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Bill Gates: in praise of the computer

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Bill Gates

Shaking hands with and talking to one of the world’s most successful men, Bill Gates, I half expected to feel awe at being at such close proximity with a living manifestation of the sum of US$58 billion. It was calculated that Bill Gates makes US$1000 just by breathing for four seconds and if one lines up his wealth in dollar bills, they would cover the distance to the moon and back several times over. Wealth and power however, was not the aura he projected. If anything, a certain diffidence bordering on remoteness that was in keeping with his ‘nerdish’ demeanor, which quickly turned to animation when it came to sharing things he seemed most passionate about, which were computers and the potentials of information technology.

Here was a person so profoundly visionary that he practically revolutionized the way the world works, accelerating the speed at which information is accessed and processed, thereby changing exponentially not only our way of living and communicating but our notion of time. More importantly for me however, here was someone whose ideas and actions have actually affected me on the personal level. The idea of the personal computer.

My first brush with a computer was in the early 80s (I’m showing my age here) when I was fortunate enough as the case turned out to be, to live with a landlord whose hobby was tinkering with computers (then they were ugly, chunky things with dark screens and white pixel characters with a blinking cursor). While my peers were breaking their finger nails on Olympus typewriters I was already able to cut and paste my term papers using Word Star and help my landlady solve the intricacies of ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ (no visuals of course, merely word commands telling the player to open doors and pick up magic wands etc. but exciting stuff nevertheless).

By then I was sufficiently convinced of the amazing virtues of the computer in helping me unleash my writing potentials (being able to edit without having to use Tippex was a major breakthrough in productivity and creativity!) that I am proud to say that my first and biggest spending ever in those days were not on designer shoes but a personal computer. A weakness that I admit I still indulge in even now.

Back in Jakarta in the early 90s I remember attending a lecture and demonstration of the wonders of internet, which despite the phone line going down most of the time, convinced me that gophers and file transfer protocols held the key to that fountain of knowledge that I was deprived of in a soulless city without local libraries and empty bookshops.

Armed with an internet connection and a modem that crackled, whizzed and clanked I felt that my computer was like a car finally taken out of the garage and driven to places it could only dream of. For instance my success at downloading the Monalisa (there was no search engines then but a lot of numbers that I had to copy) from the Louvre museum after a good fifteen minutes sent me into paroxysms of delight that here at my fingertips I had access to the untold riches of knowledge.

In the meantime, I also discovered the joys of email even though at that time only a handful of friends with mutual interests had email addresses so we would meet, log on to the computer and email each other simply because we didn’t know anybody else who had access to the internet, much like the first time when mobile phones made their appearance. Suddenly we were able to communicate and exchange information in ways we were never able to before.

Nowadays of course the computer is as ubiquitous and indispensable as a ballpoint pen, without which one is at a disadvantage in the global school of life, while access to internet provides one with the power of knowledge and human interaction impossible in the three dimensional life. This is an age when students can far outsmart their teachers and any child can become a professor of research. Information and knowledge are only limited by one’s interest and inclination.

Moreover, the computer and the digital life that has developed with the technology, enables one to realize that most important aspect that makes us humans almost divine: our creative powers. With the computer we can all tap on to our creative juices, explore our wildest imaginations and create the most fabulous designs. Even the laziest and most uninspired amongst us have tried their hands on blogging, editing and producing home videos, sharing digital photo albums, on line publishing, creating presentations and at the very least forwarding junk mail.

Currently in Indonesia there is only one computer for every one thousand students. Bill Gates’ dream is ultimately to equip every individual with a computer. With the technology becoming more sophisticated and yet the cost getting cheaper we can only hope that this is sooner rather than later. For at the hands of the bright, the creative and the productive, the potentials and possibilities that this kind of power can unleash is unimaginable.