The Rich People's Computer?
Computers threaten to widen the gap between the rich and poor. It’s in everyone’s interest to narrow it.
The information gap between rich and poor in the world is difficult to assess. For example, it took me three months to find out from a perplexed Bangladeshi embassy official in Washington, D.C., what fraction of their economy is devoted to hardware and software products and related services. He finally calculated the fraction at one-tenth of 1 percent. In the United States, the corresponding figure is 100 times larger-fully 10 percent of our economy goes to information technology. Since the average Bangladeshi is 30 times poorer than the average American, the disparity, per person, between our annual expenditure on information technology and theirs is even more staggering-on average, $3,000 for each American, versus $1 for each Bangladeshi!
I suspect that if I could locate an “embassy” representing poor Americans, I would find an equally screeching dissonance between information technology expenditures in the inner city and the suburbs. It stands to reason that people struggling to get their daily bites of food have nothing left for the more ethereal bytes of information. Take this disparity to its logical next step: The rich, who can afford to buy the new technologies, use them to become increasingly productive and therefore even richer while the poor stand still. The conclusion is as logical as it is inescapable: Left to its own devices the information revolution will increase the gap between rich and poor nations and between rich and poor people within nations.
Some experts, including Bill Gates, argue that the new technologies will help the poor become literate, learn how to plant new crops, take care of their health and sell their services over an expanding information marketplace. His view is consistent with my own, subject to one big “if”: The poor could have a chance of reaping these benefits, if they were somehow provided with the communications systems, hardware, software and training needed to join the club. Absent such help, they can’t even get started.
It’s time we begin providing this help, not just to be compassionate but also to avoid the bloodshed that, historically, follows a widening rich-poor gap.
Fortunately, there are things we can do to help: Communications could be provided by low earth orbiting satellites (LEOS) that whip around the earth: When these birds are over the wealthy industrial nations they are very busy, but when they are over the developing world, they are doing nothing. Let’s pay the low marginal cost to leave them on. Manufacturers of hardware and software systems and providers of training, terrestrial communications and other such services could offer their goods to the poor at very deep discounts. If we, the citizens of the rich industrial nations, truly want to help, we can pay the cost by instructing our governments to offer attractive tax breaks to these suppliers. The suppliers, too, could share the costs, since an expanding information marketplace will mean more business for them. Individuals could help with donations of funds and of their time. And organizations such as the World Bank, which spends more than $15 billion annually in structural loans to the developing world, could make a big difference by putting some of these funds into bytes-to-bites projects.
Stimulated by these exciting prospects, a few of us techies got together with a colleague from Nepal, fully expecting to boost his nation’s economy by 20 percent through clever use of the information marketplace. Unfortunately, we quickly found out that even if we got the communications, hardware, software and training for free, we would still fall short of our goal: Only 27 percent of the Nepalese are literate. And of these, only a small fraction speak English. When we asked what services that smaller group could offer, we hit a brick wall. Many are not skilled, and those who are are already busy running their nation’s businesses. Maybe we were too ambitious when we envisioned a future workforce in Nepal selling office services to New York and London via the Web. What if we focused instead on selling Nepal’s famous crafts, like custom-made rugs, on the Web? That got us into all sorts of other concerns about establishing trust among distant buyers and distributing the goods. The potential of the modern information age seemed overshadowed at every turn by the ancient forces that separate the rich from the poor.
Are such difficulties reason to give up and leave the information revolution to its own devices? No! We should persist, because the information marketplace is huge and largely unexplored. If even a small number of Nepalese or a few inner-city people found a way to become productively interconnected, they would serve as role models to their peers. Readers are invited to suggest creative ways in which the poor could become productively engaged in the information marketplace.
We have overcome great challenges to construct the modern computer. Yet this marvel interconnects only 1 percent of the world’s 6 billion people. It is, in effect, the rich people’s computer. For our own and our fellow human beings’ welfare, we should now go after the tougher challenge of turning our proud achievement into the people’s computer!