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.