Thoughts On Bill Gates' Future

A few months ago, I went out to hear Bill Gates talk about the future at a Seattle-area high school. It promised to be a grand evening, with students, parents, alums, and friends eager for a sneak peak at the 21st century given by the man who is driving us there. No waiting for the book. The evening seemed ripe with meaning: Here was the favorite son, returning with wealth and laurels to preach to an audience of the successful and privileged from his own vantage point as America's richest man. There was a symbolic torch passing too, as one member of the audience was Wilber Huston (class of '29). Huston won an MIT scholarship and was dubbed by Thomas Edison himself as the "smartest boy in America." On this night, he seemed a living link between Edison and the still-boyish Gates (whom no doubt Edison would anoint were he alive today). Gates, backed by all the electronic gadgets he could muster, painted a picture of the electronic world over the next decade. The presentation included a film set in the year 2004 featuring a boy's day-in-the-life. The lad's homework was a multimedia presentation, though still offered up in a 20th-century classroom; his mother interacted with her TV set, though the programming was still Good Morning America-style dross. The world was a little flashier, but fundamentally familiar. Of course, the glitz and rhetoric surrounding these high-tech visions nearly always imply that we were in the midst of a millennial revolution. Recently, a New York Times Magazine piece on the on-line magazine HotWired quoted a staffer claiming the cyberage was evolving humankind into nothing less than a new species. Gates' bottom line was more mundane: Technology and the software that runs it will make the near future an incrementally more convenient place to live and give us a skosh more leisure time. That's the problem with the future these days. It ain't what it used to be. Shining cities on the hill have been replaced by cell phones and CD-ROMs. We're told a Brave New World is upon us, but is Windows 95 really the window on that world? The hype is hyper, the reality lacks imagination.What happened to the future that once lay glistering in the distance? The answer is suggested by computer science professor David Gelernter, a man with unique credentials: He is the author of an important book on computers, The Muse in the Machine; he was nearly blown to bits by the neo-Luddite Unabomber, who apparently misread Gelernter's book as an apology for technology; and he has just published a new book about America's loss of faith in the future, 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, a social history of the late 1930s built around the moment when the future was alive and flourishing at the New York World's Fair of 1939-40. What Gelernter describes is an era when popular culture was much more sophisticated than it is now, filled with subtlety and taste: pop music by Gershwin, industrial design by Bel Geddes, modern art by Picasso, science by Einstein, and government by Roosevelt. It was an age of faith in authority; a time when science and technology collaborated with the arts to produce imaginative visions of tomorrow (superhighways, suburbs, skyscrapers, appliances, electricity, and a car in every garage). The fair was the era's (and the future's) ultimate expression, and those visitors who walked away wearing their "I Have Seen the Future" buttons could truly say they had. In the late 1930s, he writes, "the future was a tangible, tasteable, nearly corporeal presence in your life." But today, the future lacks credibility and we lack subtlety and vision. Instead of Bel Geddes and Gershwin, we have Beavis and Butt-head. Nuance and style are dead. Art and science ignore one another. There is little collaborative creativity binding commerce, technology, and the spirit.The future of 1939 actually came to pass, but did not make us happy. The bright hopes of 1939 are discarded like a spoiled child's Christmas toy. Worst of all, like those who have lost religious faith and cannot see God, Gelernter says we have lost civic faith, and cannot see the future anymore. We have not lost the desire to look ahead, as evidenced by the turn out to hear Gates. But until we better ourselves, our multimedia visions will fail to inspire. The future lies within.

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