Simon Wistow took that line and posted it to Twitter, resulting in a discussion with Derek Powazek (and, privately, others) which seemed to see my wording as being at odds with empathy.
I think the best guide to my perspective is Clive Thompson’s Wired article from 2008 on Bill Gates and philanthropy. A couple of quotes:
In one recent experiment, Slovic presented subjects with a picture of “Rokia,” a starving child in Mali, and asked them how much they’d be willing to give to help feed her. Then he showed a different group photos of two Malinese children — “Rokia and Moussa.” The group presented with two kids gave 15 percent less than those shown just one child. In a related experiment, people were asked to donate money to help a dying child. When a second set of subjects was asked to donate to a group of eight children dying of the same cause, the average donation was 50 percent lower.
Slovic suspects this stuff is hardwired.
In other words, people can relate to another person, but once you start involving groups, they get worse. Or, in the context of Snowdon, it’s easier to look at the reposts of his girlfriend’s blog and private photos than it is to grapple with the systematic surveillance that technology is enabling.
As Thompson goes on to write,
Which brings me back to Gates. The guy is practically a social cripple, and at times he has seemed to lack human empathy. But he’s also a geek, and geeks are incredibly good at thinking concretely about giant numbers. Their imagination can scale up and down the powers of 10 — mega, giga, tera, peta — because their jobs demand it.
So maybe that’s why he is able to truly understand mass disease in Africa. We look at the huge numbers and go numb. Gates looks at them and runs the moral algorithm: Preventable death = bad; preventable death x 1 million people = 1 million times as bad.
In other words, Gates can see the system, and despite (or because) of his seeming lack of a one-to-one empathy, he ends up being able to care more - and is luckily in the position to do more - than many.
Perhaps I should have written “People have an annoying habit of thinking about a person, not people.”
Excession is a close second as my favourite Iain (M) Banks novel (after Use Of Weapons), but I suppose I can see his point. For me “a trillion year old black-body sphere” is a perfectly meaningful sentence, but not everybody would get that (just as I don’t care about half - well, more than half - the music Hornby gets excited about in High Fidelity, and I certainly couldn’t give a shit about Arsenal).
Oh, and I find the incredibly dense message from the GCU Fate Amenable To Change about the discovery of the Excession to be fantastic. If only Hornby had got to the parts where it’s spelt out to two of the characters, eh?