Bill Gates paints a dazzling portrait of the future. As he might say, it’s gonna be a blast. People will carry neat wallet-size PCs and pay for stuff with digital cash. They’ll also tote little computers called e-books that can download almost anything you want—a book, a picture, a movie. The simple act of arriving home every night will be better than checking into a four-star hotel. Thanks to a cool electronic pin, your house will automatically recognize you and your needs: ”As you walk down a hallway, you might not notice the lights ahead of you gradually coming up to full brightness and the lights behind you fading. Music will move with you…. A movie or the news will be able to follow you around the house, too. If you get a phone call, only the handset nearest you will ring.”
With the exception of a few apoplectic Luddites, most people are bound to be entranced by this Asimovian vision of the information age in The Road Ahead (Viking, $29.95, with accompanying CD-ROM). In fact, Gates has spawned what could become a new genre: sci-nonfi. Riding the crest of his own mythic status as the Gutenberg of the millennium and buoyed by the cult of high technology, Gates insists that the digital revolution will transform our society in ways that make the imaginations of a Ray Bradbury or a Gene Roddenberry seem quaint by comparison.
However, if it’s truly gripping — or even truly convincing — reading you want, The Road Ahead is a disappointment. The literal, logical software in Gates’ head that made him such a computer genius does not translate into compelling storytelling—even with the help of two collaborators. His vision of the not-so-distant future, outlined in chapters with scary fifth-grade social studies titles like ”Lessons From the Computer Industry” and ”Education: The Best Investment,” is often too dry to draw you in. Even more mind numbing is Gates’ penchant for explaining complicated things like encryption with equally arcane tutorials on factoring and prime numbers.
Of course, Gates warns us up front that ”anyone expecting an autobiography or a treatise on what it’s been like to have been as lucky as I have been will be disappointed.” He intends, he says, for The Road Ahead to be a ”travel guide” to the information superhighway and wants it to spark a global ”dialogue” on the subject. As such, it is an exhaustive piece of work, describing in relentlessly optimistic terms how just about everything in life — education, politics, commerce, entertainment — will be transformed by the digital revolution. Businesses, for example, will save money by having employees telecommute and videoconference. The marketplace will turn into a ”shopper’s heaven” when the information highway eliminates the retail middleman. Teachers and students will be able to choose from the texts of millions of books online. Exactly how smoothly this will all occur — at a time when many schools cannot afford the bare essentials, never mind computers and online services — is not so clear.
The book is best when Gates abandons his evangelical boosterism and sprinkles in personal details, like a description of the new, ultra-high-tech $30 million home he’s building near Seattle. (You actually get to see plans for it on the CD-ROM.) Or when he promises us that in the future, we will whip out our wallet PCs and type in commands like ”List all the stores that carry two or more kinds of dog food and will deliver a case within 60 minutes to my home address.” And he includes just enough quirky historical perspective to leave you wanting more: A typical computer in 1968, for instance, cost $18,000 and had less computing power than some wristwatches of today.
But material the average reader can relate to is rare. The master of the killer app — at least when it comes to computers — forgot that a book needs one too. If you’re looking for something truly stirring and inspiring, let’s put it this way: FILE NOT FOUND. C