Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
June 22nd, 2006

Bill Gates, Andrew Carnegie and History

The announcement last week that Bill Gates would, over the next two years, relinquish day to day oversight of Microsoft made me think about history and the future.  The first thought of course was that in some way it was the end of an era. The second thought was, well, what era, where does that fit historically, and how will it be described in history books in the future? The third thought was that there might be some precedent to Gates’ decision worth investigating.

The Transition into the Information Age

When Gates founded Microsoft with Paul Allen in 1975, the United States was just starting to make the transition from being an Industrial Age country to being an Information Age country.  The personal computer, communications satellites, cable television and the Internet were all just beginning.  Alvin Toffler, in his landmark   1970 book, “Future Shock”, called this coming the “Third Wave”; following the First Agricultural Wave  and the Second Industrial Wave of  human history.  The values and structures in 1975 were all Industrial Age.  Thirty years later, in 2005, the structures and values in the United States, and in all developed countries around the world, was Information Age. So, the “Gates Era” coincided with the transformation of the world from Industrial Age, Second Wave, to Information Age, Third Wave.  When history books are written about this time Gates will be one of several prominent people who will be linked to, and therefore given some credit for enabling this fundamental historical shift.

I see it this way because I am currently writing a book about the future and I also give speeches on the subject.  One of the speeches I give is called “The Threshold Decades 1985-2005:  When the World Changed”.  I see the last twenty years as a time when society reorganized itself.  There were a lot of dynamics at play, but one of the most significant was the personal computer and the fact that Gate’s vision of a personal computer on every desktop was essentially realized.  It was an idea whose time had come, but Gates and his total focus on making it a reality was a key ingredient.  There are now almost 250 million PCs in the United States, which represents about 25% of the PCs in the world.  Microsoft has a presence on the vast majority of them.  Sure, people can complain about the Microsoft products, but the larger reality is that Gate’s company was and is one the most significant influencers in the growth of computers worldwide.  That is historically significant.

Bill Gates and Andrew Carnegie

Almost a century before Bill Gates helped create the age of the PC; Andrew Carnegie helped create the age of steel.  Before Gates, and of course Steve Jobs, there was no PC age.  Likewise, before Andrew Carnegie, life was basically agricultural and there was no steel age.  Andrew Carnegie was one of the dominant creators of the US steel industry in the last part of the 1800s which helped transform the US and the world.  Bill Gates was one of the dominant creators of the PC industry in the last part of the 1900s which helped transform the US and the world.  During each of their lifetimes, Carnegie and Gates were called the “Worlds Richest Man”.  Carnegie sold his company to J.P. Morgan, who used it as the cornerstone for U.S. Steel.  Carnegie then took his money and set up the Carnegie Foundation, one of the early foundations created by the robber barons of that age to fund good works in society.    Gates has already set up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which in total endowment dwarfs those foundations set up by Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller and the other robber barons of a century ago.

Anyone reading these words that have ever checked a book out of a public library owes a debt of gratitude to Andrew Carnegie as he made libraries a focus of his giving.  He wanted to provide free books to a reading public.  Many people in the United States that have used a computer in a public library owe a debt of gratitude to Bill Gates, as he provided computers and computer software for free to a computing public.

Gates is stepping down from day to day executive oversight of Microsoft to focus the majority of his time on his foundation.  Bill and Melinda Gates, along with Bono, were the Time Magazine People of the Year for 2005 because of the work they do to help the poor and sick in Africa.  The three of them, and the organizations and causes they lead are doing more to put an end to human suffering in that part of the world that anyone else.  Bill Gates has given tens of billions of dollars, the bulk of his Microsoft fortune to his foundation.  He is now going to give the bulk of his time to it.  Pick your superlative, any one will work.  A commitment of money and time to the goal of ending human suffering is as noble as it gets.

Carnegie showed that robber barons could be compassionate.  Gates is showing that geeks can be even more so.  Historians in the future will most certainly write about Bill Gates as one of the prime movers of the computer age.  I only hope that it might pale to what they write about his success in ending disease and human suffering.  That is a future I want to be part of. Bill thanks for the first act.  Make the second one even better.

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