Wednesday, July 05, 2006

fyi Bill Gates embraces open source process


Found content:

My take:

Huh? “Gates and his wife Melinda talked about bringing scientists together around a table and generating ideas about solving problems, without worries about money or who owns the ideas…Concentrate on the problem, on the solution. Network freely.” And Gates equates that—some vague definition of scientist-driven collaboration—with open source software?

First off, this is a very naïve of concept of the scientific process. Scientists are as competitive as any business people. In fact, sometimes it seems that the only things scientists worry about are “money” (getting grant dollar to underwrite their research) and “who owns the ideas” (getting due credit for being the first to discover and publish some important new finding). Scientists are not egoless altruists.

Second, this is a very biased view of the business process, a process that is usually driven by the need to solve problems and in which people network as freely as the situation demands. The business world is as solution-driven as the academic world—perhaps more so—given the fact that business people can be sacked for failure to produce, whereas many researchers are tenured faculty who can piddle around for years on minutiae without having to produce much in the way of concrete accomplishments.

Third, this is a wonk-driven vision of economic development, as if pure brainpower pooled around virtual and physical conference tables will solve the world’s problems. Lots of smart people everywhere have been worrying and working on these problems for so long. Scientists aren’t necessarily any smarter in matters of economic development, program management, and cross-cultural outreach than anybody else. Same goes for IT folks. These are what will make all the differences in producing actual results that improve people’s lives.

Everybody’s getting so enamored of Bill and Warren’s big beneficent bankroll, as if pure money has some sort of messianic power. It’s one thing to subsidize projects that promise to improve health and education around the planet. It’s quite another to follow through with delivery, implementation, and results. Let’s not think that we can simply parachute in with nifty new thirdworld-targeted technologies and magically improve lives. Will the Gates Foundation maintain a permanent staff of overseers in every nation on earth to make sure that its money is not sunk into wasteful NGOs, siphoned off by corrupt governments, and squandered in ill-conceived projects? How many of Gates’ own projects within Microsoft have failed, or underwhelmed, even when he was closely supervising them?

Precisely how will the Gates Foundation succeed where the IMF, World Bank, UNESCO, Peace Corps, etc have failed to make much of dent in world poverty?

It’s good that deserving health and education projects now have another well-heeled funding source. It’s also good that Bill Gates is devoting his life to managing that source. But he’ll quickly realize he’s dispensing a very limited supply of salve in a world teeming with open sores.