Jobs, Gates, and making the world a better place

The tributes paid to Apple’s Steve Jobs – the creator of the iPod, iTouch, iPhone, iPad and the use of the prefix ‘I’ to denote technical innovation and brilliance – have focused on his creative genius and his world changing creations. Jobs, the man who made the world a better place, a more beautiful place. Jobs, we are told endlessly, reshaped the future.

One striking feature has been the comparison of the creative genius of Jobs with the more staid, corporate, even, Bill Gates. Gates hasn’t, presumably, made the world a more beautiful place, a place in which new technology seamlessly, and oh so prettily, enriches our lives. Fair enough. I don’t look at my PC and feel a warm glow of contentment (especially when running Vista). But if he hasn’t made it more beautiful, Gates has a stronger claim to have made it better. Whilst the extent of Jobs’ own donations to charities and work to enrich the lives of the poor (rather than the aesthetic sensibilities of the rich) is much speculated upon, Gates has used his fortune to create the world’s largest philanthropic organisation, and dedicated the last decade or so to alleviate suffering and improve the wellbeing of those who will never experience the joy of looking through an Apple Store window, or for whom the benefits of iCloud are less important than day to day living on the i-less planet.

This is not a criticism of Jobs (I, too, love my various iThings), but perhaps a gentle nudge to those who have seen in the spread of iPhones, Ipads, etc, amongst the affluent few, a lasting and deep contribution to global wellbeing.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is certainly evidence of brilliant creativity – not of shiny metal, apps and touch screens, but of how new approaches to old problems can achieve major gains. The news that malaria deaths have fallen by 20% over the past decade is not solely due to Gates and his Foundation. But they can certainly share in the credit for this considerable achievement, amongst many others. The lives of millions have been directly touched by Gates and the uses to which he put his fortune. Lives have been literally saved. iPhones are great. But they have never saved a life*.

Jobs will rightly be missed, and the tributes are well deserved (if in some cases rather hyperbolic). But let us not confuse an ability to see what people will desire, what will make their lives more fun, more enjoyable, with what will improve the core and basic needs of those who have least. There are many ways to change the world. Some are deeper and more meaningful than others.

*Someone will no doubt claim that an iPhone was used to stop someone choking, as a rudimentary shield, or something similar. Stop it, you know that isn’t what I meant.


About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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