Bill Gates: Visionary or Curmudgeon?

Thomas Friedman (The World is Flat, 2005) quotes Bill Gates as saying this about “open-sourcing” and innovation:

You need capitalism [to drive innovation.] To have [a movement] that says innovation does not deserve an economic reward is contrary to where the world is going.  When I talk to the Chinese, they dream of starting a company.  They are not thinking, ‘I will be a barber during the day and do free software at night.’ . . . When you have a security crisis in your software system, you don’t want to say, ‘Where is the guy at the barbershop?’ (p. 101)

Are these the words of a visionary?  Do they assume and promote the best about human nature, or the worst?

When I read this in the context of Friedman’s discussion of open sourcing on pages 81-103, it became clear to me that Gates believes our uneducated nature is our human nature.  It was clear that he lacks a vision of a world made more beautiful through innovation and virtue.  Virtue has always been more important than innovation, but he believes innovation is all we we can hope for.

The point of Friedman’s section on open sourcing is that many talented people do not need capitalism to drive innovation.  The open sourcing movement is evidence that Gates’s first sentence is not true.

He should have said, “I need capitalism to drive innovation.”   That would have been a true statement, and that is why Bill Gates is not a visionary, just a billionaire curmudgeon.

Now that we have that straight, my questions are:

1.  Can the philanthropy of a curmudgeon improve public education?  What does that look like?

2.  What would it look like, if Gate’s philanthropy were based on a vision of our educated human nature, instead of our uneducated one?

It pains me to see so much money wasted pursuing greater (1) teaching “effectiveness” and  (2) technology.  Neither idea has improved education over the last 50 years.  Why does Gates believe they will now?

(Please “comment” with your description of such an improvement.  If you know of one, I missed it.)

Bill Gates’ Vision Addendum (2019)

As a follow-up to this 2011 post about Bill Gates’ claim that capitalism is needed to drive innovation, I quote “The Price of Inequality” (2012) where Joseph Stiglitz described Microsoft’s efforts to stifle innovation.  (I love irony.)

According to Stiglitz, United States businesses sometimes maintain their monopolies by finding ways to resist the entry of competitors and reducing competitive pressures.

Microsoft provides the example par excellence. Because it enjoyed a near-monopoly on PC operating systems, it stood to lose a lot if alternative technologies undermined its monopoly. The development of the Internet and the web browser to access it represented just such a threat. Netscape brought the browser to the market, building on government-funded research. Microsoft decided to squelch this potential competitor. It offered its own product, Internet explorer, but the product couldn’t compete in the open market. The company decided to use its monopoly power in PC operating systems to make sure that the playing field was not level. It deployed a strategy known as FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt), creating anxiety about compatibility among users by programming error messages that would randomly appear if Netscape was installed on a Windows computer. The company also did not provide the disclosures necessary for full compatibility as new versions of Windows were developed. And most cleverly, it offered Internet Explorer at a zero price–free, bundled in as part of its operating system. It’s hard to compete with a zero price. Netscape was doomed.

After Stiglitz mentioned that courts and tribunals found Microsoft guilty of engaging in anticompetitive practices, he made his point about monopolies and innovation:

. . . Microsoft has not been a real innovator. It did not develop the first widely used word processor, the first spreadsheet, the first browser, the first media player, or the first dominant search engine. Innovation lay elsewhere. This is consistent with theory and historical evidence: monopolists are not good innovators. (pp. 45-46)

Bill Gates:

You have a lot of gall lauding capitalism as a driver of innovation. You are invited to respond. What did I get wrong?

Another addendum on open-sourcing vs. capitalism

The following paragraph is from Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators (2014, p. 112), which is a history of the teamwork that created the digital era:

These patent disputes (between von Neuman, Eckert, Mauchly, and Jennings) were the forerunner of a major issue of the digital era: Should intellectual property be shared freely and placed whenever possible into the public domain and open-source commons? That course, largely followed by the developers of the Internet and the Web, can spur innovation through the rapid dissemination and crowd-sourced improvement of ideas. Or should intellectual property rights be protected and inventors allowed to profit from their proprietary ideas and innovations? That path, largely followed in the computer hardware, electronics, and semiconductor industries, can provide the financial incentives and capital investments that encourages innovation and rewards risks. In the seventy years since von Neuman effectively placed his “Draft Report” on the EDVAC into the public domain, the trend for computers has been, with a few notable exceptions, toward a more proprietary approach. In 2011 a milestone was reached: Apple and Google spent more on lawsuits and payments involving patents than they did on research and development of new products.

Here is another example of how the real purpose of the “rule of law” is to protect the powerful. In this case, the powerful are the lawyers. (I love irony.)

Addendum #2 on open-sourcing

Yesterday’s TED Radio Hour on NPR (11/17) was about open-sourcing. Three of the segments were about open-sourcing experiences with the smart phone, democracy in Argentina, and architecture (making IKEA-like building kits available).

Not surprisingly, it was pointed out that Apple is committed to proprietorship, not open-sourcing.


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