Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How Bill Gates invented the Internet

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Bill Gates

Note: My daughter is recovering from a stomach bug, so I’m taking the morning off. In the meantime, please enjoy this post, one of my favorites, which was originally published on April 1, 2013.

Over the last few days, I’ve been greedily reading the interviews in Programmers at Work by Susan Lammers, a seductive little volume that I recently picked up at my local thrift store after keeping an eye peeled for it for a long time. I’ve always been intrigued by the parallels between coding and other forms of creativity, and this particular book, which was published in 1989, is also fascinating for the glimpses it provides into how the future of computing once looked. Here, for instance, are a few select quotes from Bill Gates, in an interview conducted almost a quarter of a century ago:

We hope with the Internet you’ll be able to look at a map of the United States, point somewhere, click, zoom in and say “Hey, what hotels are around here?” And the program will tell you.

We really believe we’re going to have the Internet in every car and in every house. And when you go to a new area of the country, you’re going to pan around and have it show you routes, and have it tell you about points of interest.

It’s pretty impressive, and no matter what you think of Gates as a person or businessman, there’s no doubt he clearly saw the shape of things to come. Here are a few more excerpts from the same interview:

The Internet is the technology we’re going to use to get personal computers into the home.

Some Internet applications sound like a fantasy. But how often is a new media invented? Almost never.

For anything that’s reference oriented, where you don’t just want to turn pages, but want to look up the information and manipulate it and see it in different ways, this electronic form is just far, far superior to most other forms.

The mix of skills required to do the world’s best Internet content is pretty intimidating, because it’s video, it’s audio, it’s programming, and it’s interactive. It’s hard, just like any other new media.

Bill Gates

And here’s the punchline: Gates isn’t talking about the Internet at all. For all of the quotes above, I’ve inserted the word “Internet” wherever Gates says “CD-ROM.” (I’ve also made a few other subtle edits. For instance, what Gates originally said was: “We really believe we’re going to have CD-ROM machines in every car and every house. And when you go to a new area of the country, you’re going to stick that little disk in there and pan around…”) Of course, CD-ROM turned out to be one of the strangest byways in the history of technology, a format that looked like it might become a permanent art form for about five years, only to end up all but forgotten. And Gates wasn’t alone in misreading the signs. The fact that we interact with most of our content online is a fact that few visionaries of any kind could have predicted two decades ago, and it’s dated a lot of otherwise insightful science fiction and futurist speculation. Infinite Jest, for instance, is hugely perceptive about how we deal with entertainment and the media—except for the fact that all of the characters are still watching cartridges on television, with the latest titles delivered by mail.

But I’d prefer to focus on the details that Gates got right. He was wrong about the medium, but in terms of how users would interact with information and how it would alter every aspect of our lives, he was remarkably prescient. And there’s a lesson here for all of us. It’s impossible to predict how people are going to read and experience stories over the next few decades, and it’s likely that such novelties as digital books—or at least the devices we use to read them—are going to seem laughably dated in retrospect. But it’s safe to say that great content will remain essential, no matter what its delivery device might be. That’s true of novels, of movies, and of any other form of information or entertainment. As a writer, I’m working in a landscape that seems, on the surface, to be changing rapidly, as publishing companies consolidate, bookstore chains close, and physical books themselves seem increasingly endangered. But all any of us can do is continue to refine the skills that have managed to survive every change in media, even if the shape they take is something that no one, not even Bill Gates, can foresee.

Written by nevalalee

March 4, 2015 at 9:54 am

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