Lost Highway

Tripping Down Bill Gates' Road to Nowhere

Published December 2, 1995 11:56AM (EST)

Each time I run Microsoft Word on my Windows PC these days, when I close the program, the machine stutters a bit, then delivers a glum message:
"WINWORD caused a General Protection Fault in module WINWORD.EXE at 00B6:0408."

Crash! Another victim of the dreaded Windows GPF. Sometimes, my mind on idle while my PC reboots, I stare at those initials and reassign them:

Godawful Poor Functioning.

Garbage Production Facility.

Going Putrid Fast.

Gates Programming Fuckup!

I know that Bill Gates isn't personally to blame for the ill manners of my Microsoft Word. But holding him responsible provides a grim kind of satisfaction. By dint of his astonishing success and unfathomable wealth, Gates' features have become the face of the computer revolution -- big glasses, mussy hair and all. When something goes wrong on the desktop, his is the face we want to throw a pie at, festoon with a mustache or, when things get really bad, punch.

In truth, lately Word's GPFs have turned relatively harmless -- they send me an error message but don't freeze my system. And so I have not bothered to spend the hours I know it would take to identify and exterminate this bug. I do not wish to venture out into Windows' maddening system directories, with their vast arrays of incomprehensible filenames; I do not wish to disturb things I never knew existed in hopes of solving problems I never expected to have.

Yet the error messages are disquieting. They are little missives from the depths of my PC that declare, "This system has become too complex for you to even think about fixing. You are no longer in control."

That is an ironic message to receive from Microsoft Word, because the myth of total control is what Gates, his company and his new book of high-tech crystal-ball-gazing, "The Road Ahead," are all about.

"The Highway," Gates says, will change the way we work and play. It's certainly changing his job.

In "The Road Ahead," a book-and-CD-ROM package, Gates "predicts the future for you" (as Newsweek's cover put it). And, surprise!, things look bright indeed to America's richest guy. The "information highway" -- Gates generally clips it to a plain "the highway" -- isn't here yet; the Internet is only a genetic precursor, according to Gates. But when "the highway" itself arrives at our doors, with its ubiquitous high-bandwidth digital video feeds, our lives will undergo a seismic change for the better.

This "World of Tomorrow" prognostication game is old enough hat that even Gates admits many of his predictions will soon look comical. The CD-ROM's video portrait of "the highway" circa 2004 -- a world of heavy makeup, bad Muzak and super-efficient cappuccino bars -- will make for good party entertainment a decade hence. So will its wide-eyed virtual-reality walk-through of the still-unfinished Gates mansion, the Hearst Castle of the '90s.

"The Road Ahead," like an AT&T ad, is built around a ritual repetition of the word "will." I used the CD-ROM's "full text search" function and, though it wouldn't tell me how many times "will" appears, it reported that the word turns up on just about every page.

You will use "the highway" to "shop, order food, contact fellow hobbyists, or publish information for others to use." You will select how, when and where you wish to receive your news and entertainment. You will benefit from lower prices and the elimination of middlemen that the network's "friction-free" marketplace allows. Your wallet PC will identify you at airport gates and highway tollbooths. Your children will tap a torrent of homework helpers.

As the CD-ROM narrator breathlessly puts it, "The information flow into your home will be incredible!" ("Get the mop, Martha!")

At some point, all these "wills" change in character from predictive to prescriptive, and Gates' friendly if cool tone acquires an undercurrent of coercion. The promise of "the highway," according to Gates, is that it will allow us all to control our destinies more fully. The not-so-well-buried subtext of "The Road Ahead," though, tells a different story -- of Gates' and Microsoft's desperate struggle to maintain control of the high-tech marketplace.

"The Road Ahead" won't satisfy readers curious for insights into Chairman Bill's psyche; it mostly has the bland, confident air of an annual report. But in its very first chapter -- next to a cute high-school picture of Gates and Paul Allen scrunched over an old teletype terminal -- Gates does give one clue to his mindset. He was attracted to computers as a kid, he explains, because "we could give this big machine orders and it would always obey."

It's easy to jump on a line like that and make Gates out as some kind of silicon-chip Nazi. But of course he's only being honest about the attraction computer science has always held for engineers, enthusiasts and precocious children: the appeal of instantly responsive, utterly submissive systems that can be gradually massaged toward perfection.

Though digital technology invites its creators into a world of absolute control, the computer market remains a place of frustrating chaos. Gates long ago adopted the strategy that made Microsoft's fortune: ship early with imperfect products, seize market share and then upgrade toward an acceptable level of performance. This drives engineers nuts, but it's sharp business, and it has kept the company on top of the software industry -- until now.

The rise of the Internet, Gates freely admits, caught Microsoft off-guard and now challenges its primacy. Most analysts will tell you that the Net threatens Microsoft because it can render the company's stranglehold on PC operating systems irrelevant. Once you're plugged into the Net it doesn't much matter whether you're using a Windows PC, a Mac or a toaster oven.

That may well be true. But the Net challenges Microsoft on an even deeper level, at the root of its total-control ideology. This is a company -- as chronicled in Fred Moody's absorbing book "I Sing the Body Electronic" -- where "vague" is a stinging insult and where the worst thing you can say about something is that it is "random." "Under Microsoft's present value structure," Moody writes, "the sole measure of a person's worth [is] his or her ability to think analytically."

Such a culture works fine when you're producing structures of code -- spreadsheets, word processors, whatever. Microsoft's peculiar institutional genius, Moody makes clear, lies in constantly challenging its analytical engineering mindset with the relentless demands of its ship-early, upgrade-often business strategy. The will-to-control collides with the pressure-to-ship, leaving employees with a deep sense of failure even as they're reaping untold riches in stock options.
But the Microsoft ethos starts to unravel in an anarchic, communication-based environment like the Internet -- where "vague" is a fact of life and "random," more often than not, is cool. You can't rely on a seize-ground-early strategy when the ground is always moving under your feet.

The networked future will demand that companies abandon strategies of control and accept uncertainty.

Reading between the lines of "The Road Ahead," you get the sense that Gates, like many other corporate leaders, can't wait for the Internet to slow down and calm down -- to become less random. But that's just not the way it's going to be.

The Net -- today's Internet, tomorrow's "highway" and the far future's whatever -- is infinitely more complex than any single piece of software, even one as overgrown and bug-ridden as Microsoft Word. It will not stand still long enough for a company like Microsoft to put a product through enough upgrades to "get it right." It will never be perfected; even its bugs will have bugs.

To thrive in such an environment will require an ability to build systems that are more like self-regulating biological entities than mathematically precise formulas. (Kevin Kelly's book "Out of Control" offers a good roadmap to this future.) Long-term market share will at best be a byproduct of luck, not planning. (Netscape, take note.) And those who stop long enough to troubleshoot by hand will find that the world has raced by them in the time it takes to track down one nettlesome General Protection Fault.

This is the aspect of the networked future that Gates' book ignores, for all its ritual mouthing of business school-mantras about flexibility and adaptation. Gates' "road ahead" is straight and flat, and it promises to put you in the driver's seat at work and at home. The road most of us will experience will be more of a bumpy roller-coaster ride -- fun for many, most likely, but neither smooth nor manageable, and certainly not under anyone's control.

As we careen down this path, we will find some solacing entertainment in the unfolding saga of the Gates House. Gates' plan for a wired-to-the-max "home of the future" -- rigged with centrally controlled music, "smart" lighting and video-wall entertainment -- looks sumptuous, if a little antiseptic, in the demo on the "Road Ahead" CD-ROM. But does anyone really expect it to work? It's a bug-fest just waiting for Gates' first dinner party, whose guests will doubtless learn the hard way that the absolute control promised by the computer industry is and always has been a myth.

Buyers of "The Road Ahead" don't have to wait as long. They can just load up the CD-ROM and click their way to its "Ask Bill" page, where Gates answers questions about the future. The video, which can often be balky on a CD-ROM, works just fine. It's the grammar that's buggy. "How will new technologies effect the home?" "How will the information highway effect social interaction?" In question after question, "effect" keeps appearing where "affect" should.

You can just see the proofreaders rolling their heads: "We spell-checked it!" But spell-check doesn't work when you've mistaken one properly spelled word for another. For Bill Gates, his colleagues and his acolytes, language -- like so much else that's human -- may just be too random.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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