An old interview from 24 years ago has resurfaced in which the late fantasy author Terry Pratchett warned of the spread of fake news on the internet, but Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates dismissed his fears.
Marc Burrows, who is writing a biography of Pratchett due for release next year, shared an image of the interview from the July 1995 edition of GQ magazine that he found during “deep dive research” for his book to Twitter on Tuesday.
In 1996 Terry Pratchett interviewed Bill Gates for GQ and accurately predicted how the internet would propagate and legitimise fake news. Gates didn’t believe him. pic.twitter.com/MqjawT4NVV
— Marc Burrows⚡️ (@20thcenturymarc) May 28, 2019
Burrows noted Pratchett had “accurately predicted” how the internet, which was then still in its infancy, would “propagate and legitimise fake news” ― and that Gates “didn’t believe him.”
Pratchett, who died aged 66 in March 2015 following a yearslong battle with Alzheimer’s disease, theorized:
OK. Let’s say I call myself the Institute for Something-or-other and I decide to promote a spurious treatise saying the Jews were entirely responsible for the Second World War and the Holocaust didn’t happen. And it goes out there on the Internet and is available on the same terms as any piece of historical research which has undergone peer review and so on. There’s a kind of parity of esteem of information on the Net. It’s all there: there’s no way of finding out whether this stuff has any bottom to it or whether someone has just made it up.
Gates offered an optimistic response:
Not for long. Electronics gives us a way of classifying things. You will have authorities on the Net and because an article is contained in their index it will mean something. For all practical purposes, there’ll be an infinite amount of test out there and you’ll only receive a piece of text through levels of direction, like a friend who says, “hey, go read this”, or a brand name which is associated with a group of referees, or a particular expert, or consumer reports, or the equivalent of a newspaper… they’ll point out the things that are of particular interest. The whole way that you can check somebody’s reputation will be so much more sophisticated on the New than it is in print today.
Burrows shared a second image of the interview, however, in which Gates correctly foresaw the demise of VHS and the rise of streaming services:
Although Gates wins points later by predicting DVDs and Netflix pic.twitter.com/mAtRxFzAsK
— Marc Burrows⚡️ (@20thcenturymarc) May 28, 2019
Burrows told HuffPost he was “not in the slightest” bit surprised with Pratchett’s prediction about the spread of fake news, noting how he’d been a newsman who’d worked as a journalist or press officer “right up until 1987 when his career as an author really started to take off.”
“He knew how news and rumor worked on an instinctive level,” explained Burrows, whose provisionally titled unauthorized tome “The Real Terry Pratchett” is due out via the publisher Pen and Sword in August 2020.
Pratchett was also “a technology geek” who was “very involved in the growing internet culture” including as a regular contributor to the Discworld fan community at alt.fan.pratchett, said Burrows, adding that “the subject was right in his ballpark.”
The interview ― titled “I’m Not Sure What The Word ‘Nerd’ Means” ― has generated plenty of debate on social media, where the spread of fake news became a contentious issue during the 2016 presidential election:
It's weird how consistently the brain geniuses who created this clusterfuck we live in had absolutely no idea what they were unleashing. https://t.co/HmR1A5Msxe
— Tom Tomorrow (@tomtomorrow) May 28, 2019
To be fair, Gates did talk about a friend who says "Hey, go read this" – which turns out to be the root of the disinformation problem. Sadly Bill Gates had much too high expectations of the accuracy of one's friends… https://t.co/3Gmo3PnE2Y
— Simon Willison (@simonw) May 29, 2019
Gates fumbled at a solution but the social media companies have – up to now – almost completely abstained from any gatekeeping responsibility. Print was gatekeeping by default. A mixed blessing, but promoted legitimacy https://t.co/svETIYEVBb
— Daniel Dawkins (@DanDawkins) May 28, 2019
Pratchett started as a journalist and his whole personality was shaped by how brutal and amoral the world of the newsroom can be (which he satirized later in the Discworld novel The Truth)So I'm unsurprised he realized this early on https://t.co/3bWVOqErM6
— Arthur Chu (@arthur_affect) May 28, 2019
Sci-Fi/fiction authors are always ahead of us on dystopia — sometimes it feels like we’re following their roadmap a little too closely… https://t.co/tYE37rb1iO
— Tal Kopan (@TalKopan) May 28, 2019
Pratchett was right https://t.co/DABfrfMeIw
— Bojan Pancevski (@bopanc) May 28, 2019
They all told us the Internet would make everything so much easier and better. https://t.co/aB5tt42Fxd
— robneyer ⚾️🧗♂️🦉🗽 (@robneyer) May 29, 2019
This just legitimises my lifelong commitment to Terry Pratchett. https://t.co/J9zphRXbe9