Imagine giving every single person in the world a bank account and a personal Web page, containing a family photo. Add a short description of needs and skills and the World Wide Web instantly becomes a conduit for something called person-to-person microlending. This proposal and others designed to reduce the digital divide between rich and poor around the world surfaced last month during the World Economic Forum. Many of the top executives from the world's largest media, computer and communications companies took time out from their usual deliberations about the global economy to discuss concrete ways to pursue the initiatives.
Person-to-person microlending via the Internet was championed by John Gage, chief researcher at Sun Microsystems. He estimates that giving the 6 billion people on earth their own Web pages would entail only about $8,000 worth of disc storage. Gage and other technology industry executives spoke to some of the world's largest banks at the Davos meeting about using digital certificates so that small amounts of money can be transferred between individuals. As Gage sees it, some people think nothing of spending $100 for dinner for two, an amount that would make a major difference to a Third World family.
Tech leaders discussed two ways to move things forward. One is spreading the micro-financing model already tested in Bangladesh by Iqbal Quadir, co-founder of GrameenPhone, which bypasses governments and banks and goes directly to individuals. The other is to work with the people in power and institutions such as the World Bank in a top down approach. But the people in power no longer seem to need nudging to jump on the Internet bandwagon. At Davos, tech executives, such as Intuit chairman Scott Cook, said they were surprised to hear French government officials talking about innovation and venture capital and the Japanese extolling the benefits of e-commerce..
The Internet is clearly serving as a means of spreading wealth across the globe, says Johan StaŽl von Holstein, a 36-year-old Swede who has made a fortune from Internet companies Icon Medialab and LetsBuyIt.com. StaŽl von Holstein is now creating incubators--consultancies which nurture fledgling Internet entrepreneurs--across Europe and Asia to help create viable companies. Americans--and America's critics--are wrong to think that, because they created dotcom companies and the Internet is global, American companies will dominate internationally. Says StaŽl von Holstein, "English content may very well end up being produced in France or Italy in future, as they are much better at communication than Americans are."
Dell Computer chief Michael Dell went even further and predicted that in 20 years the leading language on the Net will be Chinese. According to Michael Dertouzos, director of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology's Laboratory for Computer Science, contrary to the fears of many, the Net is in fact a great means of promoting cultural diversity.
But for all its potential benefits the Internet will not be a panacea for the world's problems, warned Ian Craig, executive vice president of Nortel Networks. People once thought Morse code would lead to greater knowledge and understanding and stop wars, says Craig. The Internet, too, can only go so far in changing human nature. "We have more knowledge," says Craig, "but the basic operating system is still the same." Even Gates can't dominate this one.