Billing Us Softly

Microsoft's business has grown so spectacularly that its operations base in Redmond, Washington, is now housed in two "campuses," the second even more well endowed than the first. At both, casually dressed employees, looking like successful young professors, hum about. Walking past perfectly groomed grounds through a spacious lobby to their private offices, these programmers can pick up the colorful 1997 financial report. Microsoft's digital masterminds may be insulated from ordinary financial stress, but not from the sense of menace that pervades their leader's mind. Right at the front of the report is a worried black-and-white photo of chairman and CEO Bill Gates. His overview statement contrasts starkly with both the tranquil setting and the spectacular revenue numbers.

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"Like any time in our 23-year history we have great opportunities but face a number of threats," he warns. "Competitors are battling with us on many fronts." But he is determined to brave these myriad threats in order to "help make the 'Web lifestyle' a reality." It is a lifestyle, he explains, "in which people take advantage of the Internet to lead more informed and productive lives, and have more fun."

A relative latecomer to the Internet, Gates envisioned its market potential in his 1995 book, The Road Ahead: "The day has almost arrived when you can easily conduct business, study, explore the world and its cultures, call up great entertainment, make friends, go to neighborly markets, and show pictures to distant relatives…without leaving your desk or your armchair…. Your network connection…will be your passport into a new, 'mediated' way of life."

Now the ever expanding Web is as endlessly fascinated with Gates as he is with it. His wealth so strains the imagination that rendering all those zeros comprehensible has become a favorite Web pastime. The Internet teems with sites devoted to Microsoft, including several with up-to-the-minute calculations of how many 747 jets Gates' holdings would fill if converted into dollar bills (304) or how much cash he could shell out to every American ($137) or what a Lamborghini is worth to him in terms relative to the average wage earner (63 cents). Underlying this fascination is a dim memory from high school history: Wasn't there something bad about kings?

Bill Gates' voracity seems undiminished—if anything, his prosperity has made him even hungrier for control. Gates claims that he only wants to make our digital lives faster, simpler, and fun; he'll be the neutral middleman who helps satisfy our wishes just by pumping electronic wriggles into our workplaces and homes. But if the mediator is the message, we're in big trouble. Neither his colleagues nor his competitors pair Gates with images of neutrality. The mere mention of his name conjures dread.

As monomaniacal as Gates seems, his dominance is not an anomaly, but a foreseeable consequence of the new technological era. Most consumers want an invisible standard under the hood of all their new machines. We are willing to spend billions in return for effortless access to the bits and bytes that have suddenly become so important. As Gates points out, Microsoft does make things faster. Cheaper. Friendlier. His software increases productivity. His Web browser lets your fingertips call up more information than you could ever want to know.

Still, the Justice Department and Ralph Nader rightly wonder if consumers really have a choice of brands left. Microsoft's success in standardizing software has highlighted the company's monopolistic drives. Silicon Valley, where I worked as a journalist for eight years, is filled with software geniuses who wrote code for a better mousetrap only to discover that market share and a war chest regularly trump innovation. Obviously Microsoft is now using its whopping 90 percent market share of operating systems to foist its Internet Explorer on consumers. But since Microsoft is giving away this browser for free, by "bundling" it with its Windows desktop software, it's difficult to imagine angry consumers rallying around the cause, claiming they're being ill-served.

Many Americans are nonetheless watching the Justice Department's antitrust suit. Their real question is whether Bill Gates is more powerful than our government. Microsoft's indignant response to the suit leaves us uncomfortably wondering whether or not national governments retain the power even to slap the wrist of brazen corporations.

Of course, greedy visionaries with a gift for vertical integration are older than Windows. John D. Rockefeller, and his Standard Oil monopoly (one of the monsters that antitrust law was created to slay), once threatened civil society because he controlled the sale of a physical commodity that people and governments had no choice but to consume. Bill Gates is striving for monopolistic power over strings of symbols. How do we confront the fact that our physical needs—commerce, goods, services—have become inextricably intertwined with new ethereal desires?

Everyone at Microsoft is dedicated to the manipulation of those desires. The company deliberately hires bright young people straight out of college. They're well prepared to provide what the company craves but are not yet formed as adults. A job at Microsoft basically means graduating to a richer "campus." Marooned on a bucolic island without any other culture, their personal and professional lives become almost indistinguishable. A star programmer is like a young doctor being socialized through an internship or a young lawyer seeking partnership. Perhaps the main difference is that the medical and legal professions have traditions, however debased. During the decade following the invention of the PC, the absence of any such tradition seemed appealing, particularly since the digital pioneers were emanating from the counterculture.

In my limited contact with current and former Microsoft workers, I've noticed two conversational tendencies that can, unfortunately, be traced to the counterculture. They can be extremely aggressive thinkers, questioning basic assumptions about all politics, all communication, all social organization prior to the digital era. They are not simply parroting the Microsoft line when they mock the pathetic behemoth that is government for sticking its nose into postmodern commerce. But their brains also retain a whiny lobe, which, for example, repeatedly complains that their company is only one-sixth the size of IBM (its stock valuation is, in fact, more than 1.5 times higher) and therefore doesn't deserve to be on anyone's radar screen.

These are the offspring of Bill Gates the outsider, Bill Gates the Harvard dropout, Bill Gates the high-tech David who slew the blue-suited, wing-tip-wearing Goliaths at IBM. Gates still looks uncomfortable in a suit. He is a hero of the nerds who sought to remake the corporate world into a more dress-down-everyday kind of place, where authority came from good ideas, not job titles. It was a crusade against mindless business practices, and Bill Gates won. But any hope of an alternative culture from which a more soulful way of conducting commerce might emerge is gone. Too many people at Microsoft are openly cynical about their careers, admitting they are there simply for the cash—and the cash-out.

Greed in, greed out. The nascent Web lifestyle already hints that, without consciousness and countervailing forces, our failings will haunt us in this brave new world. The unencumbered flow of information over the Internet wires sounds amazing in principle, but its earliest culture contains too much of what the cynics have expected: junk e-mails (etherealized snake oil salesmen), rumors of conspiracy (etherealized superstitious villagers), and proliferating pornography. The public hasn't been crying out for Web sites devoted to the Bob's Big Boy in Burbank, California, yet here we are.

In his chapter on "friction-free capitalism," Gates talks without irony about a more commercialized future: "In an unobtrusive way, the Internet will offer you the option to inquire about images you see. If you're watching a video of Top Gun and think that Tom Cruise's aviator sunglasses look really cool, you'll be able to pause the movie and learn about the glasses or even buy them on the spot." Gates is now pouring enormous resources into WebTV, which he believes will move products in hitherto unimaginable ways.

Of course, Gates isn't overtly forcing his version of wanting-and-instantly-getting down our throats. We seem eager to swallow it. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is a good model of the technological dystopia we should fear: Instead of social control enforced from the outside, Huxley envisioned a world enervated from within. We have spent much of the late 20th century guarding against a Fahrenheit 451-like state in which books are burned; meanwhile, Huxley's world, in which most people won't bother to read a book, may be slipping in the back door.

By marketing to our worst parts—our childlike fascination with glittery technology, our desire for instant gratification, our vulnerability to planned obsolescence, our misguided notion that wave after wave of "information" is empowering rather than distracting—Bill Gates has been instrumental in making a mindless world attractive. As Gates blandly puts it: "Our goal is to allow people to get their work done in the easiest way possible, without thinking about the tools they're using."

To the extent that the digital age makes the various transactions of daily life more convenient, opposition becomes virtually impossible. Resistance isn't futile, it's uncomfortable. Not having a computer network is a liability for many businesses. E-mails are more easily returned than phone calls. Requests for information from governments or corporations are more and more likely to be met with the response, "It's on our Web site." And so we acquiesce, bit by bit, to conducting our work lives in the ethereal world while we begin to find "fun" in the Web lifestyle that Bill Gates is eager to construct for us.

Paradoxically, the empire through which Gates will sell convenience and placation is built upon dread. His fear of losing control of what he calls "the digital nervous system" keeps everyone around him running scared. Fear motivates the behavior that we document in our cover stories: his establishment of a Washington, D.C., lobbying force similar in scope and cunning to that of Philip Morris; his drive to infiltrate foreign markets, dominating the industry's anti-piracy campaign just to broaden Microsoft's market share; his need to collect data on the consumers who use his products ("the better to serve you with, my dear"); and his construction of an elaborate media campaign to neutralize the growing suspicions we harbor about Bill.

In the sterile heart of Aldous Huxley's consumer dystopia, citizens were insulated from dread. At the end of the book, one of the 10 Controllers of the world explains that, in a proper civilization, "what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren't any temptations to resist."

Is this where we want to go today?

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