Understanding Microsoft

Part 56. Grave New World

Noted social and technological commentator Jeremy Rifkin calls the next century "the biotech century." Biotechnology, which involves the computerized manipulation of genes for commercial and social benefits, is a well-funded and growing element of the scientific community. Many of the most popular stock-market IPO's are biotech firms, and billions of dollars worth of venture capital are poured into these research projects each year. It seems that society has decided, quite without thinking much about it, to automatically accept the idea that mankind is both wise enough and sensible enough to manipulate the genes without danger.

Perhaps, though, if people knew about some of the types of people behind these new "wonder drugs" and their high-flying tech firms, they might think twice about what they let get under their skin. One of the major movers and shakers of the genetic splicing and dicing is -- surprise! -- Microsoft. Yes, the same company that brought us the inscrutable and baffling disorder of the Windows operating environments, along with the chaos of unmanageable .DLL file conflicts, is quietly working toward gaining control of a new field to fuel its insatiable craving for economic growth and control.

Microsoft's chairman Bill Gates has sponsored the endowed chair of genetic engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, currently occupied by Dr. Leroy Hood. Also, Microsoft's chieftain has funded Dr. David Galas, a former U.S. Department of Energy wonk, and his Darwin Molecular Sciences corporation, which is dedicated to "gaining control of the flow of evolution," according to Dr. Galas. Mr. Gates claims that genetic engineering of humans is merely one of his many "hobbies." This sounds a lot like Microsoft's claims that television doesn't need to worry about Microsoft's appetite, or that the Internet would always be free from any one company's control.

Unlike software, which can be erased with a hair dryer or a burst of static electricity, genes tend to stay around for a long time. Once released into the environment, the genes act on their own built-in agenda of reproduction and survival at all costs. Software (except for computer viruses) doesn't have this imperative of eat-or-be-eaten. Software also does not travel through the atmosphere or the water at will, without the need for a man-made communications pathway. But genes do. Genes go where they want to go.

It is unreasonable to think that the company whose programmers can't shoot straight, the company whose disorganized and unreliable products are legendary for their unpredictable nature, the people who have shown they will go to any lengths to defy governmental authority and fair business practices -- it is unreasonable to think that this company, Microsoft, will be a safe and fair steward of the power of genetics, any more than Microsoft would make a good steward of nuclear weapons. Yet the "free market" lets people with enough money and leverage control whatever they want to control, all in the name of "progress" and "efficiency" and "profits." With the news of successful animal cloning and the willing acceptance of genetic engineering, the spectre of William H. Gates III deciding whose genes are worthy of survival based on "consumer demand" seems more likely every day.

Most recent revision: June 6, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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