GATES' ROAD AHEAD
NOVEMBER 30, 1995
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates talks about the future of the information highway and his book, The Road Ahead, with David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report."
DAVID GERGEN: Mr. Gates, the message of your book is, or seems to me, is that the next 20 years will bring more revolutionary changes in the information age than all of the changes we've seen heretofore. Can you explain that?
BILL GATES: The key idea is that the personal computer so far has just changed the way we create documents. But as we connect them together, it becomes a revolution in communications, an ability to find people with common interests, to explore any subject, to know what's going on. It becomes an electronic marketplace, where anybody who has consulting services they want to offer can declare that, and it's easy to find them and hook up and even do video conferencing so the work can be delivered that way. So it's a big step forward in making the world a smaller place and allowing us to exercise curiosity that we never could before.
DAVID GERGEN: Most of the people that talk to you about your book discuss technological aspects. I'd like to talk about the other part of it, and that is the social implications of these changes. You've just recently gotten married, and I'm really curious, as you think about the possibility of having kids, do you think we ought to embrace as a nation the goal that every American child should be computer literate before graduating from school?
BILL GATES: I think we are going to have to make that a clear goal because people who agree that this is a great tool should want everyone to have the opportunity that it represents. Kids start out with a lot of curiosity. They want to explore subjects, and the classroom environment makes it tough for things to be individually tailored. If you're a little bit slower, a little bit faster, you want to learn it in a different way, the computer can provide that. The explosion of publishing up on the Internet is a wonderful thing, and now teachers are taking their multimedia lessons and contributing them for free to a repository that other teachers can go in to and get. And students can go all over the world and find other kids learning the same thing. So I think it really should be something that is available in the same way that books are available to everyone today.
DAVID GERGEN: The question then becomes, and you raise this in your book but you don't quite answer it-- I'm curious what you think--how do we begin closing some of these gaps? I was quite struck, for example, there was a survey in "USA Today" recently about computers in homes by racial or ethnic group. Now, listen to these numbers. In Asian homes, 40 percent of Asian homes now have computers, 29 percent of white homes, only 13 percent of Hispanic and 11 percent of black homes. How do we--how should we go about it? If every child should be computer literate, how do we go about closing that kind of gap?
BILL GATES: Well, I think there is a big correlation where you have a strong family structure that puts a high value on education, the PC tends to move up in their priorities. And those figures are rather stunning. I think even if you took out the income effect, you'd still see a potentially growing problem of, of the opportunity that kids might have there. Now, there will always be families that can't afford it, to have it at home, even if they want to, and so the school and the library are going to have to be two places where access is available. The PC is improving quite a bit and it's over the next five years where I think that the content will be so much better, the communications networks will be so much better. The PC will be so much better. That's the timeframe where we ought to solve this problem of making it available to everyone. If you go out far enough, maybe the PC will be cheap enough for most homes, but I don't think we can wait that long before we, we provide access.
DAVID GERGEN: You've, interestingly enough, you're taking the proceeds from your book and donating them to schools, to teachers who introduce computers. But you note in your book that schools have been far slower to introduce computers, personal computers, than have businesses. In fact, there was a--there was a piece in the "Wall Street Journal," they had a big technology section about a week ago which pointed out that some 60 percent of teachers now have access to computers and only about 40 percent of them are incorporating their curriculums. A lot of the teachers don't seem to know how to use them. They haven't been trained to know how to use computers, so even though a city like Detroit can go out and buy a lot of computers, the teachers, themselves, are not prepared to teach them in the classrooms. How do we deal with that?
BILL GATES: Well, there's a lot to be done. The people who write textbooks are having to revise those to bring interactive in to it, and so as the school boards qualify the next round of textbooks, they'll have to make that requirement. Training teachers is a big, big deal here. If your teacher isn't enthusiastic about, embracing it, then there's no way it's going to get the right use in the classroom, and then you've got to have not only the equipment but also the communications connections. And if we're in balance to providing a few of those and not the other elements, then it's a waste.
DAVID GERGEN: One of the other things that's been true for a while is that computer usage seems to be more male-oriented than female-oriented. How do we overcome that gender difference?
BILL GATES: It's been kind of a game-oriented motivation which has really pushed towards the boys who are out there to explore wild things.
DAVID GERGEN: You just need to invent more software for girls then, right?
BILL GATES: Well, that's going on. A lot of the new software is very creative, not so much violent games but rather exploration and things where kids go together and do things. Once somebody's a user, and they have the confidence that they can do one thing with a computer, then they branch out. They find other areas, and it's, it's stunning how far they go. I've seen this with senior citizens that start out maybe just with electronic mail or doing their taxes or playing a game. Then they'll--they'll have the impetus to go on and be big-time Web surfers. But that, that first set of learning, people are afraid to look down. They think maybe I'm a person who can't do it. And so you either have to have a friend who steps you through it, or you've got to have an environment where it's other people you can relate to, or you're all equally nervous about it, and there is a little bit of learning to go on.
DAVID GERGEN: There's been a debate and literature about whether, you know, getting too into computers is socially isolating or not. You write more optimistically that it helps to create social circles and reach out for more friends. I'm really interested in a different issue, and that is whether--we found is that people as they move from city to suburb became less engaged in civic activities, they became less involved in community-related activities. How do we overcome the possibility that as people get hooked into their computers, just as they got hooked into television, the electronic world becomes so much more important to them that they'll care much less about what's happening outside their door?
BILL GATES: Well, I hope that the computer is a tool to help you get more involved with what's going on in your community. I mean, part of the hallmark of the United States versus other countries is the civic involvement, the willingness to get involved in charitable activities. When you're reading about, oh, politics, today those short little articles that just have the latest scrap, it makes it very tough to say understand a budget trade-off, you know, what the vote for or against is, or what is my representative saying, you know, are they still trying to make up their mind, are they interested in what I have to say, what is their voting record on this issue, and so I think if you have the latest article there, you can just click to see how the money is spent, what are those programs. You can then join a bulletin board group where you get notified on new things or decide to have a meeting. I think it makes it much easier to get involved. Government is so complex, so large that it's pretty daunting to try and say, I've got the expertise to say some new law about transportation is a mistake. And I hope that by politicians putting up their speeches and the bills being there and different points of view, that people will choose to get re-engaged and find that these are issues that, that they can understand and make a contribution to. Now, some people go as far as to say that, you know, we'll try out direct democracy using electronic devices. If that would get people more involved, maybe it would be a good thing.
DAVID GERGEN: One final question. You may be having kids in the future. How do you plan to raise your children--have you thought about it--with regard to a computer? A lot of time on the computers, would you limit the amount of time they might spend on computers as they grow up so that they have some other outside activities?
BILL GATES: Using a computer is something we're going to have to break down into different kinds of activities. I mean, take reading; you don't want your kids to read comic books all the time, but if they're reading great literature, you probably will let 'em spend, spend as much time as they want. And so we'll have to have a tool where a parent without being invasive can get a sense of how is the kid using the computer and even set a time budget for certain kinds of activities and, therefore, shape what the kid does. My parents prevented my sister and I from watching TV when we were growing up, and I frankly, I'm glad they did. We ended up reading quite a bit and I don't think we missed all, all that much. So parental control over how kids spend their time, I think it's a worthy trade-off.
DAVID GERGEN: Thank you.