Magazine article Artforum International

The Road Behind

Magazine article Artforum International

The Road Behind

Article excerpt

In Terry Gilliam's 1981 film Time Bandits, the evil overlord of the child protagonist's ever-shifting fantasy world is a slick huckster who, among other things, is hawking a high-tech home of the future. The overseer leers at the young boy salaciously before launching into his pitch, but the "money shot" in this gadget pornography isn't orgasm: it's domestic convenience. Convenience as the goal of 20th-century bourgeois life is one of the director's favorite themes, and it would be easy to imagine that Gilliam invented Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft and author of the blandest book ever written about the human future, The Road Ahead. Gates' opus spans 286 pages in the pursuit of convenience brought to you by "friction-free capitalism" - a telling metaphor for Gates' sexless and bloodless worldview.

In actuality, of course, the road ahead looks more like a general disaster area. Neotribal warfare is replacing the industrial state. Various flavors of fundamentalism are pitching wildly toward millennial hysteria. We've got a handful of incipient plagues and a badly damaged eco-sphere making for some strange weather. But Chairman Gates has the software that can turn your personal future into a smooth ride, where "customized information is a natural extension of the tailored consultation capabilities of the highway." This is a one-inch-thick designer future written for pinheads. It is both our fortune and our misfortune that the future, like the present, is far more novel, disordered, and horrible than this massively overpaid, prosaic engineer can even begin to comprehend.

While we have no more right to expect Gates to make a major contribution to speculative thought in the 20th century than we would have from Henry Ford before him, in The Road Ahead Gates falters even within his own sphere - communications technology. His road ahead is largely the road behind.

Given his pragmatic position as a businessman/engineer, it's difficult to fault Gates for putting the same focus on the PC as a day-to-day business tool, an engine for multimedia production and a word processor, as he does on the Internet. But it is exactly this sort of hardheaded engineer's gaze that causes him to get the Net all wrong. He wants us to view the Internet as something containable, something that exists within a discrete space provided by the PC. In fact, it is common knowledge that technological analysts have long been looking to the Net to replace the PC as the defining medium of the age. This process should begin next year with the release of terminals used only for the Internet. As the Net and the PC diverge, so will the social metaphors that have attached themselves. The PC will lose all claims of being a connecting device and will be stripped of all glamour, which dissipates anyway as any new technology becomes ubiquitous. The PC, sans Net, is a lonely, asocial convenience box, nothing but a complex calculator.

Bill Gates is a creature of the "PC Revolution" all the way. In fact, if you look closely, you can find a surprising degree of hostility toward the "information highway" that the book titles itself after. Using archetypally megacorporate-scale demographics, Gates invokes the Internet's current, relatively small numbers (compared to Windows 95 buyers, for instance?) to call into question its potential commercial viability. When he discusses the complexities of bringing Net service to the level where it's convenient (that word! …

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