This was written during our rant workshop at the recent Convergence Writers’ Retreat in New Denver. It has actually morphed into more of an essay, as I wanted to moderate the tone a little into one of an appeal rather than an outright condemnation.
Dear Mr. Gates: Clearly you are a man of great influence in the world, and you have worked hard to become that. But I wonder if you have ever considered what the full implications of your influence are.
For instance, have you considered that by designing products with planned obsolescence, you are consuming more and more of the Earth’s resources? As Annie Leonard suggests in The Story of Stuff, with 7 billion people on the planet, isn’t it time to consider ways of re-using stuff rather than constantly having to replace it?
(See: http://www.storyofstuff.org/movies-all/story-of-electronics/) We’re entering an era when the old values of craftsmanship and quality will need to be reintroduced if we are to avoid exceeding the planet’s limits. I fully understand that software needs to be dynamic and responsive to user needs and new applications. But hardware could easily be engineered to allow almost endless retrofitting as long as the quality control standards used to manufacture it in the first place were high enough. A useful analogy for hardware designers might be the old mechanical typewriters: with their cast-iron bodies and parts, they literally lasted a lifetime. The only part needing regular changing was the ribbon. In computers that would correspond to software and RAM cards.
I also understand that when you’re working within the current consumer capitalist model of economics, a high premium is placed on ‘adding value’ to products, which can be as simple as making a computer endlessly expandable in its capacities. But when wedded to the ‘throwaway society’ that has emerged during the past century, the imperative seems to extend to making everything as disposable as possible as quickly as possible. Just try to find replacement parts for your flatscreen TV or DVD player. Fewer and fewer electronics corporations even manufacture parts anymore. Meanwhile our overflowing landfills and mountains of plastic garbage are overwhelming the environment—and our health—contaminating land, air and sea, as for example in the island of plastic garbage known as the Pacific Gyre. Small fragments of plastic are now turning up in fish caught for market, and water tables are threatened by seepage from toxic landfills stuffed with disposed electronic garbage. (See: http://www.storyofstuff.org/movies-all/story-of-electronics/)
As Onandaga elder Oren Lyons has said, “What you people call your natural resources our people call our relatives.” We already have the tools at our disposal to create a society not predicated on garbage. For example, William McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of Cradle to Cradle, have taken the principle of re-use and combined it with the principle of ‘waste equals food.’ Simply explained, this means that instead of engineering products to become waste, we need to imitate nature, in which the concept of waste does not exist. All ‘waste’ material from the process of decay is put back into an ecosystem as ‘food’ for another part of the cycle. This ties in neatly with Janine Benyus’ concept of ‘biomimicry,’ in which nature is studied in detail to engineer products that work with natural processes rather than ultimately working against them. Braungart and McDonough have consulted with Ford, Nike and other corporations to explore ways of putting the ‘cradle to cradle’ principle to work. As with the concept of lifetime computer hardware that can be retrofitted, it could mean a running shoe that goes back to the factory for new components, or a car body that can be upgraded as moving parts wear out. (See: http://www.mcdonough.com/cradle_to_cradle.htm / http://biomimicryinstitute.org/about-us/what-is-biomimicry.html)
You probably see your company as creating solutions to peoples’ business and leisure needs via computer technology. To an extent this is very true. But have you ever considered the stress you create in peoples’ lives when they have to constantly deal with software that malfunctions or fails to perform adequately? The stress caused by families having to earn more and more income simply to afford to replace quickly outmoded technologies? The lost time at work and wasted energy having to constantly re-learn the same programs because software designers were under pressure to get the latest version onto the market? The old-fashioned principle of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ may need to be applied in your software labs. Then your designers could spend their energy fixing what doesn’t work instead of adding sales gimmicks. People are creatures of habit. Changing the look of the menu or moving things around just for the sake of it is counter-productive for all concerned. You may point to management philosophies of ‘pushing the envelope’ of human creativity to spark innovation but there comes a point when human resiliency is exceeded. That shows up as stress and breakdown. Most working people I know are already at that point.
I wonder if you have considered the implications of being a major participant in the disposable culture at a societal level? As a boy growing up in the 1960s I was taught by my father to always do the best job possible, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant the job was. He had come out of an earlier culture, the culture of the Great Depression, when people had to ‘make do’ with very little. As a result people learned innovative ways of repairing and extending the life of things. They also learned to value an item of quality that would stand up to repeated uses and repairs. Of course this was forced on them by economic circumstances, but it was also a ‘hangover’ of the discarded but still useful ethos of craftsmanship from the pre-Industrial Revolution era. Regardless of its source, people who struggled through the Great Depression either knew already or quickly learned the true value of things and how to separate good from poor quality. With the current economic depression threatening to collapse entire countries’ economies, it’s a value system we may soon need to re-learn.
By fostering the disposable culture at a time of environmental degradation you also contribute to social decay. When there’s no incentive for quality, only quantity, everyone and everything suffers. (Well except of course for the owners of industry, but that’s another discussion.) Still, in their recent book The Spirit Level, economists Wilkinson and Pickett crunched the data on rates of economic disparity in societies around the world. They discovered that not only is there more crime, drug addiction, poorer health, more homelessness etc. in societies with greater disparity between the rich and the poor; but that in societies where the gap was widest, even the One Percent were worse off. Sure they had more money than anyone else, but the pressure of a stressed-out culture pushing angrily at the boundaries caused even the rich more health and psychological problems. (See: http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resource/the-spirit-level)
You speak of empowerment of people in Third World countries, and through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (http://www.gatesfoundation.org/Pages/home.aspx) you give generous portions of your wealth to help the less fortunate. That is highly commendable. But have you considered that the very disparity you are placing a band-aid over is perpetuated by the capitalism that created your fortune in the first place? That this type of predatory capitalism actually creates many of these victims? Have you considered, for example, that the history of vaccines has been grossly misrepresented in terms of its actual effectiveness? Or do you own too many shares in the vaccine manufacturers to consider this possibility? Have you considered that if your solution to world hunger lies in promoting genetically engineered (GE) crops, you are unleashing a biological experiment whose consequences could negatively affect generations of our descendants, not to mention other biological organisms? Are you interested in helping people solve the problems of health, homelessness and economy in a way that gets at the roots, or merely treats the symptoms?
So please, Mr. Gates, stop a moment now and then to consider deeply the influence you have on the world. As part of the One Percent, your influence is disproportionate compared to the rest of us, and thus needs careful, informed and heartfelt reflection.