Captain Doug is our tour guide today, and Captain Doug knows what we want to see. "Here it is on your left, folks," he booms as the Argosy Cruises boat tacks toward the shore of Lake Washington. "All 40,000 square feet of it." A dozen or so of us scurry to the railing to peer at the wood and glass compound tucked into a dark green bib of lakefront. Until you are smack in front of it, it's hard to grasp how big it is; once you are, it looks more like a bustling village than a single-family dwelling. "I could live there," says a woman who has been chasing her Popsicle-splattered toddlers in an ever-tightening circle on the deck. "Except that the cleaning bills alone would kill us." Behind her, a very large man in an "Are We Having Fun Yet?" t-shirt is snapping pictures with a disposable camera. "Fifty million for that?" he snorts between exposures. "I've stayed at better looking Marriotts."
Strictly speaking, Bill Gates hasn't asked any of us what we think of the new house he has been building for the last seven years and will move into this month. Al Gore and a hundred CEOs got an inside tour of the cyberbaronage in May, but Mr. "Are We Having Fun Yet?" and I haven't exactly been invited. We're a half-mile or so offshore in a big, white boat that takes about 150 tourists to see the Gates spread every day during the summer. We need binoculars to even try and catch a glimpse of the sixty-foot swimming pool with the underwater speakers, the giant trampoline room with the twenty-foot ceilings, or the private estuary stocked with (yes) cutthroat trout.
No matter. We can still do what Americans have been doing since at least the days of Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Frick--we can subject the tastes and spending habits of a colossally rich man to the cranky tribunal of public opinion. Because this is an old game, though, the criteria are a little antiquated too. We wonder how ostentatious the Gates mansion is, how worthy a successor to the frou-frou estates of the American merchant princes. Is it, as many a commentator would have it, a sort of "high-tech Xanadu," luxurious beyond precedent? Gates himself keeps this line of thinking alive by insisting that it is none of these things. In his 1995 book The Road Ahead, he declares, modestly, that his house is no San Simeon--"one of the West Coast's monuments to excess," as he primly puts it. What it really is, he explains, is a house of the future, a test site for computer-assisted living. And the living space itself, he reports even more modestly, is "about average for a large house."
I don't think so, but that's not the point. When you are very, very rich, your money buys you what you want it to buy. If you want it to buy Dom Perignon, it buys Dom Perignon. If you want it to buy hamburgers, it buys hamburgers, lots of them. And if you want it to buy a micromanaged and remote-controlled home--a cybernerdy, Ian Flemingish dream of a pad, it buys you that, too. Increasingly, what great wealth procures for itself is not, in fact, Pharaonic excess--the battlemented castles, pink marble bathrooms and gout-inducing banquets of the Gilded Age--but insulation, carefully calibrated, from the contingencies and disruptions of daily life as most people live it. That's why the Gates house is the perfect symbol of the new elite. It is not a monument to excess so much as a monument to control. (Sure it's huge, but the aesthetic is more office park than Shangri-la.) And for the baby-boomer aristocracy, as Christopher Lasch has written, control--over social reality, over the biological reality of reproduction and aging--has become an obsession. There are many ways to achieve this kind of mastery over one's environment, but Gates may have hit upon the surest: building yourself a technological cocoon that anticipates your every need and protects you not only from danger, but from serendipity as well.
"First thing, as you come in," Gates has written of his house, "you'll be presented with an electronic pin to clip to your clothes. The pin will connect you up to the electronic services of the house.... [It] will tell the house who and where you are, and the house will use this information to try to meet and even anticipate your needs--all as unobtrusively as possible." The pin will cause a beam of light to follow you from room to room, for instance, and to fade behind you, like an extremely self-effacing butler. It will cause the "house system" to play your favorite music and to project on the walls your favorite images, culled from Gates's vast electronic database of photographs and paintings. "In fact," he writes, "the house will remember everything it learns about your preferences. If in the past you've asked to see paintings by Henri Matisse or photographs by Chris Johns of National Geographic, you may find other works of theirs displayed on the walls of the rooms you enter.... If you don't take telephone calls during dinner, the phone won't ring if the call is for you. We'll also be able to `tell' the house system what a guest likes. [Microsoft crony] Paul Allen is a Jimi Hendrix fan, and a head-banging guitar lick will greet him whenever he visits." What if he doesn't want to hear a head-banging guitar lick every time he visits? What if he wants to be surprised? What if he would rather rummage around in somebody else's sensibility for a while? The Gates house, unlike the pseudo-Euro palaces of the robber barons, is not about proving to the world that its owner has taste; it's about showing that he can figure out yours. It is a mansion for our times: even its decor is niche-marketed.
As Nancy Koehn, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied the high-tech world, puts it, "There is a huge amount of solipsistic fantasy involved in the Gates house. But then there is a huge amount of solipsistic fantasy in cyberspace. Computers are increasingly geared to consumption now, but it's consumption within ever more controlled parameters." Consider, for example, Gates's own vision for the future of the Internet. Not long from now, he crows, "You'll watch a program when it's convenient for you instead of when a broadcaster chooses to air it. You'll shop, order food, contact friends, or publish information for other people to use when and as you want to. Your nightly newscast will start at a time you determine and last exactly as long as you want it to, and it will cover subjects selected by you or by a service that knows your interests." (So much for developing new interests.) And should you venture outside the control zone, say to try a new restaurant, Gates assures you that the Internet will provide all the strategic information you'll need to make the perilous journey--not only restaurant reviews, but health department reports, crime statistics on the neighborhood where it is located, "and directions based on current traffic conditions." No surprises, please. We're rich, we're scared--and our houses may be smarter than we are.