Most Americans weren’t online back in 1995, let alone getting most of their news from online sources. But the late fantasy author Terry Pratchett knew what was coming. And a newly unearthed GQ interview from 1995, with Bill Gates no less, reveals that Pratchett really could see the future.
Journalist Marc Burrows, who’s currently writing a book about Pratchett, shared a few tweets about the GQ interview this week. And they provide a fascinating glimpse into the utopian thinking of mid-’90s tech giants like Bill Gates (credited as BG in the interview) and the hard truths of people like author Terry Pratchett (TP).
From GQ magazine in 1995:
TP: OK. Let’s say I call myself the Institute for Something-or-other and I decide to promote a spurious treatise saying the Jews were entirely responsible for the Second World War and the Holocaust didn’t happen. And it goes out there on the Internet and is available on the same terms as any piece of historical research which has undergone peer review and so on. There’s a kind of parity of esteem of information on the Net. It’s all there: there’s no way of finding out whether this stuff has any bottom to it or whether someone has just made it up.
BG: Not for long. Electronics gives us a way of classifying things. You will have authorities on the Net and because an article is contained in their index it will mean something. For all practical purposes, there’ll be an infinite amount of test out there and you’ll only receive a piece of text through levels of direction, like a friend who says, “hey, go read this”, or a brand name which is associated with a group of referees, or a particular expert, or consumer reports, or the equivalent of a newspaper... they’ll point out the things that are of particular interest. The whole way that you can check somebody’s reputation will be so much more sophisticated on the New than it is in print today.
While Pratchett, who died in 2015, was absolutely correct to identify Holocaust denial as a real problem for the future (have you used Twitter lately?), he didn’t predict everything. Later in the interview, Pratchett seems amazed when Gates tells him that the VCR will soon be obsolete technology.
BG: Of course, it the world’s worst user interface—there’s no feedback as to whether you’re doing it right or wrong. Blind interfaces are always complicated. Everything we’re talking about will have screens to [guide] you and when you pause there’ll be a built-in personality that’ll immediately jump in and help you. But anyway, VCRs will be obsolete within ten years.
TP: What? Completely obsolete?
BG: Yes, completely obsolete.
TP: And replaced by a disc player?
BG: Oh, they’ll be replaced by a disc player within four or five years. I’m talking about access to media across the network.
TP: We’re getting close to one of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous sayings that “sufficiently complex technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
BG: Yes that’s right.
Today, Bill Gates is largely a philanthropist who contributes, along with his wife Melinda, to causes around the world using their reported $100.2 billion net worth. But back in 1995, Bill Gates was the ultimate monopolist, crushing any adversary who stood in his way, and promising that the future he and others were delivering would simply be self-correcting for anything like Nazis. No need to worry, nothing to see here.
Bill Gates has been right about a lot of things in his life. But this interview proves that the people who built our current reality had no idea they were unleashing the worst of humanity. And it’s tough to say whether they would truly do anything differently, given that they’ve made so much money at it.
Take Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, for example. Just yesterday, Twitter leaked a “breaking” story to Vice about how the social media company had “started researching” whether white supremacists belong on the platform. With all due respect to Jack, fuck you. You don’t need more research. You need to ban the fucking Nazis before more people get killed.
The research has been done, now it’s time for you to act. Terry Pratchett understood the problem back in 1995. Pull your head out of your ass and get it done, Jack.