CYBERSPACE FRONTIER

In 1963, George Orwell and wrote eloquently of the power of a language to structure the way and the things we think: "Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it...Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller."

In 1995, the same power is inherent in a different type of language. When millions of people in hundreds of countries all over the world turn on their computers--whether to play a video game, to write a speech or to design a car--they are greeted by an operating system that is standardized and which proscribes a very specific pattern of behavior and thinking.

The desktop appears before us; files are organized into folders, which are then organized into the file servers and hard disks; we can't write out the long same of a file, so we need to abbreviate. The operating system is a clear limit of possibility with a pre-programmed way to accomplish the tasks it is able to do. We consciously think in terms of the operating system; it structures our behavior when we work with computers.

This becomes even clearer when the masses of consumers surf the World Wide Web. Several different services, such as Prodigy, America Online and now the new Microsoft Network, provide ordinary people with access to the cyberspace universe.

Depending on what service one subscribes to, one is immediately put into a certain mode of thinking, a certain virtual world: some services have diagrams of a neighborhood where, for instance, one would click on a picture of a theater on the street to gain access to entertainment Web sites, or on a bank to gain access to financial services.

Still other services run off menu-driven interfaces, or off text-based systems which are as unfriendly and cryptic as they are powerful. In each case the user gains a certain proprietary familiarity with the system. It forms the lens through which he sees the cyber-world; it gives her the hands with which to manipulate objects and perform tasks. It is the mind's extension and tool.

It may seem a small matter, the user interface and operating system of a computer or a network service. After all, who cares what one uses to get to one's destination, just as long as one gets there? Analogously, who cares what language one speaks, just as long as one is able to convey one's point? Of course, the point here is that the language influences the message, just as Orwell wrote. One language is a monopoly on the method of thought.

This is an argument for diversity. Unfortunately, diversity is being threatened by an increasingly intervasive company called Microsoft.

This summer, Microsoft played chicken with the Justice Department when it announced plans to incorporate a link between its proprietary network system and the much-touted (and honestly, inferior-to-Macintosh) Windows 95. This link took the form of a ubiquitous icon on the desktop, which would encourage users of Windows 95 to gain immediate and easy access to the Microsoft Network (MSN). Since MSN was new to the internet provider market, it would be at a decided advantage in gaining new subscribers. More than 80 percent of the world's computers run Microsoft Windows and almost all of them will invariably upgrade to Win 95. With an omnipresent advertisement for and gateway to the Microsoft Network starting at millions of people every day. MSN is sure to do very well for itself. Bill Gates has leveraged his near-monopoly in one market to gun a strategic advantage in another.

The Justice Department launched an investigation into this practice, but ultimately did nothing to half the linkage. It failed to do so, it seems, largely because of the financial devastation that would have accompanied a further delay in the release of Win 95. It backed down when pushed hard by the Gargantuan Microsoft.

This sets a dangerous precedent. Already having robbed much of the world of a diversity of operating systems, Microsoft seems poised to march into the on-line industry, slaughtering all other competitors. The result is a situation in which one company--a decreasingly dynamic one--holds the power to set the standards and modes by which we interact with computers.

Microsoft's solutions are hardly ever the best solutions; but they end up being the industry standards, by virtue of the company's fortunate history (its split with IBM) and its strong-arm tactics. Innovation is satisfied, and mediocrity reigns.

The only hope for breaking Microsoft's mind-monopoly is the Internet itself, where innovation blazes a thousand different trails and where Microsoft has no strategic advantage. The Economist is reports that applications and operating systems are being developed for use on the Internet itself, making the need for Microsoft absolute. The computer industry may be on the cup of yet another revolution, flushing out the decadent and inefficient with an exciting and new breed of frontiersmen.

Patrick S. Chung '96, associate editorial chair of the Crimson, was a public policy intern at the Lotus Development Corporation. He may be reached on-line at "pschung@fas.harvard.edu."