Mark Surman on Sun, 14 Jan 96 22:54 MET

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Bill & Dave's Excellent Adventure

                   **BILL & DAVE'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE:**         
                **NBC, Microsoft and the Cycles of History**
                     by Mark Surman (

    Hypertext version available at

     It was a moment of epiphany. A man on the flickering tube in front
     of me was talking about a new technology. It would change the way
        we live. It would bring the world together. It would create
      electric wonders beyond our wildest dreams. It was - in its very
                         essence - revolutionary.

        Who was this eloquent prophet? It was none other than David
      Sarnoff - inventor commercial broadcasting, creator of NBC, and
       long time monarch of the Radio Corporation of America. He was
                    announcing the birth of television.

        Sarnoff is a man who - plopping down radio and the TV on the
     hearth for all to consume - makes you shiver in your boots for the
      vitality of human expression. He is the spirit of big, big, big
      crushing small, small, small. He is the spirit of technological
        hopes and fears turned into the best darned global marketing
     campaign you've ever seen. I listened to him and his spirit filled
       me. It felt familiar. I was suddenly aware that his spirit is
     alive and well and living with us today. Its name is Bill Gates.

      As I wandered away from Sarnoff's electric podium - in a museum
       exhibit called Watching Television - the connection with Gates
      became clearer and clearer. Both understood that software meant
     more than hardware. Both understood that their technologies would
      have the most impact and the most utility when sold en masse to
      individuals. Most of all, both understood how to define the ways
     that cultural data is organized - the ways that we eat, sleep and
                           breathe information.

        Looking at these similarities, I knew it was true: Gates and
     Sarnoff are of the same spirit, they are deities in the very same
      church. A list started to appear in my mind. It made connections
            between these two historically disconnected lives...

                  Sarnoff                         Gates

          Transformed himself from       Transformed himself from
              radio geek into               computer geek into
        mythological cultural hero.     mythological cultural hero.

          Claimed that his company       Claimed that his company
           could make the world a         could make the world a
          better place if everyone       better place if everyone
          would just buy a TV set.      would just buy Windows 95.

         Turned a hardware industry     Turned a hardware industry
        into a software industry by     into a software industry by
            inventing commercial           inventing Microsoft.
           broadcasting and NBC.

          Cooperated with and then       Cooperated with and then
               snubbed AT&T.                   snubbed IBM.

        Investigated by the Federal       Investigated by Justice
            Trade Commission for              Department for
         anti-competitive behaviour     anti-competitive behaviour
                  (1924).                         (1995).

         Made so much money that he     Made so much money that he
         could buy people and tell       could buy people and tell
              them what to do.               them what to do.

         Created the company - and       Created the company - and
            the paradigm - that             the paradigm - that
         dominated the use of radio          dominated the use
          and television for many         microcomputers for many
                   years.                         years.

       Staring at this list, I couldn't help but think that the more
     things change the more they stay the same - especially where money
                         and power are concerned.

      But how could this be true? We live in an age of collective glee
     about the fruits of the net.revolution. We've got all this young,
         imaginative talent running circles around Gates. We've got
     Netscapes and Javas that ask - more honestly than Gates ever could
           - Where do you want to go today? We've got real hope.

     The thing is, we've been here before. While Sarnoff's spirit - and
       bank account - grew in his own time, the buzz of technological
     innovation and excitement often spun around furiously and far from
       his grasp. 'Amateur' radio operators built their own informal,
      two-way networked culture. Young talent like the 24 year old TV
       inventor Philo Farnsworth snuck past the likes of Sarnoff and
          grabbed key patents. There was hope. There were dreams.

     When I think about the upstart Farnsworth, I can't help but smile.
         But I also have to remember Sarnoff's spirit. He licensed
      Farnsworth's technology and took TV down the tired old road he'd
       built for radio. He crushed the amateurs with regulations and
                             lawyers. He won.

                   [Picture of Gates, Wright & Sarnoff]

       A few days after leaving the museum, I opened the newspaper to
       find the images of Bill Gates and NBC president Robert Wright
       (Sarnoff's corporate offspring) merged on the page. They were
      announcing MSNBC - a 24 online and cable news extravaganza. This
     marriage of corporate technological visions from opposite ends of
      the century proved it beyond a doubt. Gates and Sarnoff are one.
      Their spirit is truly with us and it - as much or more than any
            other - is defining where we will really go today.

     Of course there are other spirits that surround us, especially on
     the net. Emma Goldman and Thomas Paine jump to mind. But we should
     not let ourselves be overly mesmerized by the beauty and wonder of
      these spirits. For, if we are not careful or if we happen to be
      looking the other way, the spirit of Gates and Sarnoff may stomp
                        by and crush us like bugs.


                  Written by Mark Surman/
            This is only a draft, so please send your comments.