In Bill Gates' utopia, we can all be information millionaires

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The Independent Culture
When he was eight years old Bill Gates, His Imperial Highness of Information and Potentate of the PC, settled down to work his way through the 1960 World Book Encyclopaedia. "I was determined to read straight through every volume," he recalls. "I could have absorbed more if it had been easy to read all the articles about the 16th century in sequence or all the articles pertaining to medicine. Instead I read about 'Garter Snakes', then 'Gary, Indiana,' then 'Gas'." He gave up when he reached the P's, apparently, seduced by the superior attractions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and his first computer. It's rather spooky, don't you think, this picture of childish absorption? The process sounds strangely mechanical, more like downloading than reading. It is most reminiscent of one of those speeded-up educations that malign computers undergo in science-fiction films. You can almost imagine Ma Gates lying in bed at night and asking Pa, as the light goes off, "Did you remember to unplug Bill, dear?"

I have been flicking through Gates's visionary account of the future, The Road Ahead. Or, to translate into Geek, I have been randomly accessing a paper document by means of a sequenced laminar storage device. The "book" only has a crude information retrieval system - an unreconfigurable alphabetical index - but it was sufficient for what I wanted to do, which was to examine what Bill thinks an electronic future might do for art and culture.

The important point first of all, for any Luddite readers who like to imagine that all of this will pass away, is that Gates is no fool. Hardly needs saying, really, given that his acuity of foresight has made him rich enough to mount a private moon shot. But it is also clear that he hasn't been seduced by the technology to the point of complete delirium. After several pages of excited discussion about how the publishing future will be virtually frictionless ("friction" is his term for the costs, in labour and money, of disseminating your text), he makes an important concession: "Of course," he writes, "it's easier to make copies of a document than it is to make it worth reading."

What Gates thinks is worth reading is more difficult to establish. He confesses at one point to "greatly enjoying The Bridges of Madison County", which makes the heart sink a bit. But he's a busy man - maybe he couldn't spare the time for anything longer. And there is more promising evidence. In a passage discussing the shortcomings of interactive forms of fiction, Gates makes another concession: "I don't want to choose an ending for The Great Gatsby or La Dolce Vita. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Federico Fellini have done that for me." This has a little smack of research to it, I think - does Gates really love these works or did his original draft contain an electronic note to his secretary: "Fill in names of art works here"? Still, Gates also says that he enjoys visiting galleries while on business trips abroad, principally because digital reproduction can never match the original. In other words, all the obvious objections to fantasies about an electronic culture are acknowledged in The Road Ahead. Those who think that Pride and Prejudice has been an interactive entertainment for 180 years have their fur smoothed flat every now and then by a remark of eminent common sense.

This doesn't mean that Gates is putting the brakes on at all - simply that he occasionally seems to recognise that there is a difference between quantity of information (the thing that really gets him hot) and quality of information (the afterthought that prevents him boiling over). Deep down, though, he wants to make us all information millionaires and he's convinced that our new-found wealth will release a surge of creativity: "The information highway will open undreamed of artistic and scientific opportunities to a new generation of geniuses," he writes in his most messianic style.

He's right, I think, that we are on the verge of a new medium. Real artists will begin to exploit multimedia forms in just the way that artists exploited the novelty of print. But I can't help hoping that the virtues of poverty will also be preserved, that the discipline of squeezing nourishment out of sparse texts will survive alongside the utopia of unlimited browsing in electronic pastures.