For nearly one hour, Nathan Myhrvold stood in front of members of the Microsoft Alumni Network and talked strictly about Modernist Cuisine — the epic, five-volume cookbook-to-end-all-cookbooks, featuring recipes engineered in a stainless-steel suburban lab, and photographs shot in a carefully lighted studio, created in collaboration with Myhrvold, co-founder of Intellectual Ventures and one of the technology industry’s more controversial figures.
But then, just as his Q+A session was about to wind down, one woman asked a totally unrelated question. She had just come back from the bathroom of the University of Washington’s Computer Science and Engineering building.
“This beautiful modern building is only 10 years old,” she said. “I want to know this: Why do the restroom signs point to the hallway that only has men’s restrooms in it?”
“It is the computer science department, I will point out,” Myhrvold half-joked in response.
[Editor's Note: The restrooms (the women's is directly across from the men's) were actually in the Electrical Engineering department, not the Computer Science department, where the enrollment of women is more than twice the national average, says the UW's Ed Lazowska. See comment thread below.]
“Well, people wonder why women don’t pursue the sciences,” she countered.
That sparked a five-minute monologue from Myhrvold, during which he shared his optimism for the fact that our society is actually talking about progressive issues such as gender equality.
Myhrvold, who was the Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft for 13 years, first related the question back to food, naturally. He talked about a book he just reviewed by author Michael Pollan, who takes a very critical look at the current state of the food industry.
“He gets really worked up about this,” Myhrvold said of Pollan’s views. “And he’s not wrong. But we’re living in a point in history when many of these things are changing. Even though you can point at lots of things in society — whether it’s the treatment of women and placement of men’s rooms, or attitudes about food — the great thing is that all of these things are changing and they’re changing while we watch, actually. I think it’s more possible to be optimistic now than at any other time.”
Then he tied it all back to Microsoft.
“We all participated in a revolution,” Myhrvold said, speaking to his former colleagues. “All kidding aside, it’s got to be one of the most beneficial, least-negative side effect revolutions in human history.”
He brought up the Industrial Revolution, saying that while it was great in many ways, there were lots of “belching smoke stacks, child labor and horrible, horrible things.”
“Bad bits aren’t as bad for you as bad chemicals or bad other stuff,” Myhrvold said.
He admitted that technology has its downfalls, saying he didn’t mean to be “pollyannaish,” and noting things like murders on Craigslist and cyberterrorism. But he wrapped up his answer with more positive vibes.
“If you understand how technology impacts people, how we all help impact people in the personal computer revolution, it’s by and large a story you can be very optimistic about,” he explained. “Of course lots of things suck, but we can really be optimistic that technological solutions on the whole — there are always exceptions — are going to make things suck less in the future.”
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Previously on GeekWire: Kymeta: Is this Bill Gates’ next billion-dollar company?