Understanding Microsoft

Part 11. Elmer Gantry

Preachers have always been given a certain amount of automatic credibility in society. Since they claim to represent some mysterious super-being, one that is invisible and supposedly cannot be proven to exist, they have defined for themselves an automatic "free pass" to make unusual claims and put unusual requirements on their followers. If you claim something that nobody else can prove is wrong, it's awfully hard to be doubted.

The movie about a mythical preacher named Elmer Gantry was one fine example of the nearly bottomless credulity of people. Gantry used all the tricks in the book, from threatening to pleading to begging to praising. He put his followers on an emotional rollercoaster that kept them so tied up in knots of anxious worry that they couldn't think clearly. They didn't realize that it was all a deception, that it was all a show designed to distract them from the real agenda, which was to separate them from their money. Gantry succeeded because people were looking for answers and he provided them -- for a price. He made them feel better, without ever actually solving their problems. People kept coming back because they enjoyed being made to feel better.

When people are being sold a product they don't understand, they must either get smarter and begin to understand it, or else they must suspend their sense of judgment and trust the seller. In our era of educational decadence and cultural mediocrity, particularly with the disappearance of "spare time," getting smarter about products is not a popular choice. And even when customers bone up on computer knowledge, it's usually from the slick magazines published by self-appointed translators of these modern-day Elmer Gantrys, the software companies. Software makers pay good money to the magazine industry -- billions and billions of dollars! We can hardly expect the magazines to be more than mouthpieces for the software industry, no matter how hard they may try to be honest. When you spend all day in front of Gantry, your standards and expectations of truth are bound to become wilted by the constant blasts of hot air.

Of course the biggest Gantry in the business world is Microsoft. Promises made and broken in the past ten years include "increased productivity" (sure, if people start taking their work home with them); "easier to use" computers (then why are billions of dollars spent on computer lessons and courses?); "more reliable" computing (every product since DOS 5.0 has been less reliable); "more fun" (many people have come to hate Windows and PCs); "cheaper" computers (the hardware is one hundred times cheaper, but operating systems cost more). The Gantry of the Nineties is now promising to make education, culture, and television better too. Should we believe him?

People believe Microsoft at first, of course, which is why growth is a vital part of the Microsoft plan. The only way for a Gantry to succeed is to bring in more and more suckers. The Microsoft plan to control digital television and the Internet is really about going on a missionary trip to new territory and finding unconverted souls to feed the collection plate.

Instead of looking for easy answers that sooth their information-age anxieties, people must begin to question everything about computers. People must stop looking at computers as the easy answer to the problems of education, economics, culture, and business. Software is not some kind of god that has to be obeyed, or that cannot be understood by those who accept it. People must learn to tell the difference between a real preacher and an Elmer Gantry. A real preacher offers proof, not just more promises.

Most recent revision: January 2, 1998
Copyright © 1997,1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

E-MAIL: os2headquarters@mindspring.com