The Breakfast Table

The Tech Front in the Culture Wars

OK, Det. Masters,

I’ll answer your astute question today. It’s true that I let your Microsoft challenge slide yesterday, but then it was couched in a mistaken premise that I first have to unwind. You passed on commenting about Vanity Fair’s Monica spread, citing your affiliation with the magazine. Fine. But then, with an air of turning the tables, you wrote, “But how about you? If we’re going to get into the apparently very profitable prediction business, would you care to venture a guess as to how fast and at what price Microsoft will have to settle its antitrust litigation? Or is that sort of question a bit uncomfortable here on the virtual pages of Slate?”

That seems to suggest that my connection to Slate (and thus with Microsoft) equals your connection to Vanity Fair. That’s not the case. My affiliation with Slate is the same as your affiliation with Slate: We’re both here to do the Breakfast gig, and when they clear the dishes, we’re both gone. (Also, for the record, Slate has covered the trial extensively, often using outside voices to do it.)

You imply that Microsoft’s lawyers have been doing a poor job; that Paula Jones might do better. I think the story of the trial has been the prosecution, which has been putting on a sharp courtroom performance. Microsoft suffered some bad headlines last month, stemming (as I recall) from an apparently doctored video. Microsoft’s corporate view, according to David Ignatius in the WashingtonPost, is that this sort of thing is a side issue. Does the judge agree with the company? We’ll see.

Microsoft appears committed to its position that its industry is subject to such rapid, dynamic change that it either competes aggressively (or viciously, as its critics contend), or risks being bypassed. On that basis, the company will probably resist settlement unless it actually faces being broken into “Baby Bills.”

But as significant as this trial is, I’m less interested in the DOJ litigation than I am in the challenge of the Open Source software movement, being intellectually spearheaded by Eric Raymond. Having persuaded Netscape to give away its browser, Raymond has emerged as a Silicon Valley hero; some people regard him as Bill Gates’ real nemesis. Raymond has laid out his Open Source case in an influential essay, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” which is posted on the Internet.

I have real problems with some of Raymond’s theoretical undergirding, especially his opposition of the “gift culture” to the market. Furthermore, I’m not at all sure that if the tech culture Raymond champions had prevailed, computer use would have become the mass leisure activity that it is. Microsoft has played a significant role in delivering the medium to a mass consumer audience. But Raymond’s war against Microsoft is addressing ideas on the front of the culture wars as I described them yesterday, in particular the role of risk, technology, and innovation, and the consequent reshaping of cultural hierarchy. That war will go on a lot longer than the DOJ trial.

Speaking of technology, I’ve turned off the pitching machine. Toss yourself a softball.