What Bill Gates Is Running For
One of the most interesting things about 1995 has been, of all things, the emergence of the book as a major career vehicle. Who said print was dead, even if the books are just another excuse for event marketing? First there was Newt Gingrich's book on his vision for the future, To Renew America, which became famous long before it was written, and for all the wrong reasons. The incessantly yapping House speaker accepted a $4.5 million advance from right-wing media billionaire Rupert Murdoch's publishing company, then had to give it up when it was pointed out that Murdoch wanted the Congress to completely overhaul the regulation of the U.S. media business. Too bad for Gingrich. Despite the massive Murdoch PR and attendant media hype, the book will only earn the Newtster a third of the original advance. And To Renew America's cover price was just cut by 40 percent, and the publisher is offering a $5 a book rebate. Get 'em while they're cold. Then came Colin Powell and his autobiography, My American Journey Like Gingrich, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to run for president. Unlike Gingrich, a lot of people would have voted for him, even after he became an all-too-familiar presence on the TV screen. Now there's Microsoft chairman Bill Gates with his view of our cyberfuture, The Road Ahead The wealthiest man in the world isn't running for something as mundane as the presidency. He's out to become the personification of the information highway. I have mixed feelings about Gates. On the one hand, like many of the other latter-day robber barons of the megamedia world with whom he increasingly associates, Gates is a cutthroat businessman. Silicon Valley is awash in tales of his and Microsoft's powerlust and duplicity. On the other hand, I use Gates' products every day. This article, for example, was written using his Microsoft Word software program. It was transmitted to this newspaper using an Internet node provided by a company in which Gates is the principal investor. Bill Gates produces things that add real value to my life, and the lives of many millions of other folks--something which can't be said, say, of the men who have moved heaven and earth to give the nation Current Affair and True Stories of the Highway Patrol.Bill Gates hasn't just manipulated the credit markets of the world in order to take over an old technology base--television--and churn out still more mind-numbing dreck for "eyeballs" (as TV advertisers refer to you and me). He has been, arguably, the single most important player in the personal computer revolution, which is merely the broadest diffusion of advanced technology in the history of the world. As a result, his Croesus-like wealth bothers me not a bit, especially since he is completely lacking in the usual nouveau riche ostentation. That's what he's done up to now. The Road Ahead is about the next computer revolution, which, of course, has already begun. There wasn't anything in the book that was new to me, but it does provide a useful roundup of what may lie ahead, as well as a revealing source of insights into the thinking of one of the world's most important executives.If the personal computer revolution is about providing widespread access to powerful tools, then the cyberspace revolution is about providing widespread access to powerful information. The PC revolution brings computational power to the individual. The cyberspace revolution can bring a different sort of power to networks of people techno-savvy enough to appreciate the potential. It is turning the PC from a strictly computational device into a strategic weapon of inquiry and communication. The personal computer revolution took place first on the desktop, and now you can carry a portable computer anywhere. The cyberspace revolution is taking place in the non-space of the information network, and ultimately, in the human mind.Ironically, Gates was behind the curve on the new revolution. Focused on dominating the desktop with Microsoft's Windows operating system and various application programs, he was slow to see the significance of the blossoming commercial online services. And he completely missed the emergence of the Internet, the globe-spanning network of computer networks. This fall, as part of the uber-hyped introduction of Windows 95, Gates got into the online service game with the underwhelming Microsoft Network. Earlier this year, he tried to achieve a dominant position in the emerging online finance business by acquiring the Intuit software firm, but federal regulators turned him down on antitrust grounds. These and other moves make it seem at times that Gates wants to achieve an across-the-board domination of the computer future. Although he doesn't especially emphasize it in his book, he seems to realize that his future strategic opportunity is more focused than that. Think "social user interface" and "intelligent agent" software. Gates' real opportunity isn't in dominating banking, publishing and other fields beyond Microsoft's core competency, it's in controlling the way you interact with your computer and the way your computer gathers your information. Meanwhile, for all its hype, Windows 95 is just Gates' latest attempt to copy what the Apple Macintosh has done for years in providing an elegant and powerful graphical user interface. The social user interface will function like a personal assistant, learning from experience with the computer user, even "mimicking the behavior of a celebrity or a cartoon character as it assists you." For some reason, Madonna just came to mind. With intelligent agents on the Net, the rudimentary filter programs that bring me material on Tina Turner when I'm really interested in Ted will give way to extremely sophisticated software that gathers, collates and schedules text, audio and video information. The problem with Gates' conception of intelligent agents is that they would actually be double-agents, working not just for you, but also for large corporations anxious to learn what you like and respond to. For, you see, Bill Gates sees cyberspace as "the world's central department store," the ultimate market. That he describes cyberspace as the "information highway" is also quite telling. Highways are linear, two-dimensional, where the world of cyberspace already emerging through the Internet goes in many directions. The information highway metaphor is the one favored by politicians who liken it to a Second Wave public works project, and by the cable, TV and movie executives who Gates has come to know through the annual Sun Valley retreat held by Allen & Co. investment bankers. Their interest, of course, is in promoting a linear flow of information--seller/buyer, movie/credit card number. More disturbing than the predictable emphasis on commercialization is Gates' penchant for envisioning uses of the new technology for control. This element of control comes through clearly when Gates discusses the computerized house he is building. Guests will receive programmed electronic pins that interact with the house, causing it to deliver some of their favorite music and video images as they move around the premises--a new spin on the old saying, "wherever you go, there you are." Much as I like the artists, I'd really rather not be greeted with a blast of Pearl Jam or Don Henley when I visit someone else's home. Being more than a little familiar with my own life, I enjoy learning about other people's lives. Not being a movie, my life doesn't require a soundtrack. The cloistered loopiness of Gates' intelligent house gives way to the downright sinister in his discussion of the advantages of what he calls "a documented life." Gates sees a future in which your computer essentially records your life, a future in which cameras are everywhere, linked into the information network. He argues that this will enable you to protect yourself against false charges. Actually, it's been possible for some time to use technology to stave off false charges. In any event, reasonable doubt still applies, as we just witnessed in a certain trial in Los Angeles. And the burden of proof belongs with those who bring the charges. But that's always been the downside of any advanced technology. If it can be used in a certain way, someone will think of using it in that way. Even the most powerful computer executive in the world.