancing paperclip?

Now, of course that’s not quite fair to Gates. He did what he did at Microsoft and then retired two summers ago to dedicate himself to philanthropy, and it’s not like the first chapter negates or undoes or undermines the second. Unlike very few people who ever lived, Bill Gates really does have something like a choice about what he’ll be remembered for. But the question put to Gates remains. And it’s actually a more demanding and troubling and starker question if not asked of him. For those of us with stubbornly finite amounts of cash, would we do more good spending our money on technology or charity?

The question was on my mind because someone recently asked me what if any charity I planned to donate something to this Christmas season. I used to write for a philanthropy rag, and so have a rather expansive view of what a “charity” is. (You would not believe what groups qualify as one.) But I knew broadly what C. was asking: Of the myriad nonprofit groups trying to improve, or remake, or even just succor and mend the world a little, where would I give whatever I had to give?

Without even thinking, I blurted out, “Wikipedia.” Didn’t even wait until he had finished asking the question. Mind you, this wasn’t just the first answer that came to mind—it was the only answer that came to mind, my only possible pick. “Wikipedia, definitely.”

Only after C.’s face collapsed did I realize that I also should, maybe, be horrified at my answer. (Others laughed, assuming I was trying to be provocative, but no.) I backpedaled, naturally, and listed other causes worth donating a meager sum to—“I mean I love the Red Cross as much as anyone”—but my metatarsals were kind of getting in the way of my teeth and tongue at that point: He could tell I’d answered honestly.

Given another chance, I would have prefaced myself by explaining that I meant something wider than just Wikipedia—I’d meant what Wikipedia represents, the proliferation and spread of information. I meant Wikipedia as something other projects could aspire to—more nodes, more connections, more reach. I meant the way that despots, even petty ones, have to squeeze their fists tighter nowadays, which only allows more to pour out between their fingers. It’s not like I was “donating” to Microsoft or Apple by purchasing a consumer product—Ayn Rand charity. Wikipedia does have a charitable purpose. But even with a qualification, my answer felt small and selfish. I’m an incorrigible user of Wikipedia. So was I really that different from Rand—someone who would only donate to a charity that benefited him?

322556298_06ed81effd This was all the more strange because I’m no techno prophet. I’ve never used the words “global village” unironically, and don’t consider myself dewy-eyed about other aspects of technology either. An old roommate of mine once quizzed me on why I had stopped eating meat. (Stopped, kind of. I gradually lapsed and ate fish again, rendering me an ovo-lacto-pesco-hypocritotarian.) I was new to not eating meat and didn’t quite have my stump speech prepared then, and so sort of wandered into an explanation about factory farms and all. I wrapped it up with a quick throwaway line or two about environmental reasons—that the best farmlands are already taxed, and that feeding cattle is land intensive. Turning corn into beef is almost laughably inefficient, on a scale comparable only with building pyramids for pharaohs, and it drastically lowers the food that can be squeezed from any acre. My roomie didn’t exactly feel pangs for the poor animals in stocks, though he generally wished it wouldn’t happen and could sympathize with someone for feeling strongly about it. The land-use argument left him baffled. “Some day people will just make tiered farms,” he told me, as if the patent was pending. He wasn’t cavalier, merely convinced. “We’ll stack up layers of farmland like floors on a building and then rotate them up and down. Probably have some artificial sunlight and soil.” A trivial problem. A snap.

Others of us involved in this conversation were a little aghast. It seemed like sprinting as fast as we could to stay in the same place. Technology had (with admirable intentions, certainly) created a problem. We’d gotten so good at keeping people alive and healthy across the world that we were bumping up against the limits of how to feed those people in any remotely sustainable fashion. And increasing numbers of those people wanted their meat goddamnit. But instead of considering scaling back or tapering off and admitting that this could be a problem, he wanted to double down. Build the scaffolding up a little higher and rev the rotors harder.

I feel still, emotionally, correct in making this argument. People two hundred years ago died of all sorts of horrible things, Bill Gates might be interested to know, but if the whole edifice of civilization had come a-tumbling down, Cormac-style, then or now, they would have been a hell of a lot better off than any of us. (I assume no survivalists are reading this online.) I can barely find north, and doubt if I could locate a single wild walnut, much less crack it. The argument that we need to trust newer technologies, whether slick or jerry-built, to fix the problems of more primitive technologies seems like a Ponzi scheme, especially if no one knows what the technologies might be yet.

But facts are stubborn little nuts. And I have to admit that, looking at history, we wise apes have indeed fixed all sorts of seemingly intractable problems. Malthus and Paul Ehrlich were equally off two centuries apart, and horse manure never did bury New York City up to twenty feet or whatever, as someone in the 1870s once calculated it must. And however shaky a strategy it seems from a larger vantage point, in every individual case technology has fixed technology. Hell, things have improved (immeasurably) under this scheme. Of course, of course, it’s a logical fallacy to say that because we’ve pulled through every time in the past we’ll continue to pull through every time in the future. It’s David Hume redux. As Hume argued, we don’t have any strictly philosophical reason for assuming that the world will behave tomorrow like it does today. We assume it will, but based on what? Could be we’ve gotten 10 billion blacks in a row on the roulette wheel, and tomorrow we’re due a red. Then again, the larger point of Hume’s work was logic schmogic: you’re an idiot if you believe apple pies will fall upward tomorrow. And my old roommate might have said of my argument, emotions schmeotions. As a matter of real hard fact, people who argue that technology always cures technology have a good historical case.

All these warring thoughts were confronting me when, not long after being asked where I’d donate this year, I had an itch to look up some factoid and found myself reaching for (so to speak) Wikipedia. (I hardly go Google or even the main Wikipedia page any more—I know the Wikipedia URL system well enough to type what I need directly into my browser.) Anyway, this time I saw a banner ad: “A personal appeal from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.” Wikipedia was running a $7.5M capital campaign, and needed me to put my money where my mouth and foot were and donate.

Now, Wikipedia wouldn’t paint it this way, but for people like me that’s a zero-sum request. I’m a hack with not a lot of money, and I’m realistically going to make one donation per holiday season. (Unless I find myself with a few annoying pennies in my pocket and a red Salvation Army bucket is closer than the nearest trash can.) So what case could Wikipedia make if it needed to? What’s the case for a technology charity over, say, a relief group?

600px-Wikipedia-logo.svg Without meaning to sound cryptic, it’s a choice, as I see it, between helping humans and helping humanity. When Gates was asked about his legacy, the interviewer was likely talking about the humans, the individuals, that Gates-level money could help. Gates diverted her, answering that no, he wanted to help humanity. No person has done more than Gates to cram computers into every sleeve and cranny of our lives. And look at all that computers have enabled. Most of the drugs his foundation distributes were designed on computers. People map out supply lines on computers, and track whether drugs were delivered, and even how exactly campaigns fail in some cases, so they can do things better in the future. Hell, would many of us (Gates sure didn’t!) know how bad things are around the world without computers zipping that information around?

Gates might have said, “So, yes, of course I could do immeasurable good providing relief to people now. And I will help many regardless. But what would that accomplish in the long term? Natural disasters come every year. Relief there is temporary, transient. People always overestimate the effects of technology in the short term, but almost always underestimate it in the long term. Only technology moves the chains. Only technology improves people’s lives permanently. Technology enables some pretty awful instincts of ours, and yet a funny thing happens on the way to hell. Things get a smidge better…”

I clicked on the Wikipedia donation link, just to see what was there—and I found myself typing in a modest donation amount. Part of me figured that if I was an unfeeling dick, I might as well not be a freeloader to boot. Then I noticed that Wikipedia would let me submit a message along with my donation. What’s more, the message would supposedly appear every so often in the banner ad, in place of Jimmy Wales’s appeal—a testimony from real users. Hmmm. I cut my donation in half and typed, “I still, still, still cannot believe this [i.e., Wikipedia] is free.” I had only a few words to work with, and this was meant to convey optimism, the excitement of contributing to the largest collective project human beings have ever undertaken, and the hope that spreading information really does improve people’s lives. I also spent the second half of my modest donation budget on Wikipedia, but this time I included a different message: “It was this or UNICEF.” It was either a gift to Wikipedia or a gift to UNICEF … and I chose this. I didn’t mean to be flip, but to get people to think. Many of us evidently felt strongly enough about Wikipedia and what it represents to help, and to do so at the expense of more obvious charities. Why?

I suppose my posting these conflicting messages was sort of rich, a foray into performance art here—I wanted people to confront the choices they were making, and tear away the veil of their everyday lives. Puke. But I still don’t know which of the two messages I have more sympathy for, the optimism or the guilt. This year I decided to help humanity at the expense of a few individual humans, which doesn’t make for a good holiday buzz but will (god I hope it will) drag us collectively ahead. I clicked to donate, and sent my banner ads up. And I never got around to looking up what I’d been burning to look up on Wikipedia moments before. Didn’t seem that important all of a sudden.