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Bill Gates On How The Internet Has Damaged Democracy

In a Reddit AMA, the philanthropist billionaire also addressed the future of vaccines, the limits of philanthropy, and his favorite sandwich.

Bill Gates On How The Internet Has Damaged Democracy
[Photo: Michael Gottschalk/Photothek/Getty Images]

Bill Gates has done another Reddit Ask Me Anything session, and it was as informative and informal as the last one we wrote about. This time, the AMA was done to promote Bill and Melinda Gates Annual Letter, which this year is addressed to Warren Buffet, another billionaire philanthrocapitalist.

Subjects include the limits of philanthropy; the biggest problem facing humans in the next ten years; how to fix renewable energy (or not); how the internet has ruined society; and–most important of all–what is the greatest sandwich of all?

On the biggest thing he has ever done: software. “I still think the chance to be part of the software revolution empowering people was the biggest thing I have gotten to do,” he wrote but adds that eradicating polio would top shipping Windows.

To smart folks: Being smart isn’t all that. “Smartness is not single dimensional and not quite as important as I thought it was [when I was 19]. I would say you might explore the developing world before you get into your forties.”

On what he wishes to see before he leaves the planet: Computers that can read and understand information like humans do, so they can represent knowledge, not just data; and vaccines. Gates hopes to see vaccines for HIV, malaria, and TB in the next 10 to 15 years.

One of the most interesting questions concerned how the internet may have led us to the current fact-free political climate. Social media in particular, says Redditor Terrashine, has helped to spread false information, and encouraged confirmation bias, where people seek out real and false information to confirm what they already believe. Gates doesn’t have a solution, but he has been thinking about it and agrees that the internet has failed to live up to all its promises.

This is a great question. I felt sure that allowing anyone to publish information and making it easy to find would enhance democracy and the overall quality of political debate. However, the partitioning you talk about which started on cable TV and might be even stronger in the digital world is a concern. We all need to think about how to avoid this problem. It would seem strange to have to force people to look at ideas they disagree with so that probably isn’t the solution. We don’t want to get to where American politics partitions people into isolated groups. I am interested in anyone’s suggestion on how we avoid this.

On the “most pressing issue that we could feasibly solve in the next ten years:” Isolation. “A lot of people feel a sense of isolation,” says Gates, and he wonders if digital tools can help adults to mentor kids, or for adults to just find other adults to hang out with, kind of like Tinder, only for community instead of for sex. He also wonders what could be done to help communities after the young people have left to seek their fortunes.

On creating a business with Elon Musk: “We need clean, reliable cheap energy–which we don’t have.” Sun and wind aren’t enough, says Gates, so we need an invention. “Perhaps miracle batteries or super-safe nuclear or making sun into gasoline directly,” he writes.

And finally, on why even billionaires have limits to their philanthropic goals. “Philanthropy is small as a part of the overall economy so it can’t do things like fund health care or education for everyone,” writes Gates. “Government and the private sector are the big players so philanthropy has to be more innovative and fund pilot programs to help the other sectors. A good example is funding new medicines or charter schools where non-obvious approaches might provide the best solution.”

He also mentions poor countries, where weak government and poor trains mean that getting anything done is a struggle.

There’s a lot more in the thread, and as ever Gates shows that he’s both smart and considerate. But he’s not always right. When asked what his desert-island sandwich would be, the one sandwich he could eat forever onwards, he picked the cheeseburger. Obviously, he’s never enjoyed an English cheese and pickle sandwich.

About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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