Bigger, Wider World

A bit of a departure for this column in that I'm not talking about computers, but I didn't want to sound monotonous here!

I love the idea of a system designed around the needs of its users and run for their benefit, rather than that of corporate investors. But computing, as much as I love it, is a limited field. It's nice to do some good here, but I have to recognise that the potential benefit is limited in a world where something like 80% of its 6 billion population have never even used something as simple as a telephone.

Recent charitable donations from certain major players in the IT industry got myself and some friends talking and thinking. Computing has produced the world's richest individual, with around $100 billion worth of assets to his name. And while he's done well, this is only as his company have done well and it's by no means unique.

To put that into perspective, think of the potential earnings from that sort of quantity. Stick it in a bank deposit account and, for a theoretical $100 billion deposit, you could get a return of $1 billion for every percentage point of annual interest you could secure. I'd like to see what the bank would do if you tried to make such a deposit though...

Let's assume that our hypothetical investor could secure a 5% return. Good, but not extraordinary in this country. That would give a theoretical return of $5 billion per annum, or just under $1 per head of population. That might not sound much, but that's to our eyes with, in all probability, very much higher earnings than the global average. Put it to work in the right places and it could do a lot of good.

There's (very roughly) 1 billion children under the age of 18, so that could then become $5 a head if focussed on that age group. Cut out the children in the rich industrialised world who don't really need the help and that figure rises further. Now, while I don't have the figures to hand, memory says that a measles inoculation costs a tiny fraction of that. Inoculate the world's children against measles and rather more of them become adults. Inoculate them against a whole host of childhood diseases for a little more and the benefit grows still further. Then remember that this is an annual figure and that they don't need annual inoculation. So, you've got enough to do this the once, then set up the funds to keep this going for many many generations, along with providing temporary food aid to stop famine from developing due to the sudden population increase. On the other hand, hospitals could be set up to benefit whole communities, or free contraceptives provided to help lower the birth rate in many countries to a sustainable level.

Perhaps education is your choice. You can't really educate someone on $5 a year (though again, this figure would be raised by removing those who are already being educated) but you could still make a start. Individual communities could be provided with basic education to boost basic literacy and numberacy quite happily, enabling greater prosperity for the community as a whole and allowing them to sustain or even enlarge such education programmes, allowing the funds to be transferred elsewhere. Incidentally, the birth rate could be reduced to a more manageable level just by educating the women in some communities - last time I heard, there was a pretty strong statistical correlation.

Now, this is all extreme examples, but it shows the point. Computing is awash with money - and, if successful, KOSH will most likely be too. We could very happily reinvest its proceeds in making KOSH better, but is this right? We could happily gain most of the benefit by ploughing most of the proceeds back in, then diverting some to charitable causes such as I've outlined above - or whatever we felt was right at the time. By acting that way though, we would be being truly inclusive. Not just benefitting the select few who can afford computing, but benefitting us all. Ultimately, it could even speed up universal use of KOSH by enabling more to afford computing!

I'm not trying to present this as KOSH policy without discussion, or to pillory a reasonably identifiable individual for not using his fortune in this way - it's his money and his choice. Nor am I trying to make a direct political point here and even if I were I'm still fundamentally a believer in democracy and applying that to the running of KOSH. Doing the sums certainly makes you think though, doesn't it?