The First Electronic Church of America
In a November 1995 cover story, Newsweek said William Henry Gates III is "the richest man on the planet, and maybe the smartest." Newsweek had been looking in on Gates at the mammoth Comdex convention in Las Vegas, where he was walking the convention floor with NBC's Tom Brokaw, as hundreds of gawking admirers followed along. Said Brokaw: "It's like walking the Vatican with the pope."
Newsweek continued with the religion metaphor. "As the chairman, cofounder and CEO of Microsoft, the company that reaps almost half the revenue in PC software worldwide, Gates is indeed regarded as nearly divine -- though some competitors view him as satanic." The key word in that negative aside is "competitors" -- people like the Mouches of this world who, jealous of Gates's immense success, would tie his hands as he takes Microsoft -- and the world -- into an exciting future.
(You may remember Wesley Mouch, the pursed lipped character in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. He was the Coordinator of the Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources, and the guy who did his utmost to cut Hank Rearden down to size. Rearden was the man who invented a miraculous, new kind of steel that might have changed the world, but he was thwarted by small men like Mouch.)
So what is it with Bill Gates? Is he a saint or a sinner? We say saint, because this is a young man -- now only 40 -- who looks a lot like Ayn Rand's Hank Rearden. The interesting thing about Gates's alchemy: his magic far outstrips that of the fictional Hank Rearden (though not, perhaps, the legerdemain of the man who served as a model for Rearden, Howard Hughes).
For Gates has done something that the world's great religious figures have tried to do with only moderate success, bring people together. The root meaning of the word religion is "a tying-together." Which is what Gates has done. He has brought people -- the whole world -- together. It is he -- more than any other single individual -- who keeps the information revolution humming along. It is he -- more than any other -- who understands how computer technology will shape the future of the human race.
In his recent book, The Road Ahead, Gates said, "We are crossing a threshold that will forever change the way we buy, work, learn, and communicate with each other. Not since the invention of the computer itself, has such an extraordinary transformation occurred." Gates and all the people at Microsoft, the most successful company in the history of the world, are committed to keeping that transformation going, principally by continuing to help make the personal computer do more, and be more, for us. As Gates said at last fall's Comdex meeting in Las Vegas, "The PC is the tool of the information age. In fact, it's even fair to compare it to major revolutions in communications of the past, even the printing press or the TV, the radio. Those things really changed the world broadly, and brought people together.... In fact, it won't just be our business that is changing rapidly and forcing people to look at things in new ways, but our tools will do that to every business, whether it's banking or retailing, or even areas like education where change can have such a major impact.
In the process, who gets hurt? Few of us. Sure, Gates says, dislocations will occur (meaning: some of us may be fired). But Gates believes that, in the long run, the disruptions will only make people wealthier, more empowered, better informed. (That's why we call this turning-in-time the Information Revolution.) Or, to put it another way, to give us more life, in a sense we can take Jesus to mean, when He said, "I am come that you may have life and have it more abundantly." In a modest paraphrase, Gates says, "It's a great time to be alive."
Gates once memorized the Sermon on the Mount (as an eleven year-old growing up in Seattle, Washington, where his father was a prosperous lawyer, and his mother the heir to a prestigious banking family). Gates would undoubtedly reject this view of himself as any kind of saint, indeed, as anything but "small-r religious." He told his biographers, Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, that he was either an atheist or an agnostic, then hedged on that to say that he was "a Protestant who hasn't gone for awhile." A friend explained: "He doesn't like the theological. He's not into ghosts, superstition, and the unknown. He has no interest in that. He's a scientist. If you can't touch it and logically and rationally figure it out, he's not interested."
But that may be saying too much. Theology has nothing to do with ghosts or superstition. It is the science of the spiritual, and Gates is on the side of the spirit, if only because he's in the business of selling the tools of knowledge, or, as he says, "millions of copies of stuff you can't drink or smoke." And he has to recognize the role of Providence (sometimes called Luck) in his own quick rise to fame and fortune.
When he first formed Microsoft in 1976 (at the age of 21), he wanted to concentrate on computer language. (Indeed, he had made his mark when, with his close friend, Paul Allen, he invented BASIC, to replace the binary language that had been used for early computers.) The people at IBM gave him his big break when they came to him and asked for an operating system. Gates said that wasn't his thing, and referred them to Digital Research, whose president went flying the day the IBM team called on him. Enraged, the IBM team came back to Gates, who didn't have an operating system, but licensed one, called DOS, then offered it to IBM. Gates got lucky when IBM rejected the offer. Gates bought it himself, and the rest was history. IBM had bet on mainframes, at a time when the whole world was turning to PCs, and most of the PCs ended up using DOS -- Gates's MS-DOS. Gates made billions. He is still making billions, and he has the wisdom to give huge chunks of his money to the scientists and engineers who keep Microsoft on the cutting edge. Gates has made more than a hundred of the people at Microsoft into millionaires.
Gates doesn't mind sharing the wealth. That's because he knows -- even though he has been called the world's busiest man -- that he can't do everything himself. On a recent trip to Europe, he did nothing but work -- eleven meetings in five days in seven different countries. Slowing down somewhat -- he is now married and is putting the finishing touches on a $30 million home on the eastern shore of Lake Washington -- he still logs in 72-hour-weeks. He says is frustrated at the limitations of time itself. He has complained about the time he had to spend writing his book (even though he did it with the help of others), but this is one reason he is making sure that his own software of the future will have "intelligent assistants" to dispatch tasks for its users and built-in conferencing equipment to spare them time-consuming business trips. The point is, says Gates, "to provide more time for you, and for me." At one point in his book, he says he would change his mind about casino gambling (he hates it) if it were possible to win not money, but extra hours.
In every sense of the word, people who ply cyberspace already enjoy
"extra hours" -- simply by reason of the fact that the Internet
shortens the time it takes to do almost any task that has to do with gathering
and spreading information. (The only trouble is that we tend to use the
extra time to keep on working -- instead of playing with our kids, or improving
our golf game.)