The New Bill Gates, Philosopher-King of the Nerds

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Plato imagined philosopher-kings guarding his utopia. Here in Aspen, a modern day utopia, we have Bill Gates.

Since his retirement from Microsoft, Gates has increasingly turned his considerable talent (and fortune) to the great problems that face society. His new persona was on full display during a conversation with Aspen Institute chief Walter Isaacson Thursday afternoon at the Ideas Festival. He proposed fundamental rearrangements of the U.S. economy, promoted more technical solutions like vaccines to social problems, and backed climate justice. 

Whether the topic was education, global health, or American competitiveness, Gates thought in data and searched for leverage. Relative to our actual political leaders, he showed astonishing clarity about the structural issues facing this country, and yet his ideas about them did not seem partisan. It was seductive to think -- and Gates would probably have the gumption to take the job -- that if you made Bill Gates king of the world, he'd make it a better place. 

Gates thinks differently about problems than most of the people -- Supreme Court justices, attorney generals, financiers, journalists -- he has shared the Aspen stage with. He is a computer nerd, not a lawyer or writer: he has different problem frames and proposes different solutions. And Gates is just the leading edge: more and more people trained in the dark art of computer programming are entering the eminence grise stage of their lives. At events like the Aspen Ideas Festival, nerds will dominate more and more of the speaking slots. You might call it a renaissance of technocracy, which had its first peak in America in the years following World War I. 

Thinking about Gates, I was reminded of an old adage that MIT's Tom Knight once told me about the difference between biologists and engineers.  

"The biologist goes into the laboratory in the morning and she discovers that the system she's looking at is two times as complicated as she thought it was," Knight recounted. "Great! she says, I get to write a paper. The engineer goes into the lab, gets the same result and says, 'Damn. How do I get rid of that?'"

With the path to public office often running through the liberal arts and law school, many American leaders are in the biologist camp. What's it going to mean for our national conversation if there are a lot more engineers talking and a lot less biologists? What about areas that are irreducibly complex? Where are his worldview's blindspots? (Gates's stance on de-carbonizing energy, for example, has drawn scorn. He publicly made a call to find "energy miracles," which drew scorn from other energy experts like Climate Progress' Joe Romm and Grist's Dave Roberts.) 

One place we could look for some answers is China: nearly all the leaders of the country were trained as engineers including Hu Jintao. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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