Bill Gates: Visionary or techno-dreamer?

Bill Gates is everywhere. His tousled hair, stooped posture and disheveled attire routinely graces the covers of national magazines. The A&E cable network declared his life story the “Biography of the Year” for 1996, his book “The Road Ahead” hit the best-sellers list and “Doonesbury,” “Dilbert” and “Outland” have all featured him in cartoon form. Although his company, Microsoft, didn’t exactly start a revolution in 1996, Gates achieved the status of America’s most overexposed celebrity by playing our prophet of technology.
Gates made a smart business move in the early 1980s by licensing his computer operating system, MSDOS, to IBM rather than selling the rights to the program. This allowed him to profit every time an IBM PC or a clone is sold. Now Microsoft has a near monopoly, its software is used on almost 90 percent of the world’s 100 million computers and Gates’ personal fortune totals $23.9 billion. With Microsoft’s new Web explorer and cable/online news source, MSNBC, he aspires to be a dominant force on the Internet. In fact, he has gambled Microsoft on the idea that the Net will become another media outlet with the profit-making potential of broadcast and cable.
Clearly, Gates has a vision for the future and has plenty of us hanging on his every word. In the high-profit, high-profile world of computer technology, the media have seized upon Gates as the foremost “techie” trailblazer. Because Microsoft has been enormously successful and made Gates a very powerful man, we are led to assume that he must be able to reveal where technology will take us in the 21st century. But Gates isn’t the visionary he’s cracked up to be, and precious few seem willing to question him.
Gates’ current position as an industry leader is based more on entrepreneurial skill than technical innovations. He hasn’t been directly involved with programming since the mid-1980s. Advances on the Internet were the work of companies like Netscape, and Microsoft’s major innovation of the past two years, Windows 95, fell well short of expectations. Gates is not really a leader of the information revolution anymore, and there is something profoundly disturbing about his vision.
The Gates prophecy is more about gadgetry and gizmos to provide entertainment options, rather than using technology as a means to improve our lives. The $40 million home that he’s building near Seattle includes wall-sized video screens to display his personal preference in artwork. At trade shows, he touted a wallet PC that eliminates the need to carry cash, identification or a watch. Gates seems geared to give us fantasy world out of science fiction — a computopia far removed from the idea that technology should primarily be considered a tool. He’s even suggested that the Internet will reduce the need for actual contact in human relationships.
Don’t take that at face value — Bill Gates is not the Borg. It would be just as wrong to demonize his dreams as it is to lionize his accomplishments. But it’s important to note that his notoriety is due more to Microsoft’s stock value than to Gates’ notion of the road ahead. And as we weigh the possibilities presented by America’s first computer pop star, we should remember that visionaries are always anointed in hindsight.