Behind the Lines: Welcome to the shtetl, Mr. Gates

Gates talking with Sharon about technology is like Sharon talking with Gates about breeding bulls.

bill gates 88 (photo credit: )
bill gates 88
(photo credit: )
There's nothing that shows off the parochialism of the local media quite like the way they lose all bearings when an international celebrity deigns to land here.

Usually it's some kind of pop star or Hollywood heartthrob, so the show-biz reporters' excitement is understandable. Their regular job is pretending that talentless local performers are superstars - who can blame them for getting drunk on authentic glamor. But when the visitor is renowned in a more serious field, like statesmanship or business, it's extremely amusing to see the usually serious and cynical reporters falling over each other to prostrate themselves at the feet of the oracle.

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates might be the richest man in the world and the most recognizable face behind the world-wide computer revolution in recent decades, but for the last few years he has been serving mainly as Microsoft's guru-in-chief while leaving the day-to-day management of the company to others. Perhaps that's why he suddenly has time to visit us here in the Middle East. Well, not too much time. His entire visit to Israel from landing to take-off was barely 24 hours. He left the hotel only once - to meet the prime minister.

All the glowing reports in the media mentioned the Microsoft research center in Haifa as if it were the company's brain trust, but Gates didn't seem eager to visit even there. He preferred to receive his subjects at the hotel and to learn about our wonderful programmers' latest ideas via e-mail. In other words, aside from being a PR coup for Microsoft, the visit had no practical importance. It didn't herald a technological breakthrough, nor did it add even one job in the hi-tech sector.

The two tabloids didn't let the facts get in their way. Yediot Aharonot had a big photo of Gates on the cover, with an Israeli flag in the background, as if he were a visiting head-of-state. They also added some rather ridiculous quotes from an interview with him. He said that "Israel does wonderful things in the field of technology" but, for some reason, he talked to us as if we were natives on some distant island. In the future, Gates predicted, "people will use computers in their daily lives - in their homes, offices and in their coat pocket." Perhaps he should have taken a short walk outside the hotel. He might have seen a few computers in use in those places already.

On the subject of his fabulous wealth, he said: "I don't spend all day counting my money." Have you ever heard a billionaire admit that he did? Gates said he was looking forward to his meeting with Sharon, who is not exactly known for his computer skills, and planning "to discuss with him the future of technological development in Israel," which is more or less like Sharon saying that he is planning to talk with Gates about the breeding methods for the bulls on his farm.

The fact that the interviewer was Yediot's veteran financial editor Sever Plotzker only goes to show what proximity to royalty can do to a normally staid and reasonable Israeli journalist. The paper's technology reporter, Duddy Goldman, was the only one who retained a shred of professionalism. He wrote in a short piece that Gates actually "said nothing new," and that his aphorisms were "like saying that it's hot in the summer or that shwarma in pita is tasty but fattening."

Ma'ariv didn't even have that shred. The paper's banner headline on Wednesday was a quote from Gates: "Israel is a hi-tech power." Well thank you, Bill, but we kind of knew that already.

Since there really isn't much to write about a short and polite visit, Ma'ariv had to fill all that space with Gates' CV, a photograph of the presidential suite where he slept and the details of his menu. Also included was a short dictionary of Microsoft terms that wouldn't enlighten even the most casual computer users and an "analysis" column. What is there to analyze here, why he was served lamb chops and not veal?

Ma'ariv's reporters predicted that Gates would use his visit to "reveal, for the first time, his vision of the new work-space." In other words, he was going to give his standard speech. And if all that's not enough, there was also space for Ma'ariv's resident buffoon, Kobi Arieli, who asked the visitor to pop over and fix the fonts on his home computer. And I haven't got enough room here to write about the fawning TV interviews, but you can just imagine.

Welcome to the shtetl, Mr. Gates.