He’s Got Mail

republic.com

by Cass Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 224 pp., $19.95, To be published in paperback by Princeton University Press in May 2002.

Is the Internet Good for Democracy?

the Boston Review
a discussion of republic.com in the Boston Review, Summer 2001, and on line at bostonreview.mit.edu/ndf.html

1.

The story of technology is largely the story of people who guess wrong about which problems will be easy to solve and which will be hard. For example, less than a decade before the Wright Brothers’ flight, Lord Kelvin announced that “heavier than air flying machines are impossible.” The Scientific American of 1909 concluded that “the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development,” on evidence “that during the past year no improvements of a radical nature have been introduced.” Thomas Watson of IBM famously said in the 1940s that “there is a world market for maybe five computers.”1 In The Road Ahead, published in 1996, Bill Gates of Microsoft said that his—or anyone’s—predictive writings about technology were bound to be judged harshly ten years after publication. “What I’ve said that turned out to be right will be considered obvious, and what was wrong will be humorous.”

Cass Sunstein
Cass Sunstein; drawing by David Levine

People in the computer industry have already criticized Gates for one such “humorous” error. In the early 1980s, Microsoft made its historic deal to be the sole supplier of operating-system software for the first IBM Personal Computer. This was like being the sole engine supplier for the first mass-produced automobiles, and it was the foundation of Microsoft’s later dominance. But the software that Microsoft provided, known as MS-DOS, had various limitations that frustrated its early users. One quote from Gates became infamous as a symbol of the company’s arrogant attitude about such limits. It concerned how much memory, measured in kilobytes or “K,” should be built into a personal computer. Gates is supposed to have said, “640K should be enough for anyone.” The remark became the industry’s equivalent of “Let them eat cake” because it seemed to combine lordly condescension with a lack of interest in operational details. After all, today’s ordinary home computers have one hundred times as much memory as the industry’s leader was calling “enough.”

It appears that it was Marie Thérèse, not Marie Antoinette, who greeted news that the people lacked bread with qu’ils mangent de la brioche. (The phrase was cited in Rousseau’s Confessions, published when Marie Antoinette was thirteen years old and still living in Austria.) And it now appears that Bill Gates never said anything about getting along with 640K. One Sunday afternoon I asked a friend in Seattle who knows Gates whether the quote was accurate or apocryphal. Late that night, to my amazement, I found a long e-mail from Gates in my inbox, laying out painstakingly the reasons why he had always believed the opposite of what the notorious quote implied. His main point was that the 640K limit in early PCs was imposed by the design of processing chips, not Gates’s software, and he’d been pushing to raise the limit as hard and as often as he could. Yet despite Gates’s convincing denial, the quote is unlikely to die. It’s too…


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