- By Brian Bergstein on January 2, 2013
To say that Bono is the lead singer of the rock band U2 is like saying that Thomas Edison invented the record player: it leaves out a lot of biography. The 52-year-old Irishman (born Paul Hewson) is also a technology investor and an activist who cofounded the ONE and (RED) organizations, which are devoted to eradicating extreme poverty and AIDS. He has spent years urging Western leaders to forgive the debts of poor nations and to increase funding for AIDS medicines in Africa.
It’s 2013, and millions of people are still short of food or proper medical care. Have technologists overpromised?
The tech that’s been delivered has been staggering in its measurable achievements. For example, antiretrovirals, a complex 15-drug AIDS regimen compressed into one pill a day (now saving eight million lives); the insecticide-treated bed net (cut malaria deaths by half in eight countries in Africa in the last three years); kids’ vaccinations (saved 5.5 million lives in the last decade); the mobile phone, the Internet, and spread of information—a deadly combination for dictators, for corruption.
But to maximize the massive effect technology can have, you need a network of efforts, a system of interventions, supported by citizens who share social capital. That’s what drives substantial progress sustainably. There is no silver bullet to ending extreme poverty and disease, no magic technology. That takes commitment, a lifetime of it, plus resources, political will, and people standing up to demand it. Technology provides the means, however.
What should be the role of technology in making a better world? Are some problems beyond its reach, like poverty?
Technology has already helped tackle extreme poverty in Africa. Extreme poverty is the empirical condition of living on under $1.25 a day. Nelson Mandela once demanded we be the “great generation” to beat extreme poverty, noting how we have the technology and resources to achieve this extraordinary vision. And we do. We could achieve it by 2030, maybe before. The digital revolution that we are living through, the rapid advances in health and agrotechnology—these things have become core weapons in responding to Mandela’s clarion call. They enable people to get on with it themselves, to fight their way out of the condition they find themselves in. In Africa, things are changing so rapidly. What’s been a slow march is suddenly picking up pace in ways we could not have imagined even 10 years ago. Innovations like farmers using mobile phones to check seed prices, for banking, for sending payments … to the macro effect we saw with the Arab Spring thanks to Facebook and Twitter.
But people can use technology for bad as well as good. The social systems and the social capital within networks must be strong and positive to nurture a progressive use of technology. Let’s be honest.
“With data informing our course we can describe the kind of world we want to live in and then without airy-fairyness or wishful thinking go after it.”
You admired Steve Jobs. Did he make the world better or just make nice computers?
I think a large part of the reason Apple and Steve Jobs have beguiled so many is that they are a gigantic company that put greatness ahead of the bottom line, believing that great profitability would follow in the long term. Steve was an extremely tough deal maker, and if that was the only side you saw, I can imagine that a more fearsome profile would emerge. But the reason why I, and others who got a glimpse of him personally, were such believers was his clear thinking. Great ideas to me are like great melodies. They are instantly recognizable, memorable, and have some sort of inevitable arc. In the music world, it’s hard to imagine there being a better melody to “I want to hold your hand.” In the tech world, it’s hard to imagine there being any better form or function to a lot of Apple’s products. It’s as if they’ve always existed. It’s that kind of inevitability Steve could spot. With Jony Ive’s designs, with Avie Tevanian’s operating systems, etc. In amongst the noise, the yearning for that clear tone, or in Apple’s case, pure white.
He told me he would love to spend more time on philanthropy and would get to it one day. He wasn’t interested in half doing it, as is obvious with his personality. Still, Apple very quietly has contributed more than $50 million to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria through the sale of (RED) iPods, Nanos, etc. They are the biggest corporate donor. Tim Cook is passionate about this stuff. By attaching themselves to what is, in recessionary times at home, an unpopular emergency (people dying in far-off places because they can’t afford AIDS drugs), he and Apple have really helped to keep the heat on the issue.