SOLOMON: The Brave New World of Bill Gates
This month began with yet another glossy tribute to Microsoft's visionary leader. Newsweek devoted seven gaga pages to Bill Gates -- "the most powerful single figure in the business world today" -- and proclaimed that we're nearing "the Microsoft Century."Superlatives are routine when media outlets describe the 41-year-old CEO and his software feats. Meanwhile, corporate rivals grouse and moan. But star-struck journalists and envious competitors don't shed much light on the downsides of the Microsoft mind-set.The brave new world of Bill Gates -- transfixed with high- tech form over human content -- has little room for social vision. What we get are endless variations of the notion that ever-more-clever digital technology will make life wondrous for paying customers.These days, Gates says that Microsoft's focus on the Internet will enable the firm to be "intimate" with consumers by maintaining on-line communication: "The relationship, even on productivity software, is a lot more intimate and ongoing."Incessant techno-babble often drowns out what we used to call critical thinking. As for the next generation, little Johnny or Mary -- or Dylan or Chelsea -- can't get a hug from their Pentium computer or 28.8 modem or full-color graphics. No hypertext will ever talk with a child as well as a loving relative or friend might. And there's no software on the horizon that can begin to substitute for the soft touch of a parent's hand.These are not big considerations in the projections for the Microsoft Century. With all the drum-beating about the brilliance of Bill Gates, this country's media echo chamber is remarkably quiet about values that cannot be put on a spreadsheet."The great triumphs of propaganda have been accomplished, not by doing something, but by refraining from doing," Aldous Huxley observed a half-century ago. "Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth."Amid all the accolades for trailblazer Gates, we rarely hear about the moral sinkholes of his road ahead. In the quest for market share, less acquisitive concerns get lip service. It's symbolic that Gates -- after amassing $20 billion of personal wealth -- remains so eager to become even richer in a world of rampant poverty.Last summer, Microsoft and NBC launched a major joint project, MSNBC, combining a new cable TV network and a site on the World Wide Web. Such media ventures may seem to enhance choices, but they actually post more intrusive sentries -- "gatekeepers" -- along the information superhighway.When MSNBC premiered, Tom Brokaw spoke of the need to manage cyberspace for young people. "We can't let that generation and a whole segment of the population just slide away out to the Internet and retrieve what information it wants without being in on it," Brokaw told an interviewer.With uncommon candor, the NBC anchor added: "I also believe strongly that the Internet works best when there are gatekeepers. When there are people making determinations and judgments about what information is relevant and factual and useful. Otherwise, it's like going to the rainforest and just seeing a green maze."But the biggest players in cyberspace aren't merely guiding us through the media terrain -- they're altering it in fundamental ways, bulldozing through certain areas, pointing us in some directions and away from others. In effect, Microsoft is bent on selling us the windows through which we perceive the world.Consider the comments of Silicon Valley investor Michael Moritz, quoted in the Dec. 2 edition of Newsweek: "It's difficult to think of a company in the history of the world that's positioned to influence so many aspects of life as Microsoft is at the end of the 20th century. In terms of a civilized world, you'd have to go back to the Roman Empire to find any organization that had as great a reach as Microsoft has today."Of course, every media story includes the proverbial "both sides." So, Newsweek tells us a bit about the "Anti-Bills" -- executives at software outfits like Netscape and Oracle who resent Bill Gates. But they don't really object to the media- monopolizing game; they just want to do better at it themselves.Missing from standard news accounts are the voices of consumer advocates and media critics with deeper objections. They aren't supposed to have much of a future in the Microsoft Century.