Thoughts on Bill Gates’ Harvard speech

Jan 30th, 2009 | By Editor | Category: Anthropology, Celebrities, Featured article, Human Rights, Leadership, Making things better, Philosophy, What's YOUR take on this?

Today I’m reading Bill Gates’ Harvard Commencement speech.
What drew me to this was his seemingly new passion for activism. However, reading his speech I realized that it was not a new passion, but a natural progression (with perhaps the catalytic effect of some recently gained insights.)

One of the most striking points of Gates’ speech is his description of a Davos panel discussing how to save millions of lives, and how dreadfully boring that panel was. As a sharp contrast, a meeting he’d attended not long before this Davos talk was a software release, iteration 13 or so, which had people jumping on chairs and hooting. How is it possible that we get more excited about software than about saving lives?

Surely there is a Malcolm Gladwell book in the making on just this aspect of human behavior.

But my speculation is that this is sequitur, and has likely sources.

One of them is the culture bred within software geek clubs - unadulterated evangelism, zealotry, disregard for stifling social convention, disregard for “sobriety” or “decorum” as primary drivers, a sense of wonder and playfulness, team dynamics and camaraderie. Compare that with the culture bred by politics and NPOs: board meetings, clashing egos and agendas, a strong focus on status and pecking order, etc. etc. (Feel free to say that I’m being unkind. I’m sort of using a sledgehammer to drive a 1/2″ point home.)

The second potential reason is detachment vs. immersion. The software geeks are neck-deep in the software all day long (actually, in software-land, immersion happens specifically from the neck up.) I don’t know to what extent any of the voices in that Davos room was attached to a set of hands that actually held a sick Ethiopian baby in their arms, or administered care to a Tamil youth in a refugee camp. This point is not brought up to judge or demean - it’s been a few years since I’ve been actively immersed in volunteer field work myself. My point is that there needs to be a direct stakeholder emotional connection, where the results are palpable and real for those involved.

This second point is likely more easily surmountable than the first one.

Bill closes his Harvard speech with an exhortation to the graduates to become activists, to get involved sooner and stay involved longer. Will they listen? Will they care? As much as they care about Windows 7?

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