The New Bill Gates, Philosopher-King of the Nerds

BillGates

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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