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CYBERCULTURE | INNOVATION / GARY CHAPMAN

Goodbye, Cruel Cyber World . . .

August 05, 1996|GARY CHAPMAN

Microsoft announced July 17 that it plans to roll out an online travel magazine--with the quirky name Mungo Park (after an 18th-century Scottish explorer of Africa)--a Web-based publication that will join Michael Kinsley's Slate in Microsoft's growing publishing empire.

The news release for Mungo Park revealed that the first issue will be dedicated to a 27-day exploration of the Tekeze River in Ethiopia. A team of 22 people, led by the magazine's editor, Richard Bangs, will take three satellite systems aboard their inflatable rafts to beam back digital photographs and text that will be posted daily on a World Wide Web site.

The majority of Web enthusiasts will probably render their opinion of this news with the single word now used as the highest accolade for online experiments: "Cool."

My wife's initial reaction, with perhaps more of her Texas drawl than usual: "I hope the crocodiles get 'em."

Yuppie pretentiousness is combining with cyber-hubris and new heights of corporate hype to foster some obnoxious traits among the successful elite in American society. The baby boom generation seems to have gone from civil rights and antiwar protests to celebrating obscure colonialists and reenacting the colonial era with high-tech safaris. This new magazine is aimed at peers who are now described, in Orwellian language in the Mungo Park news release, as "armchair explorers over age 35 with high demographic profiles."

Microsoft is becoming more than just a software powerhouse, the dominant vendor of operating systems and applications. Its new ventures into "content" for cyberspace, and the sort of people it appears to favor, are becoming lifestyle benchmarks, touchstones for the new class of hyper-educated, globe-trotting, computer-savvy professionals--consumers in the all-important category known in marketing jargon as "early adopters." Call it creeping Seattleism.

Take Microsoft's Nathan Myhrvold, for example. At age 36 he is vice president of applications and content and one of the co-authors of the best-selling book "The Road Ahead." Myhrvold's biographical sketch--found on the Web, of course--notes that he has a doctorate in physics from Princeton, after which he worked with famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking at Cambridge University. He then founded a software company before leaving that to become head of Advanced Technology at Microsoft. He's on the board of directors of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, where Einstein worked, and he's a member of the White House National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council. His bio also lists "certificates" in "mountain climbing, formula car racing, photography and French cooking." When he has spare time, he fills in as a chef at one of Seattle's best French restaurants, and he's also found time to compete in the world championship of barbecue in Memphis, where he won first place.

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Who could compete with a resume like that? The point is: no one. Myhrvold is an omni-competent superstar of high tech the way Michael Jordan rules basketball. And, as argued in a book of last year, "The Winner-Take-All Society" by Berkeley economist Robert H. Frank, our economy and society are increasingly structured to reward such superstars, our most type-A personalities, while the rest of us toil in their shadows, worker ants to their queen-ant status.

This phenomenon dovetails with the repetitive admonition of all our leaders, business and political, that we're "on our own," that to succeed in the ruthless, high-tech world of a globally competitive economy, we constantly have to reinvent ourselves to stay ahead.

Paul Flessner, manager of Microsoft's SQL Server division, a database unit, recently told the Chicago Tribune that success requires each of us to "know what it is you love to do and be the best in the world at it." Obviously this is a solution available to only a handful of people. Watching the Olympics in the last two weeks, one can't help but ponder what will become of those thousands of athletes who didn't get medals.

The chief byproduct of this cutthroat competitiveness--that No. 1 buzzword of our age--is ubiquitous, overpowering, Olympian hype. Twenty-five years ago, the baby boom generation resolved to rid the world of hype and hypocrisy, revolting against the button-down, stress-filled, "organization man" era of our parents. Instead, we've unleashed more stress, hype, trivia, celebrity worship and competitive consumerism into the world than was previously thought possible.

The personal computer revolution, often hailed as the triumph of "liberation" computing over bureaucratic computing, and started by young men who admired the '60s, became the biggest source of bloated hype in the world. Now that the PC revolution is merging with TV and Hollywood, we can expect current levels of hype to look minuscule compared with what's over the horizon.

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