Gates open to the new Utopia

Arnold Evans

THE ROAD AHEAD. By Bill Gates Viking Pounds 17.50. A companion CD-Rom version is available from Penguin Electronic Publishing. Microsoft's founder sees a future where a wealth of resources will be customised for each pupil

Clothing manufacturer Levi Strauss already has outlets throughout the United States where a customer's every nook and cranny are measured and transmitted via telephone lines to the computer-driven machinery at a factory in Tennessee. Here, a pair of bespoke jeans can be precision cut, stitched, washed and dispatched to the customer by the next day.

Bill Gates, founder and head of Microsoft, believes it offers a model of what education might be like when the fabled information superhighway eventually arrives.

An ever-expanding library of multimedia resources available on-line will enable teachers to "mass customise" the curriculum, tailoring the educational material to meet each pupil's precise needs. Children - regardless of nationality or background - will be able to wallow in a digital soup of all the best ever thought and said, written, painted and composed.

A large part of The Road Ahead is devoted to informed guesses (and no one, surely, can be better informed on the subject than Gates) as to what it will feel like to be citizens of the fibre-optic Utopia. Even the humblest Bovis home will have an array of in-built gizmos, sensitive to the owner's particular tastes and idiosyncrasies. Unbidden, they will modulate the lighting and the central heating, select suitable mood music, adorn the walls with the works of our "favorite" Old Masters and remind us when we leave home - should we ever need to - to have a nice day, now.

We'll carry wallet computers that will do away with the need for ID, driving licence, the folding-stuff, plastic, keys, diary, compass, rape alarm, theatre tickets, et cetera, et cetera - "the new Swiss Army knife", Gates calls it, and, after reading 250 pages of his enthusiasm, you are going to want one too.

This enthusiasm is the hallmark of a book which, as well as explaining the emerging technologies, offers tantalising glimpses of the author's formative years, an intriguing analysis of why Microsoft succeeded in the cut-throat world of computers and an explanation of why the company is now devoting its research and development budget to "a $500 million bet" on the Internet being the Next Big Thing. But he's also keen to remind us that the computer can never provide a substitute for the good things in life - "lying on the beach, walking in the woods, sitting in a comedy club or shopping in a flea market."

A digitised interactive encyclopaedia might put the paper-based version in the shade, but when it comes to novels, Gates can't imagine anything in the future being better than the old-fashioned kind. Videophones and video-conferencing will become commonplace, but he still thinks nothing is as riveting as being in the presence of a brilliant lecturer.

The information revolution will have a seismic impact on employment. But will the technology replace teachers? "I can say emphatically and unequivocally, IT WON'T," he promises, and he's not a man who's profligate with capital letters. Teachers will be more important than ever in the years ahead and new technology will play an increasing role in the work they do. Indeed, Gates is putting at least some of his money where his mouth is. The profits from this book will fund a foundation devoted exclusively to promoting the use of IT in schools. Anyone reading The Road Ahead will recognise that it is going to be money well spent.

* European Computer Education Programme,The Road Ahead Foundation, 60 rue Victor Lefvre, Brussels, Belgium. Tel: 32 2 733 7199. Fax: 32 2 734 7346 Microsoft - stands 221231

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Arnold Evans

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