When you look on the horizon over the next 50 years, what is your biggest fear?
I think we will get our act together on climate change. That's very important. I hope we get our act together on large-scale terrorism and avoid that being a huge setback for the world. On health equity, we can reduce the number of poor children who die from more than 6 million down to 2 million, eventually 1 million. Will the U.S. political system right itself in terms of how it focuses on complex problems? Will the medical costs overwhelm the sense of what people expect government to do?
I do worry about things like the war in Syria and what that means. You wouldn't have predicted that that country in particular would fall into horrific civil war where the suffering is just unbelievable, and it is not obvious to anybody what can be done to stop it. It raises questions for somebody who thinks they can fix Africa overnight. I understand how every healthy child, every new road, puts a country on a better path, but instability and war will arise from time to time, and I'm not an expert on how you get out of those things. I wish there was an invention or advance to fix that. So there'll be some really bad things that'll happen in the next 50 or 100 years, but hopefully none of them on the scale of, say, a million people that you didn't expect to die from a pandemic, or nuclear or bioterrorism.
What do you say to people who argue that America's best days are behind us?
That's almost laughable. The only definition by which America's best days are behind it is on a purely relative basis. That is, in 1946, when we made up about six percent of humanity, but we dominated everything. But America's way better today than it's ever been. Say you're a woman in America, would you go back 50 years? Say you're gay in America, would you go back 50 years? Say you're sick in America, do you want to go back 50 years? I mean, who are we kidding?
Does bad politics kill innovation? Immigration reform, for example, is a big issue in Silicon Valley right now.
Yes, the U.S. immigration laws are bad – really, really bad. I'd say treatment of immigrants is one of the greatest injustices done in our government's name. Well, our bad education system might top it – but immigration is pretty insane. You've got 12 million people living in fear of arbitrary things that can happen to them. But you can't argue that all innovation has seized up because of the problem – I'm sorry. Innovation in California is at its absolute peak right now. Sure, half of the companies are silly, and you know two-thirds of them are going to go bankrupt, but the dozen or so ideas that emerge out of that are going to be really important.
Our modern lifestyle is not a political creation. Before 1700, everybody was poor as hell. Life was short and brutish. It wasn't because we didn't have good politicians; we had some really good politicians. But then we started inventing – electricity, steam engines, microprocessors, understanding genetics and medicine and things like that. Yes, stability and education are important – I'm not taking anything away from that – but innovation is the real driver of progress.
Speaking of innovation, I want to ask you about Steve Jobs. When was the last time you talked to him?
It was two or three months before he passed away. And then I wrote a long letter to him after that, which he had by his bedside. Steve and I actually stayed in touch fairly well, and we had a couple of good, long conversations in the last year, about our wives, about life, about what technology achieved or had not achieved.
Steve and I were very different. But we were both good at picking people. We were both hyperenergetic and worked superhard. We were close partners in doing the original Mac software, and that was an amazing thing, because we had more people working on it than Apple did. But we were very naive. Steve promised us this was going to be this $499 machine, and next thing we knew, it was $1,999. Anyway, the Mac project was an incredible experience. The team that worked on the Mac side completely and totally burned out. Within two years, none of them were still there. But it was a mythic thing that we did together. Steve was a genius.
You're a technologist, but a lot of your work now with the foundation has a moral dimension. Has your thinking about the value of religion changed over the years?
The moral systems of religion, I think, are superimportant. We've raised our kids in a religious way; they've gone to the Catholic church that Melinda goes to and I participate in. I've been very lucky, and therefore I owe it to try and reduce the inequity in the world. And that's kind of a religious belief. I mean, it's at least a moral belief.
Do you believe in God?
I agree with people like Richard Dawkins that mankind felt the need for creation myths. Before we really began to understand disease and the weather and things like that, we sought false explanations for them. Now science has filled in some of the realm – not all – that religion used to fill. But the mystery and the beauty of the world is overwhelmingly amazing, and there's no scientific explanation of how it came about. To say that it was generated by random numbers, that does seem, you know, sort of an uncharitable view [laughs]. I think it makes sense to believe in God, but exactly what decision in your life you make differently because of it, I don't know.
This story is from the March 27th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.
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