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Bill Gates shows us what really matters
Seattle Times staff columnist
Bill Gates is about to fly off to improve the world, leaving behind the chrysalis in which he grew, the Microsoft Corp., and an already significant mark on the world, including my house, which is cluttered with outdated software.
Computers ushered in a new era, but the industry is also an ideal fit with the long-established American tradition of newness and change. They make it, market it and move it. We want it, and we buy it.
When Gates made his announcement I was just starting to read "Land of Desire," a book by William Leach that charts a change in American culture between 1890 and 1930.
"American corporate business, in league with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition with more goods this year than last, more next year than this."
As we changed from a nation of self-sufficient craftsmen and farmers to an industrial power of workers and owners, our values changed to support the new structure. We are a different people from those early Americans. I go nowhere without my cellphone.
Gates is an icon of the Land of Desire, celebrated because he is really, really rich, but also because of his vision and entrepreneurship. The passion to create is admirable.
Bill Gates has been the embodiment of Microsoft and Microsoft has been an extension of him. He is its soul. Will Microsoft have a soul when he is gone?
Corporations were created in the new era Leach writes about. They exist to make money, period. What they sell doesn't matter. Corporations merge, split and change products all the time. Their mission is not to make phones or dresses or mustard. It is to supply whatever will sell today.
But corporations often start out as offspring of entrepreneurs who created something to which they were committed, who brought their values (whatever they happen to be) to the work.
We remember their names: Henry Ford, Steve Jobs or Ben and Jerry (Cohen and Greenfield).We can imagine Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard hunched over their work in a little garage.
We don't think about the suits who run corporations unless they get caught doing something illegal.
Gates is one of a small number of entrepreneurs who managed both sides of the fence well, combining passion and profit-making skill.
And he has shown himself to be a man of other values that will drive his philanthropic enterprise.
He is as complex as the software he makes, and so are the rest of us. Americans go into debt to buy the latest gadgets, let schools run down, then turn around and send billions of dollars to help flooded out New Orleans or bring aid to Third World disaster areas.
Our institutions and habits may be structured to support buying and selling, but we haven't lost our souls yet. We know there is more to life than the latest version of the newest thing, which will soon enough become the next generation of clutter.
Of course, we usually follow a familiar insect pattern. We spend much of our lives as caterpillars, consuming until we grow fat enough to turn into butterflies and return some beauty to the world.
Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
His column runs Thursdays and Sundays.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company