An Encounter with The Man:
Bill Gates, Libraries and a Momentary Redressing of Grievances

Yesterday I had the unexpected opportunity to see Microsoft chairman Bill Gates speak at the MLK Memorial Library in Washington DC. Washington is one of those odd places (Hollywood, white-collar prisons, etc.) where it's not uncommon to cross paths with some familiar and famous face; though admittedly, such chance encounters within the Beltway are most likely to be of the political, I'd-like-to-shake-your-hand-and-have-your-vote kind. Not exactly for everyone.

But on this day, here was a chance to come face-to-face with entrepreneurship personified: a postmodern Andrew Carnegie who slashes and burns the competition while building a reputation as The Philanthropist's Philanthropist. I had received word earlier in the morning from a friend who volunteered at the library that Gates would be there to donate a dozen Pentium machines and a million dollars for the implementation and upkeep of the DC Public Library's public access network. According to my source, "I'm pretty sure you'll be able to get inside the event." Just to be sure, I placed a call to Redmond, Washington and contacted Microsoft. After a round of several tiresome 'Please hold while I transfer you's, I was informed that, sad to say, this was to be A Closed Event.

A Closed Event. Music to my ears. I'd just get there a little early and find a way to open it up.

30 minutes before the official event, I arrived at the library, accompanied by Pete Neal of the Annenberg/CPB Project. The foyer to the library was blocked by two tables, one labeled Guest and one labeled Press. Normally, my instincts would be to push my luck and pretend I was Press, but since it didn't occur to me to prepare some personal credentials beforehand, I decided that I'd have to be a settle with being a Guest. Guerilla tactics are more fun without forged papers, anyway.

Pete and I were greeted by two young library reps who smiled and said, "Are you a guest?" I thought to myself that this was an odd question, considering we were standing at the Guest Table. Then again, we weren't really Guests, but I did not see an Intruders table or a check-in station for Not-So-Important-Gatecrashers. So I put on my best Guest face and replied, "We're with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting," and began to look around the room as if everything were in order and I were waiting for inevitable recognition. One of the library reps began to skim what appeared to be a list of registered guests; a list that barring any practical jokes from God Himself would have neither my nor Pete's name on it. To avoid the embarrassment of having to admit we weren't supposed to be there, I said in all honesty, "We were only notified of the event rather late," to which they responded, "Well, you're probably on the updated list coming later...

"Wait here."

So there we waited, watching as a dozen or so middle school students were led through security, probably to engage Gates at the computer terminals in some kind of warm and fuzzy Photo Op. Darrell Green of the Washington Redskins then walked in - why on earth was he here?, I thought. But after a while, Pete and I started to question whether this plan of ours was going to work. I then saw Phil Shapiro of CTCNet DC at the back of the main lobby, standing in rows of seats behind the cameras and flood lights. He motioned to us that we should go sit Back There - apparently, these were the nosebleed seats, open to the public for our viewing pleasure. Worse case scenario, we'd sit back here, obstructed by the cameras, the lights, the reporters, observing the event through a wide screen TV. If I knew the seats were going to be this bad, I would have stayed at worked and watched the event over the Internet.

I was also somewhat disappointed because I had brought along a cheap little digital camera to get a few shots of Gates to dump on my website. From back here, at best I could get a picture of the wide screen TV. How appropriate. So I approached one of the event organizers, told him I was "Andy Carvin, CPB," and asked if there was a better place for me to sit or stand in order to get some pictures to place on the Internet. At first, he wasn't very helpful, being much more concerned with security, VIPs, and the like. But eventually he pointed up front, right by the podium and said, "sit wherever there isn't a Reserved sign on a chair." Bingo. I thought of Bob Uecker without the beer as we shimmied our way up to the front row...

Well, the fourth row, to be exact, since those middle school kids were occupying much of the closest seats. Those poor kids. Clearly, they didn't seem to think this was that big of a deal, and could have just as easily been messing around at recess instead of killing time for the richest man in America to show up. So time passed, and the real Guests began to arrive - the library's board of trustees, the DC City Council and Control Board, and finally Mayor Marion Barry, looking sharp as ever. I guess it was time or the show to get under way.

A group of another dozen middle school students came from behind the stage, climing up onto a set of risers behind the podium like a gospel chorus at a revival. Darrell Green followed, waving to the crowd and smiling proudly. And then I saw him: Bill Gates in his signature suit, glasses and floppy head of hair. He stood at the foot of the risers along with the tallest of the students. If I hadn't known better, I would have thought he was a class valedictorian getting ready to speak, nervously grinning to Mom and Dad (Go get 'em, son!).

After some remarks from a library executive, she introduced Darrell Green, who spoke briefly about how computers had opened up a new world for his son, not to mention how he "looked forward to working with Microsoft in the future." Hmm. Maybe he wanted to host a sports statistics chatroom on a Microsoft Sidewalk site. Then a young man from the middle school had his moment in the spotlight as he explained to us how the Internet made homework and research for school so much easier. He also liked all of the websites that gave him tips for video games - that got a big laugh from the crowd. Move over Darrell Green.

Gates moved front and center to the sounds of applause. I thought of that valedictorian as he began to speak - intelligent, yet a little sheepish. Oh, how I hoped his voice wouldn't crack. He noted how when he was growing up, there was no technological resource that would allow him to learn and read about the subjects that interested him. All he had were his books, and the only place he could go to immerse himself in so many books was the local library. Today, our collective body of knowledge goes beyond what could be contained physically in any given library - the Internet, therefore, opens up a seemingly infinite cache of information that was previously unattainable. And with only six percent of households making less than $25,000 a year owning a computer (compared to over fifty percent of households making over $50,000 a year), the library remains the one place where any person no matter her economic status may come and get the knowledge she seeks. Therefore, Internet access in all libraries was a must.

Though I was a bit skeptical about how effectively one million dollars could be spread out over an entire urban library district, the gesture in itself seemed to get a lot of people excited. I mean, this was El Capitalissimo himself coming to DC and getting our kids online. Who could argue with that? Some people may think he's a cyberpunk robber baron, but at least he seems really nice. So I clapped when others clapped, and felt satisfied that the District was finally catching up with other cities, especially for an urban community that so desperately needed it.

After Gates' comments, the library exec returned to the podium and said, "We have a few minutes for a couple of questions." Questions from the audience? Oh yes, this was a press conference. Surely people would have questions. But surprisingly, the opportunity for questions was directed at the general audience, since the press had had their chance to talk with Gates in private interviews before the public session. So I thought to myself, here is a rare opportunity to confront Bill Gates. To quiz Bill Gates. To challenge Bill Gates. But what on earth would I ask him? It felt like I was playing a game:

Q: If you could ask Bill Gates a question - only one question - what would it be? A: Uh........Umm......Err.....
I was dumbstruck. There had to be something I could ask him without sounding like a complete idiot. So I motioned to the woman with the roaming microphone as if to say, "My turn next - I have a whopper of a question." She had already handed off the mic to a student, so that gave me a minute or two to stall.

"One more question," a voice near the podium announced - Gates' handlers probably wanted him to get on to the next event. It appeared I was going to miss my chance for my question whatever it might be, but suddenly, I felt a cold metal tube shoved in my chest. The last question was to be mine. So I looked Bill Gates in the eye, with the cameras rolling, and began to speak.

Q: Mr. Gates, there's been a lot of public hype over the last few years about the Internet, especially in terms of using the medium as a tool for reaching out over great distances, to meet and interact with people. But I'm curious to know what your thoughts are on using the Net to reach the people right in front of you, right in your own communities and neighborhoods. What is the role of the Internet as a tool for community enhancement?

Gates paused and thought for a moment. Marion Barry looked up as soon as he heard the word community, to see who was asking the question. Oh, was it a good question? Did anyone care? I couldn't tell. Softball, hardball, or airball, at least I had said it without drooling or something.

After what felt like an eternity to me (perhaps two or three seconds), Gates responded to my question. At first, Gates' answer disappointed me, because he started with how the Net is indeed a marvelous medium for reaching out across the country and the world, for interacting with folks you might otherwise never meet. But then, as it seemed he was going to ignore the thrust of my question, he paused again and focused his eyes back towards me. Gates remarked on how college campuses have reacted to the Internet over the years: As some of the first public institutions to take advantage of the Net, universities were often wired to the hilt, with access in classrooms, libraries and dorms. In turn, the proliferation of infrastructure made it easier for students and faculty to have access to the Internet, and to thus use it as a tool for instruction, for organizing local events, for hosting activist meetings. The campus infrastructure had achieved the critical mass needed for an engaged and technologically literate online community. This, he said, should be a model for our other communities, such as towns and neighborhoods. The greater the participation, the greater the community, and the public library as a hub for that participation was a great start.

He continued by describing how the Internet can be used to eliminate local bureaucracies and increase communication efficiencies between the government and its citizenry. For example, if a person needed a permit for adding an extension to their house, instead of having to run around town from office to office, trying to find the right forms and signatures, he or she could log on, search the zoning and permits database and register their permit in the comfort of home.

At this point, another voice droned in over the PA system:

"That's all the time we have today - thank you all for coming. And thank you, Bill Gates and Darrell Green..."
If she hadn't spoken up, I think Gates would have continued on the subject for a bit longer. But either way, Bill Gates had answered my question, as extemporaneous as it was, in what appeared to be a thoughtful and unrehearsed manner. And perhaps somewhat egotistically, I was glad he said pretty much what I would have said. I was immensely pleased with myself.

At the end of June, I'll be heading off to Seattle for the National Educational Computing Conference. As luck would have it, Bill Gates is speaking as the keynote. I'm sure there will be another Few Minutes for Questions at that gathering as well. That gives me three weeks to prepare for my follow-up.

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