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Gates Unhinged

Sure, Microsoft's a monopoly, but the government's attack is pitched at something larger: hubris. As Bill Gates's deeply weird video testimony showed, it's not a moment too soon.


Among the screenplays I probably won't get around to writing is this one: A team of thieves -- Tom Cruise is certainly one of them -- breaks into the wonder-of-technology, state-of-wealth home Bill Gates has built on the banks of Lake Washington near Seattle, his sprawling suburban construction meant to rival the great Newport estates and Hudson River mansions of the robber barons.

It's unclear, as we watch the gymnastics of these cooler-than-cool thieves, who they are -- competitors, terrorists, abused business partners, cast-aside girlfriends? (It is also unclear to me exactly how they manage the breach -- but having done my own rubbernecking around the Gates palace, I have a few ideas about how to get them over the walls.) Our thieves -- along with Cruise, no doubt there's a nerd, a woman, an African-American, an Asian -- are here to steal from the laser-protected nook off the Gates home library his $30 million acquisition, the symbol of not only his colossal wealth but his intent to control the intellectual wherewithal of our time. Yes, our intrepid and gallant thieves deactivate the laser, fool the digital voice-and-fingerprint-recognition locks, drop from the ceiling, and grab the Codex Leicester, Leonardo's 500-year-old journal about the properties of water and the nature of celestial light.

The Codex, of course, is being stolen not entirely for its own sake (although one of our thieves is in it for the dough he'll get when the Codex is ransomed back to Gates) but as a symbolic way to strike at the heart of his invincibility and the primacy of technology in American life (this is why I don't write these screenplays; they always go foreign on me).

My motive (or the motive of my thieves) for stealing the Codex, it occurs to me, is similar to what the jokester in Brussels had in mind when he pied Gates (an event that, at some point, may be remembered as the beginning of the end of the Gates myth).

Another such effort, of course, is now taking place in Federal Court. You can probably even argue that the real motive of the Microsoft prosecution is to provide a symbolic humbling of Gates; it's only of secondary interest to the powers that be that this humbling will create a whole new business environment.

It's difficult to get a real sense of the human drama here from just following the press accounts (strangely, the only feel for the tragicomic proportions of the proceedings is in Michael Lewis's coverage of the trial for the Microsoft-owned online magazine, Slate). But if you place the famously hairsplitting technicalities of antitrust law to one side and see the Sherman Anti-Trust Act as a bureaucratic process for dealing with hubris, the real meaning of the issue for the court to decide is the difference between the ordinary hubris we tolerate in a democratic capitalist system and hubris of a sui generis and historic order.

The fact that there is a trial at all is at least in part the result of Gates's excessive pride: Any number of half-measures might have mollified Netscape and the government. His refusal to cut any competitor any slack, together with his increasingly explicit strategy to control not just operating systems and applications but, by extension, information, media, commerce, communications . . . Well, hell, what did he expect? There is a level of size and power and influence that necessarily invites a countervailing weight.

This trial is not, as the Microsoft defense would like to describe it, just a matter of weighing the relative benefits to the consumer of a browser as a stand-alone application or a browser that's part of the operating system. Instead, it's a grand, epoch-shaping fork in the road. Gates has really finally done it, in other words. He's claimed too much. Goaded too many. Bullied too often. Allowed arrogance to interfere with cunning. The sovereign state of Redmond has, one too many times, refused the arms inspectors.

It's a measure of how far out there Gates has gotten, how isolated, how James Bond-villainesque he's become, that he, along with the rest of the greater Microsoft community, seems to have little inkling that the world, as Microsoft knows it, is about to end. It is easy to be protected from which way the wind is blowing in hermetically sealed Redmond. "This case will be decided in a courtroom, and if we lose there, we'll win on appeal," Gates told a recent intimate gathering in Redmond, with Gotti-like certainty.

Doesn't he realize that he is the one on trial?

His video deposition -- part resentful teenager, part defiant, sleep-deprived political prisoner (it's unfortunate for Gates that he has Clinton's video deposition to compete with) -- clearly aids the government in its effort to charge him not only with monopolistic practices but with frightening weirdness. Obviously it is not just business for him. He isn't just a chief executive. He's the mad genius. Remember Howard Hughes?

The nineties have been the digital decade, with Gates as its John Lennon-size icon. The mania and aspirations of the age have had their highest expression in the fortunes of the West Coast technology community. People there, we believe (and have been repeatedly told) are smarter, righter, richer (their relative sexlessness is a strange aspect of their glamour).

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