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The Triumph of Form Over Content When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

You Are Here: Home -> Glossary -> Bill Gates

Bill Gates

In a way, I owe the idea for this site to Bill Gates, who said some interesting things about markets and media in his book The Road Ahead. Gates sketched out his vision of how computer technology, especially as embodied in the internet, should develop. He writes:

There will be a day, not too far distant, when you will be able to conduct business, study, explore the world and its cultures [!], call up any great entertainment, make friends, attend neighborhood markets, and show pictures to distant relatives - without leaving your desk or armchair...[Your network connection] will be your passport to a new, mediated way of life. (Bill Gates, The Road Ahead. Penguin Books Canada, Ltd., Toronto, 1995. pp. 4-5)

I'll resist the urge to launch into a luddite polemic about the terrible implications of this technotopian vision, and concentrate instead on the basic values on which Gates builds his model of this 'new, mediated way of life.' He notes that the popular metaphor for the internet - the 'information superhighway' or 'infobahn' as some wit has coined it - is not a very useful way of looking at things, conjuring as it does images of a large public infrastructure, open access, and free sharing of its contents. Bill Gates has a much more ambitious vision.

The internet started as a vast network of communication nodes in which each node - usually located on a university campus or in a military installation - was connected to every other node, in contrast to the hub-and-spokes design of the public switched telephone network. The purpose of this more gridlike arrangement was to keep vital military communication channels open even if significant sections of the physical plant were destroyed, as in the case of a limited nuclear attack.

Early on, the internet was opened up to academics and other insiders who used at as a means of exchanging information and ideas. But a bunch of scholars getting together under the aegis of the world's most sophisticated computer network just to (gasp!) talk or, even worse, to share ideas (when they could be sold or traded instead) is not Bill Gates' idea of a good time, hence his reluctance to accept the infobahn model. And he's clearly not alone in feeling this way. Debunking the infobahn metaphor, he writes:

A different metaphor that I think comes closer to describing a lot of the activities that will take place is that of the ultimate market...it will be where we social animals will sell, trade, invest, haggle, pick stuff up, argue, meet new people, and hang out...Think of the hustle and bustle of the New York Stock Exchange of a farmers' market or a bookstore full of people looking for fascinating stories and information. All manner of human activity takes place, from billion-dollar deals to flirtations...The global information market will be huge and will combine all the various ways human goods, services and ideas are exchanged...Your workplace and your idea of what it means to be 'educated' will be transformed, perhaps almost beyond recognition. Your sense of identity, of who you are and where you will belong, may open up considerably. In short, just about everything will be done differently. I can hardly wait for this tomorrow, and I'm doing what I can to make it happen. (The Road Ahead pp. 6-7)

There you have it: Resistance is futile.

Of course, what Gates means in the last sentence is that he is attempting to position himself as the gatekeeper to the entire network. Microsoft is manoeuvring aggressively in this direction, particularly with their .NET suite of web applications. If Gates' vision comes true, the one thing sure to open up considerably will be your pocketbook.

Still, I digress. The Road Ahead is the quintessential sales pitch writ large; he makes the argument that the internet is the best way to buy things. But at a deeper level, he is making the argument - perhaps unconsciously, but I doubt it - that buying is the best way to get things, and that the best things to get are those that are bought. He is presuming that the market is the basic forum in which all human activity should occur.

The market, in this case, becomes the 'metamedium' that encompasses the conventional media we normally think of when we think 'media.' The reflexive twist of this market-as-metamedium is that in the 'marketplace of ideas,' the metaphor of the market is one of the very ideas populating the market itself. Harold Innis writes:

We can perhaps assume that the use of a medium of communication over a long period will to some extent determine the character of knowledge to be communicated and suggest that its pervasive influence will eventually create a civilization in which life and flexibility become increasingly difficult to maintain. (Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication. P. 34)

from which his student, Marshall McLuhan, distilled his famous aphorism 'the medium is the message'. If we accept that the market is fundamentally a medium of communication, exchanging information about price, value, meaning, etc., and if we accept further that as the scope of the market expands to encompass the organization of other media, then we can speculate that the market will 'to some extent determine the character' of the other media.

In the case of Bill Gates and the internet, it's not surprising, in a society as heavily marketized as ours, that a new technology for communication would gradually become less like a public transportation system and more like a mall.

Or, to put it more simply, when you've got a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

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