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nettime: Microsoft Theory
McKenzie Wark on Sun, 2 Feb 97 10:16 MET

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nettime: Microsoft Theory

There are two kinds of theory in this world: Microsoft
theory and open standards theory. This, if you will 
indulge me for a while, is a metaphor I want to explore
for a bit. Who knows? Perhaps it might be more than a

By 'theory', i don't just mean high theory. I mean the
axioms about the order of knowledge and the world that
work through all kinds of language, including technical
language, everyday language, and philosophy per se. 
It seems to me there is always theory, even if, with
the exception of philosophy, it is usually implicit,
rather than explicit and consciously created.

Which is why, when i say that i think there is 'Microsoft
theory', it might mean that there is theory that has 
all the qualities we know and love from our favourite
monopoly provider of software. But it might also mean that
Microsoft is, perhaps without really knowing it, implicated
in engineering a particular world according to a certain
kind of theory. Guy Debord described the society of the
spectacle as 'philosophy made concrete'. That might
turn out to be even more true of the society of cyberspace.

But to limit things to a more manageable question: what are
those qualities of a lot of contemporary theory that are
like Microsoft?

In the first place, a lot of theory seems to be based on
getting you locked in to a proprietary operating system.
You have to become a registered user of a particular 
kind of interface with the world, in the form of an
epistemology and an ontology. You have to accept certain
fixed proceedures of thinking and certain assumptions 
about the objects that are to be thought. This is the way
we do things. These are the things we do things to. 

Once you've committed yourself to operating within a
given system, you find that there is a whole suite of 
productivity tools for the mind that you are also supposed
to use, and which only really work with this proprietary
operating system. Here you start to specialise, to do
different and particular things with thinking. But you
find yourself trapped all the time in fixed assumptions
about the interface between the tool and the object. 

If on the one hand, Microsoft theory always seems to 
operate the same way, on the same assumptions, it
also always seems loaded up to the eyeballs in options
and features you never quite get the hang of. There's
menus and submenus and subsubsubmenus of stuff, all
basically the same but with little variations. There is
always more than you need. You are always told you have
to have it all, that you have to load the whole package
into your head first before you can do anything else.
No wonder most people don't get much further than
getting a theory into their head and playing solitaire.
Its all just so complicated! So much detail! And what
does all this stuff actually do? You can consult your
reference books, but they always seem to make even
less sense than it does just running through your 

Microsoft theory is always being upgraded. Just when the
parts that didn't work in the last theory get sorted
out, there's a new version with new bugs in it that
you won't know about until you've read it and stored it
in your head. There always has to be something new,
because the folks that market it insist that you update,
upgrade, renew -- over and over. So you spend all your
time on the theory and getting it to work and never
actually doing anything with it.

You become a 'user'. Its always someone else who writes
theory and has their name on the shrinkwrapped package. 
You get locked in to having to read other people's
theory and it takes all your time just to keep up, 
which reinforces the monopoly position of a handful
of theorists who have the baroque machine of the
operating system figured out, and keep issuing upgrade
after upgrade. 

You become dependent on third party producers, who make
the patches and work-around and write the manuals and
training texts to make the theory at least minimally
'user' - 'friendly'. These people seem to have a 
privileged relation to the keepers of the code of the
operating system. They went to the right graduate schools
to get their licence to develop some part or other of
the otherwise closely guarded secret of the source

So this is Microsoft theory: a hierarchy of authors,
developers and users, all busy making, finessing or
attempting to use a very unwieldy operating system,
which never works properly anyway. It always promises
to explain the whole world and make it all useable
but it never quite delivers. Its basic failure is
covered up by the whole process of upgrading it,
over and over. None of the programs that run on it
work too well either, because on the one hand they
are too specific, and and on the other, they have
far too many features. They carve out some small
part of the world to know and use, and then make
far too elaborate a tool for it. So fancy that it
takes all one's efforts to remember it, with no
capacity left over to do much with it. So there
you are, hung up on some little glitch, your mind
mortgaged to somebody ele's ideas, sold on the
notion that another upgrade of same will finally
make the whole thing work, such that you will
finally know the world and be able to interact
with it through the interface offered by Microsoft

There has to be another way. What if there was such a
thing as open platform theory? Theory that didn't
make it compulsory to have one single, elaborate
operating system of ontology and epistemology, but
which took a more minimal, pragmatic, pluralist
view of what minimum axiomatic principles one needs
to start making theory work in the world. This would
probably still need to be something that specialised
folks do -- code is code. Its not for amateurs. But if
the standards according to which it was written were
widely available, then it might be something that a
lot more people could develop. A lot more working
concepts could be built on top of it. These working
concepts, in turn, could do much simpler tasks. They 
need not have every last feature added on from the
start. It could work in reverse as well. As people
develop tools for specific tasks, and deploy theory
on objects in particular ways, these particular
applications could then be written back in to the
operating theory at a more abstract level. So rather
than try to design a theory that anticipates every
possible application, it can grow as it confronts the
need to incorporate particular applications. So while
there will still be specialists in theory, in its
application, and users of theory, there need not be
a hierarchy between them, but a reciprocity. This
could be expressed institutionally in refusing the
division between theory and practice, and creating
knowledge-works that put all of the tasks together
under one roof. Open platform theory might also be
published differently. It might be organised as a 
library of concepts, which operate of different levels
but which are stored together in a network, and to
which anyone can add something and borrow something.
It would no longer have one corporate entity as its
author, but become a collective project. 

McKenzie Wark
netletter #11
2nd February 1997

"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

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