Our Language, Your Machine: Celebrating Four Decades of Life in Microsoft's World

Our Language, Your Machine: Celebrating Four Decades of Life in Microsoft's World

A look at the enduring legacy of Microsoft on the anniversary of its founding.

 

"Companies over countries" Mark Zuckerberg has said, envisioning the power and spirit of the modern day entrepreneur as someone who is not just building a productive service but wants to use it as leverage to become a supranational authority on which the whole world will depend. There have been many before Zuckerberg beholden to this view, and none more characteristic than Bill Gates, who co-founded Microsoft in New Mexico 38 years ago today. 

 

In many ways there has been no more important force in contemporary culture than Microsoft. While they have failed to compete with cell phones, tablets, and search engines, their paradigm remains definitive.

 

The company began when Gates and Paul Allen figured they could write an interpreter that would allow MITS' Altair 8800 computer process BASIC, a programming language that had not been compatible with it to that point. Microsoft's early efforts would help transnationalize the market for software, something that should require separate purchase from a computer, like buying a car and then having to pay for seats, steering wheel, and windshield separately. This approach has been so successful it seems impossible to imagine the computer in any other way, and yet the obviousness of it is attributable to the fact that Microsoft was able to transcend the limits of nationality, and recast the way the world used computers according to its own values.

Microsoft's world vision was preceded by desperation, deception, and an uneasy competition for basic sustenance. Allen had dropped out of his computer science program at the University of Washington, and Gates was in the early stages of an undistinguished academic career at Harvard, sending out his resume hoping $15,000 a year would free him from the duldrums of the classroom. After reading a magazine article about the computer, Allen thought it should be possible to create a BASIC interpreter for it. When the two were invited to show their work in a meeting with MITS, they hadn't actually tested their interpreter on an Altair computer, but with bluster and good fortune, everything worked and they were awarded just what they wanted: a job.

Jobs are not endpoints, but call into being a new set of expectations about what a person should do to make something out of their given position. Because jobs are exceptions from the prevailing uncertainty and fear that underscores a young adult's life, once acquired there is heavy incentive to perpetuate the values of the job, pushing them to new extremes as a demonstration of the lucky selectee's worth to their employer. Gates and Allen began building outward, working toward the creation of a standardized computer language that would allow people to make and sell software to run on a variety of different computers, first with the creation of MS-DOS, and later Windows, the graphical user interface OS that would eventually reach more than a billion people and run on 95% of the desktop and laptop computers around the world.

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