Strakon Lights Up, No. 40

The Ministry of "I love you"


The "I love you" computer virus has given us few million Macintosh holdouts good reason once again to exclaim, "I love you, Mac!" For, once again, Mac users were completely immune to the latest attack that drove almost everyone else up the wall. But hang on, Wintel loyalists — there's more to this column than just the usual Macker bravado.

The Love Bug ran amuck worldwide and inflicted damage in the hundreds of millions despite the fact that it seems to attack only a single  Microsoft e-mail program, Outlook, which is designed for Wintel platforms. According to the Associated Press, more than 85 percent of personal computers use the Microsoft operating system, and although the AP doesn't say how many of them use Outlook, the proportion must be high. A simple-minded chap might even say, Too damn high.

"Experts say that it's likely that more diversity [in installed computer operating systems] would have slowed the spread of the virus by at least a few hours, maybe a day or two," the AP reports, "giving network administrations longer to prepare for the fast-moving bug." ("Popularity of Microsoft Products Contributes to Virus Spread," May 6) I distrust most sentences issued by the established media that begin, "Experts say," but this one is credible.


In the 1970s, libertarians striving to show how people in a free, i.e., stateless society might defend themselves against external statist attack liked to point to Mediaeval Ireland, a virtually stateless society which it took the English invaders 600 years to conquer and control. The struggle was so protracted because Ireland had no centralized state apparatus to capture. The English seized one clan chief after another whom they took to be a "king," only to find out that his writ, such as it was, ran only a few miles.

Compare that case to Nazi Germany's. When Berlin fell and the High Command there surrendered, hundreds of thousands of German troops in Norway and Northern Italy automatically surrendered, too, even though they hadn't been defeated. In Norway, they hadn't even been attacked!

I'm highlighting the implications of centralized command and logistics, but even so some may object that the Germans in Norway and Italy weren't concerned with defending their own soil. So let us look at France in 1940. When the regime, huddling in Bordeaux, agreed to an armistice, a handful of military people — most famously DeGaulle — fled overseas, but the overwhelming majority of French troops simply laid down their arms and marched into the POW cages. Owing to a centralized Big Government political culture, French collaboration was so extensive that the Germans didn't even bother to occupy the southeastern half of the country for two and a half years! And everyone has heard the story of how the Gestapo simply took over the phone-tapping system of the French secret police. Maquis  me no Maquis,  by the way. Had it not been for the Normandy invasion, I've got to believe that there would be a big statue of Marshal Petain smack in the middle of Paris today. (Assuming there wasn't one of Stalin.)

Even Ireland was finally conquered and controlled. And all men are mortal. But with inferior weapons and other resources, the Irish were able to impose vastly higher costs — including costs in time — on the invaders than would have been the case if all the wicked Sassenachs had needed to do was take over a conveniently centralized state apparatus at the old viking settlement of Dublin. Even the English with all their power and wealth were unable to sustain a constant campaign; they took over a bit of Ireland at a time, became exhausted or distracted by more urgent concerns, and left it to their next king, or the one after him, to take another bit. And it took six centuries.


If the domination of the Wintel platform were purely a market result, analysts with some understanding of market economics would have little to say about it, apart from observing that most customers in the marketplace had calculated that the benefits of uniformity more than compensated for the costs of uniformity, including the Love Bug. Even free-market Mackers would have to agree. And certainly Wintel's domination is partly  a market phenomenon, given Apple's tragic and shortsighted refusal in the 1980s to license the Mac operating system to other manufacturers. Mac prices stayed high, the installed base of the Mac fell to about 5 percent, and software designers had less incentive to come up with heavy-duty business software than they otherwise would have had.

But it's hard for someone who is both a free-marketeer and a Macker to believe that that's the whole story. I remember how aghast and incredulous I was when I first heard that Wintel folks had to depend on their dealers to install software on their hard drives. In the Mac world, that would be like taking your car back to your dealer to have him nudge the rear-view mirror. Are we really to believe that 85 percent  of microcomputer users would freely choose to go that route, even to save a few bucks? More evidence that all is not what it seems resides in the very fact that Microsoft felt it had to abandon (or disguise) DOS and come up with Windows — a clumsy and superficial imitation of the Mac interface.

As a free-market maven, I detect the heavy hand of the state at work. Once the Central Government for whatever reason settled on DOS and, eventually, the Wintel platform, we could expect provincial and local governments to quickly fall in line. Since the collapse of the old Republic, they have owed everything to the leviathan operating out of Washington. State universities and state-supported research outfits could be counted on to imitate Washington's computer culture, too. Big business, benefiting as so much of it does from state-awarded privilege, would naturally gravitate toward Wintel as well. Centralized or cartelized systems tend to speak the same language.

I don't know whether that actual historical sequence is accurate, although it is easy to demonstrate that IBM and IBM habits of mind dominated in the Pentagon and other departments of leviathan long before the microcomputer was ever heard of. But it's worth thinking about, at least from a systems perspective. Can we really believe that Wintel's 85 percent share would have resulted from the workings of a free economy? Look, if we'd had a free economy — if there had been no garrison state awarding massive war contracts, inflating the currency, periodically igniting recessions, and cartelizing the economy in a hundred other ways — is it really possible that the country would have had only three major car manufacturers by 1965?

True enough, we can't know for sure what the verdict of the marketplace would have been in any area of endeavor. For the record, I'd be willing to accept that verdict. The trouble is, I'm so rarely allowed to hear it.

As a Macker, I'm able to read my e-mail no matter what platform it's sent from. I'm able to translate highly formatted Wintel files in a few seconds. To assume that the New Global Electronic Economy "naturally" must be based on a single operating system is rash — as rash as it would be to assume that French free-traders "naturally" must speak German and only German. Even fans of the profoundly dirigiste  New Europe would probably balk at that idea.

If the Mac OS had as much as, say, a 25 percent share, I've no doubt that evil, brilliant people would occasionally come up with a nasty Mac virus. But with four or five or six big operating systems at work — Mac, UNIX, Wintel, and others — the virus vandals would have their work cut out for them. They'd find it much harder to disrupt the world economy at one stroke. And at the same time we'd be able to calculate uniformity's benefits vis-à-vis uniformity's costs, and diversity's benefits vis-à-vis diversity's costs, instead of merely guess at them.


Washington's antitrust persecution of Microsoft was undertaken, we're told, on behalf of other communications-software firms that weren't able to compete effectively. At the same time, the persecution has provided jobs for bureaucrats and court officials, strengthened state power, and forcefully reminded players in the New Economy that Big Brother is watching them. If what I've written above has any merit, and Wintel's dominance depends to some significant degree on state action, the Microsoft persecution looks like just another example of government's intervening to "solve a crisis" engendered by previous government intervention.

We haven't seen anything yet, though. If you thought child porn and "hate speech" were likely excuses for government regulation of the Net, wait until our friends in Washington set about "solving" the computer-virus "crisis." While leviathan is in session, no one's modem is safe.

May 6, 2000


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