City and Business: The chief geek could be bad for business
Sunday 28 March 1999
There is a certain amount to duck these days. Microsoft's battle with the US Justice Department, for example. Whatever the outcome, Gates should send whoever advised him to fight, not settle, back to the age of the pencil.
As a result of standing tall against Washington, Gates will now forever carry the taint of being a digital-age Rockefeller. Andy Grove and Intel, by contrast, settled rather than fought their anti-monopoly case, and so only the cognoscenti even know there was a fight.
Or maybe Gates's droop of the head is not ducking, it's bowing - a sign of heavy responsibilities. Weight of celebrity, perhaps. Gates vies with Muhammad Ali as the man with the greatest name recognition of anyone among the planet's 6 billion current residents.
Unlike Arnie or Mel, or Bill or Tony, Gates seems to take his celebrity straight on, no angles. At a corporate level, Microsoft does whatever it takes to protect its position. At a personal level, Gates appears to deal with strangers relatively uncynically.
His pullover casual style seems in no way affected. Rather it's a statement: "I want to be a demo-crat in a world of democrats. I have used neither birth, nor money, nor influence to attain my position. Only brainpower."
Speaking to students at the London Business School on Friday, he repeatedly invoked a natural aristocracy of brainpower. That and an aristocracy of guts: the world following Frank's advice - do it your way. A student asked Gates what he thought about soaring internet shares. "I don't get up in the morning and talk to brokers," he replied. "I go to work and talk to software engineers."
As he got into his flow, a funny thing happened. His posture shifted. The droop vanished. Articulating his vision, Gates empowered himself. Suddenly, you saw what the information technology revolution was: not a headline, nor an abstraction, nor a movement of history, but the outcome of a tiny band of engineers thinking through digitalisation. It was fascinating. Among all the other things Gates embodies, he embodies American capitalism in its current "globalised" phase.
This means he harks back to men like Rockefeller. But he also has links with the Hollywood dream machine in its commercialisation of fun. Halfway through his speech at the London Business School, Gates stopped and showed a video designed, simultaneously, to market and poke fun at the internet.
Slick. You wondered how much he had paid the American comedian Jay Leno to compere. You wondered how many Oscar-winning movie types had pulled the video together. And yet you laughed in spite of yourself because it was fun. And persuasive in selling the dream of "total connectivity".
At the end of the video, there was a sequence in which Gates dances with the Riverdance troupe, hoofing it with the best of them. Gates turns to a fellow Microsoft exec, also hoofing it, and says: "This isn't as hard as I thought."
Fade out. Lights up. And there again is Gates in the flesh with a complex expression on his real face. "Wasn't that silly," the expression says. "Wasn't I silly? But don't forget; who can better afford to be silly than I?" It's an oblique but real moment of self-exposure - ultimately, of course, in pursuit of profit.
Gates is also like his American capitalist precursors in his capacity to simplify. Henry Ford said everyone could have a Model T in any colour so long as it was black. Discussing the contents of his new book, Business @ The Speed of Thought, Gates made the internet seem like a similar sort of inevitability. He said he wrote the book partly because businessmen kept asking him about the internet. In it, he says, he gives businessmen ways to judge how well they are staying abreast of the net's new laws of commercial survival. Have you, the boss, decreed an end to paper forms? Can employees sit down at a computer terminal and find every old company memo relating to a project within 60 seconds? If they can't, Gates said, a company will lose out to rivals making better use of their corporate memories.
Gates then propounded his internet credo: 1) the internet changes everything, 2) every worker is a knowledge worker, 3) customers should be at the centre and 4) bad news must travel fast.
For an instant I thought I was back in Peking with Mao. But then I realised that in its bold assertion, its simplicity and self-confidence, it was pure Silicon Valley. Bill's credo tells us how the Valley sees the world. It rules it.
Seeing Gates in action stirred up memories of things that have been said about him. Early on, the information technology revolution was dubbed "the revenge of the nerds". The idea was that American kids who played sport, wore chinos and button-down shirts, and went to the right parties used to look down on the swots who got off by playing with their slide rules. Now the slide rule-wielding swots were having their day. But the nerds were not only swots. They were also outsiders glorified as freaks by such far-out Sixties rock stars as Frank Zappa. Mix swots and nerds and freaks and you get geeks. Gates is the world's geek-in-chief.
However, in his corporate manifestation, in Microsoft-chairman-and-chief- executive form, Gates could well turn out to be something much darker: the latest generation of American capitalist hypocrite who - in preaching a technology liberation theology - is really setting terms of trade through which he will clean up.
Geeks in Bombay and Budapest as well as Silicon Valley will see in the personal Bill the real Bill. But a different conclusion may be reached by those who note that, over the 25 years or so the information technology revolution has been with us, the gap between rich and poor has grown wider. The issue is not merely political. It is not only for bleeding hearts. New Labour has bought into the information technology revolution in a big way. It is pinning a significant portion of its economic programme on its potential as defined by Gates.
If Gates' rhetoric proves more hype than substance - if, indeed, it is cover for Microsoft aggression - the consequences could be dire. New Labour could be pushing to do no more than make UK plc a subsidiary of Silicon Valley Inc.
Even if Gates' take on the democratising effects of digital technology proves right, New Labour has a problem. Stooped and unstooped, what radiated from Gates on Friday was power - a new style of power, yes, but old-fashioned economic power in the raw.
New Labour wants to unleash this power and use it to lift UK plc's game. Fine. So far, so good. Surely, however, the lesson from Bill teaches us that governments must surrender power to free the geeks. New Labour, by contrast, loves accumulating power. That's why Tony & Co are accused of being control freaks. You have to wonder how this is going to work itself out.
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