Footing the Bill

Bill Gates at Harvard Commencement Clinton on Ted Talks

This burst of conversation about the new project from the Economist (where I admit, my cynicism got the better of me, although I do think it could have been better explained) got me thinking about the broader convergence which we seem to be seeing from sources likes Bill Gates (Harvard Commencement address) and the great brains of the Ted Talks including the old smooth talker himself Bill Clinton (building a better world for his daughter’s generation). Indeed the view seems mooted in so many circles that it may even be possible to find a third post-major-job, superbrained Bill to join the… er… bill.

The popular conception is that markets are efficient but uncaring, and that people in general are happy to ignore problems on the other side of the plannet. But as Gates says:

If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to ourselves: “This can’t be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving.”

So we began our work in the same way anyone here would begin it. We asked: “How could the world let these children die?”

The answer is simple, and harsh. The market did not reward saving the lives of these children, and governments did not subsidize it. So the children died because their mothers and their fathers had no power in the market and no voice in the system.

But you and I have both.

I am optimistic that we can do this, but I talk to skeptics who claim there is no hope. They say: “Inequity has been with us since the beginning, and will be with us till the end – because people just … don’t … care.” I completely disagree.

I believe we have more caring than we know what to do with.

All of us here in this Yard, at one time or another, have seen human tragedies that broke our hearts, and yet we did nothing – not because we didn’t care, but because we didn’t know what to do. If we had known how to help, we would have acted.

Both Clinton and Gates sieze on the understanding that we all have massively more power to raise money, to raise issues and to express ourselves than previous generations.

And the solution isn’t to abandon the market in favour of some alternative system. The solution is to rebuild the market so that it rewards the things we care about. Much of Clinton’s presentation is also about the fact that actually the market arrangements in the most needy areas are the most disorganised. It is often a lack of knowledge and or organisation, not money which sustains the world’s problems:

The only thing that is keeping us from saving the lives of everybody who needs the medicine to stay alive is the absence of the systems necessary to diagnose treat and care for people, and deliver this medicine.

Not money.

He talks about reducing the price of AIDS medicine in the Bahamas from $3500 per person per year to $100 by driving efficiencies in the market. He describes this as changing the manufacturer’s business model from being a grocery-store model rather than jewelry-store model!

People will pay for the things they want. The market must enable it and for-profit charity is better than not-for-profit charity because it is more sustainable. 

Is this something Project Stripe will help? It’s a very bold mission. Certainly, they’ve got a very effective idol it follow in Muhammad Yunus. Best of luck to them.

Truth and classification

Libraries are no fun

Like Antony, I’m waiting for Royal Mail (or rather Amazon) to deliver my copy of Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder by David Weinberger. From reading around the book, it seems it will be a fascinating look at the role for taxonomy in the new world order of infinite capacity.

The traditional taxonomies of mass storage systems (that’s a euphemism for the fusty libraries of my youth) were necessary to make it possible to find stuff. Because physical items (books) must have a physical location, we need some way to map and understand that, hence we need some sort of filing systems, and we end up with taxonomies that put everything in its precise place: Non fiction > Travel > Humour > B > Bill Bryson > Neither here nor there. But we all know the limitations of that approach. What do we do when Bryson writes a book on copy editing, or the English language, or an autobiography about growing up in small town America (all of these things have happened). Now it looks more like a useful taxonomy is Authors > American > Slightly overweight > and funny > Bill Bryson.

And, of course, we get into the bizzare circumstance where the tail starts wagging the dog and it becomes a skill to navigate the taxonomies. It becomes  something you learn in school, even though it is not a natural way of thinking. The brain is much more able to build rich adaptive non-hierachical maps of how things fit together (the packed cupboards of the Advertised mind).

In this interview, Weinberger points to the underlying belief (which he describes as Aristotlean) that there is a perfect classification of things. Of course Aristotle was never faced with some of the quandaries we have today like the Jaffa Cake problem (is it a biscuit or cake). And indeed many brand marketers are now employed specifically in order to challenge and break taxonomies.

But the bigger problem is an even older debate, and it is the most fundamental taxonomy decision: true or false. I might be able to say something is green and yellow. I might be able to describe something as old-fashioned and trendy at the same time. I can describe something as  a tool, an advert, and an event at the same time. But can I describe something as true and false simultaneously?

The question becomes more obtuse when we look at socially owned knowledge like Wikipedia. Can a post in Jimmy Wales’ encyclopedia ever be truly correct?

Again, we can thank the ancients here. And this time it’s Plato, and in particular some interpretations of Plato which place knowledge as an unchangeable mirror of underlying forms and essences. This has led many to expect certainty in knowledge which in our day-to-day experience is simply not there. If all our knowledge had to stand up to that level of inspection, we’d never get out of bed.

How many of our views could not be reversed without damaging our overall framework? What if – for example – it turned out that the world wasn’t round. I don’t mean flat, or polo shaped but, lets say it’s actually shaped like an egg. I’d carry on my life with little disturbance. So which of our truths aren’t like that. Could George Bush be a quiet genius with a dastardly plan to fool the world? Perhaps that’s taking things a little too far.

I was lucky enough to study under Michael Welbourne many years ago (and millions of brain cells ago) at Bristol University. One of his central beliefs and areas of study was about the role of testimony (telling) in knowledge transfer. In fact, having been told something by a source we trust is the source of much of what we regard as knowledge. So what has changed recently isn’t perhaps the nature of knowledge but the nature of testimony. Historically we may have had to have been told something directly to believe it (and incorporate it into our ‘knowledge’). Now we can co-opt whole knowledge frameworks, and whole authority frameworks straight off the web.