Vox Techno: Win95 and Big Brother

Mass Hysteria is never a pretty sight, whether it's in real life, like at an NBA playoff game where crazed fans are trying to distract the foul shooter, or in cyberspace where a vicious rumor can send the entire Internet into convulsions in about two seconds. Still, it can be fun to watch from a safe vantage point. And if you're logged onto the Net while sitting at home in front of your computer, you might even delude yourself into thinking you won't get caught by a sudden stampede. Actually, no one's safe -- a sobering truth that partially explains the most recent outburst of Net frenzy. Recently, Information Week, a trade magazine that covers the computer biz, reported that Microsoft Corporation's soon-to-debut new operating system, Windows 95, would include a "viral routine" designed to scan the hard disk of personal computers, "gathering intelligence on what software is being run on which machine." Then when a Win95 user logged on to the Microsoft Network (access to which will be included in Win95), the "viral routine" would automatically send the "intelligence" to Microsoft. Talk about your Big Brother! The Net was in an uproar, decrying the growing evidence that Microsoft is the evil empire of cyberspace. Remember that copy of Procomm Plus for Windows you illegally copied from your sister? Now Microsoft knows you've got it and is gonna come and string you up for software piracy. And don't even think of trying to hide your naked Cindy Crawford photos. No wonder the Net got its collective pantyhose in a twist. But the madness didn't last long; within hours of the news spreading across such Usenet news groups as "alt.privacy" and "comp.risks," Microsoft employees, arriving en masse as if storming the beaches of Normandy, posted vigorous rebuttals. The so-called viral routine was not a virus, they emphasized, but a "registration wizard," a piece of software that would only run if a user expressly agreed to activating it. No big deal. The Net subsided. Still, the technology exists to do exactly what Microsoft was accused of doing. And the potential for vast abuse raises some interesting questions about the relationship between people, their computers, and cyberspace -- questions I don't know how to answer. So I decided to ask the guy who first brought this whole matter to my attention. That person is Bruce Sterling, a science-fiction writer who started a conversation about Microsoft's alleged misdeeds on the Well. Besides the fact that he's an original "cyberpunk," I knew from earlier experience that Sterling is always good for a hot quote. From his home in Texas, Sterling said he still hasn't decided what to call these pesky software devices that go snooping around your hardware, scoping out your digital nooks and crannies. "It's either a weevil or a weasel," he said, "but I can't figure out which." Fun aside, Sterling believes that the connection between the Net and the personal computer where the weevils/weasels play is an important "membrane between that which is private and individual and that which belongs to something else." "You don't actually own Microsoft software," he noted. "It's all licensed. Theoretically it's somebody else's property. So here you are you are with 5 megabytes of your own property, and 30 megabytes or 300 megabytes of [Microsoft CEO] Bill Gates's property. You're still calling it your property, but who has the larger investment? I think he could argue that what's on your computer is his business." "I think it's unconscionable to say that Bill Gates wants to make everyone into a Microserf," said Sterling, who makes a point of not loading any Microsoft software onto his own computer. "But there's no question that he's a major media mogul. I think that Bill Gates has a visionary scheme in which he basically sees himself as the facilitator between individuals and the greater world of cyberspace." And if the Microsoft software that belongs to Gates is so important to running your computer, asked Sterling, "why even have a computer? Why not just rent hardware from Gates? Why call a personal computer a personal computer? Why not just make it a utility? That's what telephony used to be like. You had a telephone, it was very user-friendly, you had on-line help." In fact, monopoly life wasn't so bad, was it? "There were advantages to having Ma Bell," said Sterling. "When it was around I didn't get up every morning and say, 'The phone is oppressing me.' " Maybe not. But isn't the potential for intrusion with a computer and powerful software a lot more worrisome than what the good old phone used to threaten? Sterling wasn't willing to call it either way. "It's a fascinating study," he said. "I get up every morning and see what's happening on the Net and it's like a circus. I'm entertained no end." Sure, as long as you don't get trampled by a virtual stampede. You can reach Andrew Leonard at aleonard@well.sf.ca.us or at andrew_leonard@sfbayguardian.com.

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