Dear Bill

What Gates should be reading this summer

First BG reference? The Visionary Position, page xv (first page of intro); Dealers of Lightning, page xvi (introductory timeline).

But Bill, why limit yourself to histories? I have two last books for you. They may just jar you into really Big Thoughts about . . .

The Ghosts in the Machine: The Meme Machinevs. My Tiny Life

Susan Blackmore spent a quarter-century pursuing the paranormal and contemplating the meaning of life. After much thought, she arrived at the classic activists' bromide: you can kill a person, but you can't kill an idea. The Meme Machine puts forth the thought that we humans are merely walking, breathing, replicating carriers for virus-like fragments of cultural data—memes. (The song "Happy Birthday" is a meme. The peace sign is a meme. The word "meme" is a meme.) Memes replicate like genes—survival of the fittest, mutation and so forth—and humans are but their vectors of transmission. Over time, memes have evolved us into having bigger brains, speech capabilities, concepts of personal identity and so forth—all to ensure the continued propagation of memes. In other words, Bill, you only think you have thoughts, big or small; really, we're all just a bunch of idea-hauling meat. They're not even our ideas. They belong only to themselves.

Julian Dibbell almost reached the same conclusion but swerved into another lane. His tale of life in the chatworld/shared hallucination of LambdaMOO is beautifully written, and the questions he raises about responsibility and community resonate long past his relatively brief MOO experience in 1994. (MOO—multi-user dimension object-oriented—worlds are variations of online worlds wherein people interact in a fictional universe.) With no soapbox in sight, he makes a case that virtual lives and identities are as compelling and real as those in real life—maybe even more so, since he left LambdaMOO when the intensity of his virtual life threatened to knock his real one off the rails. When I picked up My Tiny Life, I remembered what I found so mesmerizing about chat and Usenet discussions years ago. By the time I finished it, I was back on both. This is a beautiful, provocative, dangerous book, and I'm going to regret having read it when I re-emerge from my virtual haze in September 2006.

Both books are about the absolute primacy of ideas. The Meme Machine claims that our physical entities are merely the devices by which ideas replicate. My Tiny Life suggests that maybe those physical entities aren't necessary for that replication—but that they do make the process worthwhile.

And best of all, Bill—if either book mentions you, I sure didn't notice. How's that for a Big Thought?

The Plot to Get Bill Gates: An Irreverent Investigation of the World's Richest Man . . . and the People Who Hate Him by Gary Rivlin; Times Business/Random House. 360 pages. $25;Infinite Loop: How the World's Most Insanely Great Computer Company Went Insane by Michael S. Malone; Currency/Doubleday. 597 pages. $27.50;Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Computer Age by Michael Hiltzik; Harper Business. 448 pages. $26;The Visionary Position: The Inside Story of the Digital Dreamers Who Are Making Virtual Reality a Reality by Fred Moody; Times Business/Random House. 353 pages. $27.50;The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore; Oxford University Press. 264 pages. $25;My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World by Julian Dibbell; Owl/Henry Holt & Co. 304 pages. $14.95.

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