Sometime about 1996, while I was editor in chief at Britannica, I saw a syndicated newspaper column, published over the signature of Bill Gates, that discussed some odd editorial policies at Encarta. I wrote the following response, but company management declined to publish it. The attitude seemed to be, "Why needlessly antagonize the Big Guy?" I'm no longer so constrained.

The Microsoft Way

I've often had occasion to lament how little the general public understands of what encyclopedia editors - or any editors, for that matter - do, and consequently how lightly it values us. I've been doing it, whatever it is, for going on 30 years now, and I've long since learned to be vague when someone at a cocktail party asks what I do for a living. So I was naturally delighted to come upon an article ("'Reality' Can Get Subjective") in which Bill Gates - yes, the Bill Gates - apparently proposed to explain a little bit about encyclopedia-making to the wide and attentive audience that he is able to command. The initial excitement of having Bill on my side made my disappointment so much the keener when I found that he had misrepresented my job.

I ought to have noticed the quotes around the word "reality" right off. Without committing the author to any alternative view, the quotes mark the notion of reality for fashionably ironic treatment; they wink at us and say, in effect, "Well, of course, we're all Postmodernists here, so we see right through that Reality As Such business." What follows that premise, as it turns out, is not especially fashionable, or hip, or thoughtful. It is so transparently cynical that my 15-year-old son laughed aloud when he read it.i

Bill begins by asking "Did Thomas Edison invent the incandescent light bulb? Or was it Sir Joseph Swan?" He then confesses that while the U.S. version of his Encarta encyclopedia credits Edison and does not mention Swan, the British version adds an article on Swan and gives him equal credit. He calls this "reflect[ing] a slightly different reality."

If you, like me, are pre-Postmodern (i.e., unspeakably na´ve) enough to ask, "So, which one was it?" the answer seems to be "It depends on where you live." This is the "subjectivity" of "reality" in Bill's title. Bill and his editorial teams have discovered this phenomenon, he says, while "localizing" Encarta for various national markets around the world. He equates this kind of hedging and obscuring with such adjustments as adopting local spellings and vocabularies or adding new materials of special local interest. The equation doesn't work. The latter are the commonplace necessities of an international market; the former is pandering to local prejudices.

Let's suppose that Sir Joseph deserves equal credit for the invention of the incandescent light bulb. Why would an encyclopedia publisher choose not to tell that fact to certain of his readers? I can't imagine an answer to that question. What might an encyclopedist do instead? Here's a thought: He might offer to all, irrespective of accident of birth, the best available answer. Here is how another encyclopedia deals with the question:

In 1801 Sir Humphrey Davy demonstrated the incandescence of platinum strips heated in the open air by electricity; but the strips did not last long. Frederick de Moleyns of England was granted the first patent for an incandescent lamp in 1841; he used powdered charcoal heated between two platinum wires.

The first practical incandescent lamps became possible after the invention of good vacuum pumps. The Englishman Sir Joseph Wilson Swan in 1878 and the American inventor Thomas Alva Edison in the following year independently produced lamps with carbon filaments in evacuated glass bulbs. Edison has received the major credit because of his development of the power lines and other equipment needed to establish the incandescent lamp in a practical lighting system.

This particular version, still only a summary history of a complex development, underscores the essential meaninglessness of the question "Was it Edison, or was it Swan?" If there is naivetÚ in play, it is in the idea that such a question can be answered in one word. But the Gates article goes on to another and truly egregious example of local "reality." Did the Scottish-American Alexander Graham Bell invent the telephone? Or was it the Italian-American Antonio Meucci? It is disturbing, to say the least, to read that the Italian version of Encarta, in preparation, will say that "[i]n 1876 another inventor, A.G. Bell, patented a similar device." There was no similarity, as both historians of science and the courts have long recognized. I know, from correspondence over many years, that the Meucci claim is pressed as a matter of nationalistic pride by a few, shall we say, hobbyists; but we also hear from Flat-Earthers from time to time. This is no instance of one "reality" having equal standing with another. The case is clear, and it takes no great courage to state it in Italian as well as in English.

How do the Encarta editors propose to deal with real conflicts? I have to wonder. How will they deal with the status and borders of Jammu and Kashmir? Will they prepare different versions for Greece and Turkey, treating Cyprus differently? For Greece and Macedonia, the former version making no reference to the latter state? For Britain and Argentina (remember the Falklands/Malvinas War)? For Israel and Syria? For Spanish-speaking and Basque-speaking Spain? For New York and New Jersey?

Bill does see some problems ahead. "But when international versions of Encarta eventually go up on the Internet, our policy of presenting 'local, educated reality' will be called into question. Some readers will get upset about content that may fly in the face of their reality." Well, yes. It's hard to read this as meaning anything other than "We'll work the local markets first and worry about getting the stories straight later." He does more or less promise to straighten things out "in the long run," and sagely notes that it will be difficult and that "Truth must not be a victim of this process."

Too late, Bill.