More on Bill Gates and technological inheritance

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Dec 9 12:54:08 MST 1994

"Many times a day," wrote Albert Einstein, "I realize how much my outer
and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow-men, both living and
dead." The genius of an earlier era saw clearly how contemporary
knowledge and technological advance depend to an extraordinary degree
on the efforts of many contributors, not to mention a continuing cultural
investment in science and numerous other areas of human endeavor. In
fact, very little of what we as a society produce today can be said to derive
from the work, risk, and imagination of citizens now living.
Achievements from earlier eras, including fundamental ideas such as
literacy, movable type, simple arithmetic, and algebra, have become so
integrated into our daily lives that we take them for granted. What we
accomplish today stands atop a Gibraltar of technological inheritance.
Seemingly contemporary transformations inevitably build on knowledge
accumulated over generations.

For example, Richard DuBoff, an economic historian at Bryn Mawr
College, observes that "synthesizing organic chemicals...could not have
been done without an understanding of chemical transformations and the
arrangement of atoms in a molecule. After 1880, this led to the
production of coal tar and its derivatives for pharmaceuticals, dyestuffs,
explosives, solvents, fuels, and fertilizers, and later petrochemicals...By
the early 1900's the new chemicals were already becoming an essential
input for metallurgy, petroleum, and paper."

Present-day entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, one of the world's richest
individuals with a personal fortune estimated at $8 billion and hailed as a
technological genius for inventing software for the personal computer,
should therefore be seen as beneficiaries of this long and fruitful history
as well as of significant public investment.

The personal computer itself--without which Gates's software would not
be possible--owes its development to sustained federal spending during
World War II and the Cold War. "Most of [the] 'great ideas in computer
design' were first explored with considerable government support,"
according to historian Kenneth Flamm in a Brookings Institution study.
Now a specialist in technology policy in the Department of Defense,
Flamm estimates that 18 of the 25 most significant advances in computer
technology between 1950 and 1962 were funded by the federal
government, and that in most of these cases the government was the first
buyer of new technology. For example, Remington Rand Corp. delivered
UNIVAC, the original full-fledged U.S. computer, under contract to the
U.S. Census Bureau in 1951.

The government's shouldering of huge development costs and risks paved
the way for the growth of Digital Equipment Corp., which created its
powerful PDP line of 1960s computers. In turn, Gate's colleague [and now
fellow billionaire] Paul Allen created a simulated PDP-10 chip that
allowed Gates to apply the programming abilities of a mainframe to a
small, homemade computer. Gates used this power to make his most
important technical contribution: rewriting the BASIC language, itself
funded by the National Science Foundation, to run Altair, the first
consumer-scaled computer. And indeed, Micro Instrumentation and
Telemetry Systems, Altair's developer, could never have placed a
microcomputer of any variety on the market without the long preceding
period of technological incubation.

Thousands of links in a chain of development--our shared inheritance--
were in fact required before Bill Gates could add his contribution. But if
this is so, why do we not reflect more full on why Gates, or any other
wealthy entrepreneur, should personally benefit to such a degree? If we
admit that what any one person, group, generation, or even nation
contributes in one moment of time is minuscule compared with all that
the past bequeaths like a gift from a rich uncle, we are forced to question
the basic principles by which we distribute our technological inheritance.

(Opening paragraphs from Gar Alperovitz's article "Distributing Our
Technological Inheritance" in Oct. 94, Technology Review)

Louis Proyect


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