Discover more from william's coffee co
The Road Ahead...
Two books by Bill Gates give necessary perspective with which to read his most recent.
Welcome back all…. Let’s continue….
Here is how Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, described Google Maps in 1995: "Spatial navigation... will let you go where the information is by enabling you to interact with a visual model of a real or make-believe world. You can think of such a model as a map--an illustrated, three-dimensional table of contents."
The description is not that riveting, nor that accurate, but it's close enough considering this was a decade before Google Maps was born.
In 1995, Gates wrote a book called The Road Ahead. It was very likely part of his marketing push for Windows 95, a Napoleonic scale advertising campaign during which Mr Gates purchased a custom song from the Rolling Stones.
In the same paragraph he continues, "If you are considering visiting a hotel, you will be able to find out when rooms are available and look at a floor plan, and if the hotel has a video camera connected to the highway, you might be able to look at its lobby and restaurant and see how crowded it is at the moment." This seems obvious to us today. But think of that in 1995. How useful! Or creepy! Who would watch a restaurant from a camera?
This excerpt is demonstrative of his book. He describes something that sounds cool but fantastical at the time. Today, we can identify what products were invented, and also what problems came with it. In this case, he is describing a visual map of a city that would allow us to walk through streets, click on a bank to make a withdraw with a virtual teller, and even click on somebody's home garage to enter it and see whether that person has a lawn mower for sale.
In his telling, this technology is right around the corner. Reading over 25 years later, though, we can see what has actually developed-- Google Maps, Apple Maps, with street view and links to reviews and websites.
In another part of the book he describes something he calls a Wallet PC. This is a device that will allow us to look up information where ever we are. We might even be able to use GPS on it, and even make phone calls with it. It will be small enough to fit in our wallet. Or pocket, as it turns out, as this description is the central idea of the iPhone.
Gates also has this gem, which seems incongruous: "The last type of navigational aid, and in many ways the most useful of all, is an agent. This is a filter that has taken on a personality and seems to show initiative. An agent's job is to assist you." He says that some users will find an overly humanized agent "creepy," and recommends that human forms be used in the same way The Lion King portrays lions.
This, I think at least, must have been the idea behind Clippy, that annoying thing from MS Word that delayed work more than helped it. Almost twenty years later, Steve Jobs gave us Siri.
The central premise of his book is that the internet--which he calls the information superhighway--should be looked at as a utility, like an electrical outlet. In his book he claims we will be able to to plug into this highway and do all sorts of things, from watch movies, to shop, to any number of similarly banal and trivial activities. In a few sentences he also admits that the potential of abuse and crime are high, but he dismisses these ideas by saying, essentially, oh well.
And thus his book has a repeating pattern, which would not have been clear then but is clear all these years later. There is a promise of a new technology, what we can tell today was actually delivered, and the problems that have developed with it as well. It is striking that he was often so correct.
"When you point at an object on the screen to bring up information about the object," Gates writes, "you are employing a form of 'hyperlinking.'" He goes on, "Hyperlinks on the information highway will let you find answers to your questions when they occur to you and you're interested."
That sounds quite benign. He gives an example of watching politicians on television and wondering who they all all are. All one would have to do is click on them and read their biographies.
Clearly that technology has promise, and today, 27 years later, we take such abilities as standard. Yet the drawback is studies demonstrate that we click on things continuously, not just when when thoughts occur to us and we desire to know something, and far more frequently when we're baited to or induced to through activation of emotions such as fear. And doing reverse photo searches from Linked In is the starting point of blackmailers and con-artists worldwide.
Four years later Gates wrote another book, this time called Business at the Speed of Thought. It's an equally tedious read that, reading these years later, we can use the same framework of promise, identifying what was actually invented, and also the problems that have risen with the technologies. And, as in his first book, he appears to be… right.
Is this case, the book has two main pillars. A) That computers and the internet can reduce (he argues for elimination) paper transactions and communications. Yes, we take it for granted that payroll is easier done online, and so is filing taxes. And the one thing everybody in the US can agree on is that modern credit card terminals are easier to use than the carbon copy imprints of the nineties.
Pillar B regards something he terms "data." He argues that this thing called data can be collected on individuals, users of products, and even businesses, and that this data will be able to be analyzed in a variety of ways.
In 1999 this was a relatively new use of the word. The weather on a certain historical date was considered data. Stock quotes were data. But a psychometric analysis of an unsuspecting individual, silently taking place through a computer interface or by recording them and watching them, would have been considered a grotesque breach of ethics and privacy. It would have seemed inhumane to call it data.
In one example of data analytics, Gates describes that in 1997 and 1998 the Utah Jazz used computers to analyze Michael Jordan. They figured out that Jordan had specific tendencies, propensities to dribble in certain ways in certain situations. They calculated his stride length, the rate at which he runs. They determined which way he turns his head most often, and deduced which was his dominant eye.
The Jazz then reconfigured their team to take advantage of these insights. They had certain players with advantageous strides run the court to block Jordan's paths, thereby controlling his options of travel. They set up situations to get him to switch the ball into his weaker hand, and had a player who was opposite handed close to Jordan's weak hand nearby to snatch the ball. They used every trick the computer told them to, perhaps even going as far as having fans planted with flash photography to blind Jordan's dominant eye when he got close enough to the sidelines.
A common assumption with data analysts is that humans are very much like rats in a cage, and that we respond to stimuli in predictable ways. That's often true. However, what the Jazz didn't count on, though, is that Jordan is not a rat in a cage responding to stimuli. He is the greatest basketball of all time, a ferocious competitor and athlete. After the first loss in the 1998 Championship, Jordan figured out what they were doing. Then he crushed them, outscoring their key players by more than 4 to 1.
The Jazz extensively used a practice that was at the time called Cyber Scouting. In the late nineties, it was still a new tool, but many coaches were using it. IBM was the largest provider of the hardware to do such analysis. Around this same time, Sports Illustrated asked some prominent cyber sports analysts how to stop Jordan. Here is what one said: "He is so intelligent offensively that he's already solved every conceivable scheme opposing coaches have come up with to slow him down. There is still really only one to stop him. You have to break his ankle."
That's the only uplifting part of Bill Gates's book. A solitary example of a human outwitting a computer. A counter example, as it is, to his thesis. The rest is several hundred pages of how computers will encroach into every aspect of life and dominate us.
Among the things that computers will do for us--or to us, depending on one's outlook--is analyze us and to sell us things we didn't know we desire. Bosses will be able to extract more work out of fewer employees by setting up more "efficient" factories. And everyday Jane and Joe will be overcome with joy by living something he calls "the web lifestyle."
What is the web lifestyle? Well, over several pages he describes us as watching endless hours of NBC, CNBC, Fox, CNN, and a variety of DVDs, moving from screen to screen, room to room, store to store with our Wallet PCs, always clicking on videos and pictures, sometimes watching more than one thing at once, sometimes recording ourselves singing and dancing, always clicking clicking clicking, sitting besides our loved ones, clicking, watching, ignoring the human we apparently don't desire for the screen that we do, and always clicking through from site to site, so we don't miss anything, and checking something he calls e-mail, several times a day, because business moves fast, clicking clicking clicking, not like a junkie, but like a Netizen.
Bill Gates thinks all of these changes should delight people. He describes something he calls "targeted ads." We know what those are today, and don't bother looking at the term Targeted Ads. But in 1999, those words meant that one is shooting a customer, but with an ad instead of a bullet. "The ability to personalize ads means that different neighborhoods or even different households in the same area could be seeing different ads. Big companies can become more efficient with their advertising.... Targeted ads should make consumers happy."
In a very simple sense, accurate advertising is great. Sculptors should be able to know about new clay, new lathes, and how to purchase those items.
However, we see today that the scope and depth of the psychometric data collected on us perhaps has nefarious purposes. Facebook has admitted to showing people tailored news feeds to test whether they can induce depression. The CEO of OKCupid, a dating site, has said that they routinely attempt to get people to date outside of their stated preferences, even testing whether they can induce people to date within their same gender. It is worth asking whether the rise of irreversible, gender altering surgeries today has some relationship to psychometric data and internet trickery.
Bill Gates is a force of history. We are living through a period of immense creation, watching Napoleon, watching JD Rockefeller. And, like those juggernauts, Gates is creating his version of the world.
The things that look prescient in these books are the things that he spent his time and money on, the things that he fought for. In that sense, these books turned out to be more than just marketing tools or descriptions of debuting technology.
In hindsight, we can see that these were manifestos of how today's technological Napoleon will spend his considerable resources. In this pattern--what was dreamed, what was delivered, and the harm that came along with it—what we actually saw was what Bill Gates was determined to make come true and what the results were. Like him or not, he is a very important person in history.
This focus and effort extends to his philanthropic work as well. The success of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is spelled out right in their mission statement: “Our mission is to create a world where every person has the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life.” Through their polio eradication campaign, their vaccine programs, their clean water initiatives, they are. For the past several decades, when we collectively shrug off a difficult problem by saying Somebody smart will solve it, that somebody has been Bill Gates.
It is with this background, then, that we get to his most recent book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, which we will discuss next time.
Very best wishes from your friend, William