Metaphor Monopoly

October 23, 1991

[T]he Justice Department doesn't usually deal with existential matters–at least until last Monday, when Attorney General Janet Reno asked a Federal judge to impose a $1 million-a-day fine on Microsoft Corporation.

She alleged that the company was forcing computer makers to include its Internet browser with the Windows 95 operating system, a violation, she said, of the company’s 1995 antitrust agreement with the Justice Department. The company vigorously denied any wrongdoing.

Whatever the outcome, however, this is the first major antitrust case to take place in the strange nether world of cyberspace, and as such it tells us how the computer has altered how we see the world.

Essentially, this whole fight is about the power of metaphor.

Ms. Reno alleges that "Microsoft is unlawfully taking advantage of its Windows monopoly to protect and extend that monopoly and undermine consumer choice." But that monopoly lies less in technology than in the "interface," the pictures and symbols on the screen through which consumers interact with their computers.

The metaphor at the heart of the interface is that of the desktop, a personalized space where we keep our files and applications. We organize our documents by placing them in metaphoric folders; we discard files in a metaphoric trash can.

Look at it this way. Imagine that Microsoft controls the market for office desks, and it is also a major telephone maker. One day it announces that all its desks will come with built-in phones–thereby putting all the other phone manufacturers out of business.

The Internet browser is the phone here, and Microsoft, by building it in has effectively made itself into the de facto access provider to the Internet. This means, continuing in a metaphorical vein, that the 90 percent of computer owners who use Windows software on their metaphorical desktop will now ride only metaphorical Microsoft rockets as they speed through the metaphorical Internet universe.

These quandaries bring home how profoundly the computer has altered our world view, from one in which objects predominate to one in which "information," whatever that is, and the myriad shapes it can take are coming to dominate our lives. The most important antitrust issues no longer have to do with pricing, said Assistant Attorney General Joel I. Klein, they have to do with using innovation, to gain an unfair competitive advantage. The Justice Department must now try to regulate a pure product of mind–thought itself.

We hear a great deal about the tremendous number-crunching power of the PC, but it is the symbolic capabilities of today’s machines–all those visual metaphors and virtual desktops–that are altering our experience of the world.

The wizards at Microsoft have long understood how visual metaphors can be used to consolidate power while also making computers friendlier. Even if the Justice Department’s latest crusade succeeds only in making explicit the mixed nature of this blessing, it will have done us a great service.

Steven Johnson, the editor of Feed, an on-line cultural magazine, is the author of "Interface Culture."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

Questions to consider while reading:

1. How does the title inform the piece?

2. What is the thesis and where is it?

3. What introductory technique(s) did the author use? Is the technique weaved through the essay? How?

4. Mark the transitions. Are they all mechanical?

5. Identify the methods of development.

6. What is the tone of the overall piece? Did you note any tone shifts? Where?

7. Comment on the conclusion. What can you learn from this method of closing?

8. After studying this piece, what, if anything, would you like to emulate as a writer?