The Microsoft Matrix

I received this email in August 1999. It is self-explanatory. It appears to have been picked up from another site but I am keeping it here because I like it too much to risk the other site going down. I encourage you to go to that site and read the better formatted version there.

Date: Sun, 1 Aug 1999 21:28:32 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: The Microsoft Matrix (fwd)


The Microsoft Matrix

The most chilling scene of "The Matrix" is when Keanu Reeves "wakes up" to discover he isn't a New York software jockey after all; his life has been one incredibly complex simulation maintained by a maniac AI. In reality the year is not 1999 but 2199, and he's been cocooned since birth in a steel egg full of nutrients.

"The Matrix" only arrived in Paris a few days ago, and it's causing a sensation. France is a top-down country, life in the hardiest Alpine villages or the sandiest southern resorts sculpted in intimate detail by the stony bureacrats of the capital, and the way the Matrix's AI manipulates the levers of reality from above has struck a nerve.

But there's a difference between France's Matrix and Keanu Reeves'. Despite big-time Big Government -- the French give essentially everything they earn to the authorities and get essentially everything back in free education, healthcare, and cradle-to-grave social security -- the French aren't like the humans of the film, bodies encased in pink nutrients while their minds inhabit a world woven out of bytes. The French are fully aware of the Matrix that gorges and gushes their lifeblood day after day ... but like Cypher in the film, they've made a bargain: give us a comfortable reality to inhabit and we'll let things happen your way.

It's the reality of life in France, and Japan, and every country that ever talked about a worker's paradise. But in my Champs-Elysees office I sense another Matrix smothering me in pink nutrients, its steel tentacles tighter around my torso than any of the papery power structures of the Fifth Republic. It's that software Matrix woven over the last decade or so -- by Microsoft.

The basic bargain the Microsoft Matrix strikes is the same one France strikes with its citizens: give us your life and we shall take care of you. But unlike most such bargains, Microsoft doesn't let you know there's any other option, goes to great lengths to make sure you don't see any other option. So ninety percent of the world is trapped in the steel eggs and feeding tubes of the Microsoft Matrix with me, so warm and well-fed that most would beg to go back if you woke them up.

But the Matrix is greedy, and its greed has been its undoing. Three times now, the Matrix has drilled too deep into my skull, sucked out more of my blood than I was willing to give. First, it sealed the steel egg of Windows itself too tight -- not letting any of the open-standards proteins outside get in unless they folded themselves into the egg itself. Second, it tried to make me feed from a single tube -- the one-size-fits-all file formats of Office. And third, the greed that woke me up and finally made me retch up all the garbage from my lungs, was the soupy pink sludginess of FrontPage's files and folders. Let's start with that one.

frontpage: getting out of the matrix

My Morpheus, the guy who showed me the stark reality of web life outside Microsoft FrontPage, was called Mark.

I learned HTML years ago, but when my web pages self-assembled into a sort-of site in early '98 I looked at some WYSIWIG editors, dipping a toe into the sticky pink gloop of Microsoft FrontPage. It sucked hard, and I sank in, seduced by the sickly sweetness of having hyperlinks rejig themselves as I chopped and changed directories. Each page's source was accreting folds of fat, but like the frog put into a cold pan and slowly heated, I couldn't sense the heat death around the corner. And my site slowed to a crawl.

Then I met Mark, a gonzo physicist who'd also just crashlanded in Paris. Chatting among his Linux boxes over some Mexican, I realised I'd forgotten what code should look like in the raw; I'd grown distant from the HTML after a year of getting what I saw. FrontPage was suffocating my site. The HTML FrontPage disgorges is pageful after pageful of bloated, convoluted code, the pink nutrient bath a profusion of hidden folders splutching not only my hard disk, but also my paid-for webspace. A quick Find showed me 390 HTML pages in the site; I'd created less than half that number. For every one of my thousand or so files the app had created a same-name file in a hidden folder, a metafile to track my content as it bulged and bloated in the pink vat of a Frontpage web.

The full day it took to extract my site from FrontPage's proprietary soup was hard, but fulfilling. I sucked it all off the web, cleaned up the HTML, deleted the syrupy hidden files, reorg'd the directories into the patterns I'd seen people clicked into most. It looked fresh for the first time since I started it a year ago. The few FrontPage scripts and tools I'd used were, of course, gone; I'm no hacker and I've no idea how to fix my search page. But there was worse.

I'd been hand-editing pages for a month and enjoying the good kind of hurt. But then I needed to do some big picture stuff as it grew, needed to look down, check links, and see which way it was sprawling. So I sucked it back into FrontPage to check the link structure, all 50MB of it. That gave me a second shock, no different to Keanu's faceplant on Fifth Avenue after trying to leap between rooftops.

File extensions -- each of which I'd renamed .html from FrontPage's .htm -- had been changed back to *.htm. Without even asking. And index.html was now Default.htm, screwing up a lot of people's bookmarks. Meta tags had been co-opted into the Matrix, each page now loudly proclaiming that this was a Microsoft Frontpage website, had never been anything else. Some of the scripts I'd built in had morphed into Frontpage's own components. I'd been sucked back into the vat, reinserted into the matrix with no choice in the matter.

I got angry. I paid several hundred bucks for this software, and I paid it to enpower myself, not enpower anyone to tighten their grip over me, no matter how much they think it's for my own good. I hit delete and turned to my backups. But ... what if I'd given up? Sunk into the pink bath once more and gone back to sleep? It would have been so easy. The few who escape the Microsoft Matrix have to sleep with one eye open, every nerve ending tensed to act at the slightest sucking sound as they float around the treacherous sewers like rats.

I made it out. Into the harsh and hard-edged but real world of a plain-vanilla text editor. But escaping from the Microsoft Matrix's technology is one thing. Escaping the culture you enjoyed inside it is another.

office: staying out of the matrix

"I used to eat there," sighs Reeves' character Neo, hacked back into the Matrix and passing a noodle shop. Searching my hard disk, I discover over a thousand files that bind me to Word97 and won't open right even in earlier releases of the same app. I have to hack back into the Microsoft Matrix daily, because I'm a writer and writers use Microsoft Word. I used to eat there.

With 93% of Dilbertdom on Office, "I've sent you the document" means a Word or Excel file -- never anything else. Many users don't acknowledge that the world beyond Office has any right to exist; emailing PostScript or WordPerfect files garners real resentment, cries of "I can't open your file!" -- and it's always your fault.

There are other issues similar to the junk code FrontPage drip-feeds into your web pages, like the file ID submerged in every Word document that identified Melissa's author. (What if I'd -- world forbid -- written subversive literature? I've lived in five countries including Japan and Singapore, and believe me, when governments exert their coercions they rarely give privacy laws a glance.) But this stranglehold over file formats is bigger: one analyst estimates it's worth $10.7bn to Microsoft over the next year alone, and with those numbers in your hands you keep a tight grip. To survive in the Matrix everyone has to suck from the same feeding tube, and the gunk coming down it today is labelled .doc and .xls.

There's another problem: I like Word. I like its interface; after millions of words it's a friend. Once you've turned off the Intrusive Assistants, the interfere-as-you-type functions and anything else that might pop up and surprise you, it works great. And if you resave all documents as Rich Text, at least you're not getting sucked back into the pink goo. But sharing the same code with so many millions of lost souls makes it brittle; I pick up Macro viruses several times a month. The software ecology's strength has been sapped by its dependence on one staple, the same way Neo's muscles are soft as a sponge after a lifetime unknowingly sucking sustenance from tubes.

I've escaped the Microsoft Matrix. But I can't leave Word behind; this emacs thing in Linux is thrilling, but that doesn't mean I'm going to able to get any work done with it. (Yet.) So for now at least, I have to keep reinserting myself every day, constantly risking the writhing steel tentacles of the Microbots that would suck me in again forever.

windows: rebuilding the matrix

Cypher wants to forget the reality Morpheus dragged him out of. He wants his life back, wants to get reinserted into the Matrix without any memory of what it's like outside. He's sick of playing deadly games of hide n' seek in the scorched Earth's tunnels, wants to feel rare steak against his tongue.

Windows is the physics the Microsoft Matrix runs on, and it sings the same siren song. Life in the Microsoft Matrix for end-users is simple and easy, all soft corners and cute colour schemes, none of the harshness that comes from managing packages and recompiling kernels and getting to grips with a user interface where a zillion different widgets all do the same thing.

But there's a reason I'm leaving this, too, and starting to live my non-work life outside the Matrix. It's that harsh, package-managing, zillion-widget thing called Linux, and when you use it, you feel in control to a far greater degree than you ever do with Windows.

Linux just works. Even abstracted far above the command line, clicking and dragging in one of the Linux GUIs, you somehow feel very close to the machine, feel that your clicks are directly pushing and pulling the levers of the operating system below. Perhaps it's just the speed at which it happens; Windows is now so fat with gloop that several seconds can elapse between point-and-click and action, whereas I've yet to notice any delay in Linux. Linux is responsive. And it tells me what it's doing.

What's more, Linux always lets you know there's a lot more you can do if you dig a bit deeper. Just as I rediscovered HTML by washing the glurk from my website, exploring the chorus of modules in a Linux distro is bringing me to a deeper understanding of how computers operate, stuff I'd always known on an intellectual level but much of which I'd never dirtied my hands with before. And the freedom is addictive. When a single line of script in Linux can do things that'd keep you pointing-and-clicking forever in Windows, you have great motivation to learn that line of script.

But even a line of script is too much for those already in the Microsoft Matrix. Imagine those six billion people in 2199 all waking up at once, six billion people discovering they're smothered in pink syrup with steel tubes sucking their lifeblood through a hundred spinal taps. Ask them - at that moment -- if they want to go back. All but a masochistic few would say yes, would beg for it.

Like Keanu Reeves, most people's eyes will hurt when they first look at the real world, because they've never used those eyes before. But I've chosen that real world, because while the Matrix of Linux has rules and regs every bit as stern -- and often sterner -- as the Matrix of Windows, that Big Difference pops up: unlike the Microsoft Matrix, you can hack the Linux Matrix from the inside, change that reality if you don't like it, and no-one will stop you -- they'll even applaud. You can unplug the steel tubes, squelch out of the nutrient pod, and make your own way in the world. And having that option -- even if you never use it -- makes a huge difference.

It isn't easy. The first time with Red Hat 5.2 was tough. (Why don't the windows remember how I shaped them? Where are the menus with stuff to do on them? Why isn't emacs easier to use?) Linux has been on and off my computers at least five times, weekends of scrabbling to unhook the cables and tendrils sucking my blood, then frantically reattaching them when I needed stuff I'd left behind in the Matrix. Several times I've given up and flopped back into the wet pink shell, letting the tendrils wrap themselves around me ever tighter. My mind screams: I had friends in the Matrix! I had a girl and a warm home, a freezer of steak and a rack of red wine! But the Matrix can't hold me any longer. I've seen outside and I saw what a few renegades were doing there, out on the fringes thumbing their noses at those who built this choking web of tubes and goo and laughing like pirates.

It's that freedom that keeps me exploring outside the Microsoft Matrix, and the urge to jack back in gets less every day. Because once you've broken the shell of your egg and seen what the Matrix looks like from outside, you feel like a superman when you step back in. It's instantly obvious how things work and how they could be better. You've been outside and seen the machine from above.

But being above it all can breed arrogance. Near the end of the film, a sentinel AI tells Morpheus that humans are a virus, taking over everything natural and perverting it. He doesn't see that he's done something far worse, taking over things that he had no hand in growing bottom up over billions of years; co-opting them and considering it his natural right. Arrogance doesn't like giving choices.

And nor does that other Matrix. Microsoft, you didn't build this thing called the Internet, didn't even notice it until 1995, when it had been growing and evolving for nearly three decades. And when you saw it, you didn't grow it further, didn't grasp the value of a world of plenitude and diversity. All you did was take, take, take, tried to fold its openness into your closed world, your drooling pink mouth open obscenely wide.

But you can't win, for the same reason the film Matrix can't hold the renegades. The reason the renegades can run free inside is that anything so big and complex can't be controlled completely top-down; people have freedom of thought even as the Matrix itself sucks on their brains. Perhaps this is the last lesson for dictators everywhere: the more tightly you grip power, the more of that power will slip through your fingers.

Extrapolating to the world at large: when centralised, top-down power structures finally die, their authority hollowed out by our new open, hyperlinked world, France will probably be the last to change. Because life is good here in this Matrix. The food's great, the architecture's awesome, and even the heaviest rainfall can't take the edge off the Seine at night. Those who want to stay in the Matrix should be given the choice. We shouldn't force them to be free.

It all comes down to that Big Difference: choice. No matter how warm and welcoming the Microsoft Matrix becomes, it can't hold its people captive if they don't want to be held. You may or may not prefer life as a free pauper to a rich slave, since freedom can be messy and difficult -- but in the Microsoft Matrix today, few can even choose. And in today's webbed world, everybody, but everybody, deserves that choice.

I received this email in August 1999. It is self-explanatory. It appears to have been picked up from another site but I am keeping it here because I like it too much to risk the other site going down. I encourage you to go to that site and read the better formatted version there.