Throughout its history, America has given its heart to one fake populist after another. A list of rats who recently won America's affection includes Boone Pickens, Lee Iacocca, Donald Trump and Ross Perot. All rode a wave of popular acclaim to a brief moment of glory; all published unreadable, ghost written best sellers that are now as relevant as the 1956 Oshkosh Yellow Pages; all were unmasked as self serving mandarins who secretly loathe the hoi polloi.
The latest raging egomaniac to win America's affection by impersonating "jis plain folks" is Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and the richest man in the US. The previously reclusive Gates has lately been appearing everywhere, in part to hype his overrated Windows 95, in part to sell copies of his book. Billed as Gates' personal vision of the future, The Road Ahead is basically 286 pages shilling for Microsoft. On the cover, standing on the edge of a highway that seems to stretch forever, hands in his pockets, wearing a sweater that comes from the House of Ozzie, is the Ubertwerp himself.
"Hey, I'm just like you", that sweater says. "I'm an average guy. I care. I want to make your future better. Now give me all your money." The photo is the work of Annie Leibovitz, Vanity Fair's Diane Arbus, who probably borrowed the sweater from Jimmy Carter. If you've got $14 Billion, you really should dress like it. Ditch the sweater and penny loafers and get a suit and tie. What are you, still in high school?
The Road Ahead is not a good book. In fact, it's not a book at all. It's a catalog describing products that Microsoft will be hawking in the near future. It has a Buck Rogers flavor. Say you're driving in a strange place in the year 2004 and want to know what Chinese restaurants are still open. Being the natural upscale operations that they are, Chinese restaurants will be listed in a computer database of every Chinese restaurant in the solar system. So you'll punch them up on your car computer. Now that's handy.
Or suppose you want to see a famous painting by Seurat, but don't feel like flying to Paris. With the aid of the art database that Gates already owns, you'll be able to call up the images, and maybe a few Rembrandts while you're at it.
This is typical Gates. Vicarious experience is better than reality because the vicarious experience involves Microsoft products, whereas reality involves market neutral entities like human beings. Of course, it is idiotic to suggest that looking at a computer screen bears any semblence to looking at the real thing. But that's the sort of world that Gates and his legions of megageeks are leading us to. Consider this Gates prediction:
If you are watching the movie Top Gun and think Tom Cruise's aviator glasses look really cool, you'll be able to pause the movie and learn about the glasses or even buy them on the spot ... If the movie has a scene filmed at a resort hotel, you'll be able to find out where it is and make reservations. If the star carrys a handsome leather briefcase, the Highway will let you browse the entire line of the manufacturer's leather goods or direct you to a retailer.
The technical term for this scenario is progress. Though he would dearly like to call himself a visionary, Gates' talent is marketing, not technology. The genius of Microsoft has never been to out invent its competitors, but to convince its customers that it has. Witness the triumph of Windows over Apple's vastly superior operating system. Gates would like to be compared to Gutenberg or Edison, but he's really just a high tech Ray Kroc. He has one basic talent. He knows how to sell.
In this sense, the book is classic Gates: an unoriginal inferior product decked out with all kinds of bells and whistles to disguise the fact that it's a kludge. The most important bell is the CD-ROM that accompanies the book. It requires a 486 with gobs of RAM to be viewed, but many readers will not have such a recent computer and for them the CD-ROM will be useless. This is like including ham and cheese with a book and exhorting the reader to buy some bread if he wants a sandwich. Or die of hunger, you pathetic loser !
On the subject of utter self-infatuation and contempt for the public, the book also contains a chapter describing Gates' new house, complete with computer renderings of the view from across Lake Washington and from the staircase to the formal dining room. Not even Trump pushed it this far.
This book is a big tease. Reading this hype encyclopedia is like being trapped in a store where some cretin comes on the loudspeaker every 30 seconds to say "Attention Shoppers." It is a 286 page distraction away from the real question which is, how is the information highway going to make life easier for anyone other than the ones who already have easy lives?
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