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Bono Sings the Praises of Technology

The musician and activist explains how technology provides the means to help us eradicate disease and extreme poverty.
January 2, 2013

To say that Bono is the lead singer of the rock band U2 is like saying that Thomas Edison invented the record player: it leaves out a lot of biography. The 52-year-old Irishman (born Paul Hewson) is also a technology investor and an activist who cofounded the ONE and (RED) organizations, which are devoted to eradicating extreme poverty and AIDS. He has spent years urging Western leaders to forgive the debts of poor nations and to increase funding for AIDS medicines in Africa.

Bono answered questions over e-mail from MIT Technology Review’s deputy editor, Brian Bergstein, about the role technologies—from vaccines to information services—can play in solving our biggest problems.

It’s 2013, and millions of people are still short of food or proper medical care. Have technologists overpromised? 

The tech that’s been delivered has been staggering in its measurable achievements. For example, antiretrovirals, a complex 15-drug AIDS regimen compressed into one pill a day (now saving eight million lives); the insecticide-treated bed net (cut malaria deaths by half in eight countries in Africa in the last three years); kids’ vaccinations (saved 5.5 million lives in the last decade); the mobile phone, the Internet, and spread of information—a deadly combination for dictators, for corruption. 

Bono with Bill Clinton in New York City in 2011.

But to maximize the massive effect technology can have, you need a network of efforts, a system of interventions, supported by citizens who share social capital. That’s what drives substantial progress sustainably. There is no silver bullet to ending extreme poverty and disease, no magic technology. That takes commitment, a lifetime of it, plus resources, political will, and people standing up to demand it. Technology provides the means, however. 

What should be the role of technology in making a better world? Are some problems beyond its reach, like poverty?

Technology has already helped tackle extreme poverty in Africa. Extreme poverty is the empirical condition of living on under $1.25 a day. Nelson Mandela once demanded we be the “great generation” to beat extreme poverty, noting how we have the technology and resources to achieve this extraordinary vision. And we do. We could achieve it by 2030, maybe before. The digital revolution that we are living through, the rapid advances in health and agrotechnology—these things have become core weapons in responding to Mandela’s clarion call. They enable people to get on with it themselves, to fight their way out of the condition they find themselves in. In Africa, things are changing so rapidly. What’s been a slow march is suddenly picking up pace in ways we could not have imagined even 10 years ago. Innovations like farmers using mobile phones to check seed prices, for banking, for sending payments … to the macro effect we saw with the Arab Spring thanks to Facebook and Twitter.

But people can use technology for bad as well as good. The social systems and the social capital within networks must be strong and positive to nurture a progressive use of technology. Let’s be honest. 

“With data informing our course we can describe the kind of world we want to live in and then without airy-fairyness or wishful thinking go after it.”

You admired Steve Jobs. Did he make the world better or just make nice computers?

I think a large part of the reason Apple and Steve Jobs have beguiled so many is that they are a gigantic company that put greatness ahead of the bottom line, believing that great profitability would follow in the long term. Steve was an extremely tough deal maker, and if that was the only side you saw, I can imagine that a more fearsome profile would emerge. But the reason why I, and others who got a glimpse of him personally, were such believers was his clear thinking. Great ideas to me are like great melodies. They are instantly recognizable, memorable, and have some sort of inevitable arc. In the music world, it’s hard to imagine there being a better melody to “I want to hold your hand.” In the tech world, it’s hard to imagine there being any better form or function to a lot of Apple’s products. It’s as if they’ve always existed. It’s that kind of inevitability Steve could spot. With Jony Ive’s designs, with Avie ­Tevanian’s operating systems, etc. In amongst the noise, the yearning for that clear tone, or in Apple’s case, pure white. 

Bono and Steve Jobs in San Jose, California, in 2004.

He told me he would love to spend more time on philanthropy and would get to it one day. He wasn’t interested in half doing it, as is obvious with his personality. Still, Apple very quietly has contributed more than $50 million to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria through the sale of (RED) iPods, Nanos, etc. They are the biggest corporate donor. Tim Cook is passionate about this stuff. By attaching themselves to what is, in recessionary times at home, an unpopular emergency (people dying in far-off places because they can’t afford AIDS drugs), he and Apple have really helped to keep the heat on the issue.

If you had a budget equivalent to the one that put astronauts on the moon, what problems would you try to solve?

There’s an exciting thought. The Apollo program in its day was 4 percent of the federal budget. All U.S. overseas assistance is just 1 percent, with 0.7 percent going to issues that affect the poorest people. I believe that extreme poverty is the biggest challenge we have. That term is a complex one, but on many aspects, we know what works. For example, with Apollo-level resources, you could finish the job on HIV/AIDS. Get rid of it, done. Malaria too. You could vaccinate every kid against deadly diseases we in the West hardly think about. You could boost farming productivity in Africa, which is twice as effective at reducing poverty as anything else. Lastly, you could kick-start electrifying Africa. Electricity means small businesses can function and hire people, medicines can be refrigerated, kids can study after the sun sets. Electrifying Africa would inspire the kind of economic development that would mean, eventually, they wouldn’t need our 4 percent or 1 percent. Aid is just a bridge, but where there are troubled waters, it’s needed.

Bono with nurse Abena Wonka at a community clinic in Accra, Ghana, in 2006.

I should add that without fighting corruption at the same time as spending the Apollo money, you’d be in danger of tossing it up to the moon. Corruption is deadly, but there’s a vaccine for that too—it’s called transparency. Daylight. It’s much harder to rip people off when they know what’s going on. We can gather and disseminate data in all sorts of ways, giving a whole new meaning to the word “accountability.”

You’ve worked closely with Democrats and Republicans. How can they get more done in a politically polarized atmosphere? 

For nearly 15 years I’ve regularly been a pest in Washington, D.C., first an amateur with some smart company, now a pretty professional one with an army of the best and brightest at the ONE Campaign. From the start I was told how the Capitol had never been so polarized, and how nothing is getting done, parties are pounding each other out of effectiveness, etc. Fifteen years hearing the same thing. But every time I’ve been there, I’ve met with politicians who are willing to rise above that, to reach across the aisle to get things done when it comes to the most vulnerable people on our planet. Their plight lifts people above the negativity, reminds officials why they came to Washington in the first place—to get real things done that help people help themselves. In the last two elections, the world’s poor and foreign aid have not been used as a pawn in the political game. In fact, they’ve been the one thing that candidates can actually agree on. That didn’t just happen. A more savvy media and public demanded it.

How can President Obama best improve the state of the world in his second term?

President Obama has already set a strong course on strengthening food security in poor countries, and he’s built on President [George W.] Bush’s legacy on AIDS. Both of these initiatives need to be accelerated. With global leadership to promote partnerships with poorer countries, and with the right resources, we can end a few things that just don’t belong in the 21st century. Like AIDS, like malaria, like polio. 

The president has also championed transparency in the oil, gas, and mineral extraction sector, shedding much-needed light on some of the murkier dealings that go on. Where there is great wealth under the ground in some of the poorest countries, the benefits belong in the hands of all those who live there.  

Bono and Senator Barack Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in 2006.

Electrification—that’d be a good use of his leadership. Poorer countries have the advantage of being able to leapfrog, as they’ve done with communications infrastructure. They can do this with more efficient, cleaner forms of tech like geothermal, hydro, solar, carbon capture.

Do you despair? If not, why not?

Like any parent, I wonder what kind of world we’re leaving behind. But I’ve also been blessed to be involved in some great movements that helped bring major challenges—like debt or AIDS or malaria—from the margins to the mainstream. These social movements are the things that make the real difference, people from different walks of life coming together to stand up for what they believe in.  Whether they do it by marching, by writing, by tweeting, by posting, by singing, or by going to jail. It’s hard not to be an optimist when you see what happens when people join forces.

Right now, though, I think things do hang in the balance. I just heard about a report that predicts the world by 2030 will be fracturing further as rising populations and consumption patterns compete over scarce natural resources. That’s a real recipe for conflict and instability. But it’s avoidable. I’m confident we can overcome the worst trends—but only if we get even better at building innovative networks to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. 

How might this happen? Collecting more data and more open data so we can drill down further on knowing what to do. Continued technological innovations, no question, on more and more fronts. The connectivity of social media, harnessed for action, not apathy. Hundreds of thousands marched in the “Drop the Debt” campaign, and now an extra 51 million kids in Africa are going to school because of monies freed up by debt cancellation—it’s a staggering number. That wouldn’t have happened without people across the globe demanding it. The tools that technology provides mean we know more and we understand more about previously-thought-unsolvable problems. With this data informing our course we can describe the kind of world we want to live in and then without airy-fairyness or wishful thinking go after it. It’s the greatest opportunity that has ever been offered any generation. Which is the truth. Wow.

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