How the Net makes people stupid, and Microsoft rich

Today was the launch of the latest version of Microsoft Windows, Vista. I was news editing and eventually stuck up three stories (albeit with widely different angles) because, after all, Windows informs how millions of people interact with computers, whether they are aware of it or not.

The thing I most love and hate about Windows launches (I’ve been through a few of them now) is the crazed hype. As an IT journalist you tend to follow the gradual development of significant software releases – and they don’t get any bigger than a new Windows launch – so you already know a fair bit about it before the induced madness comes along. This basis enables you to step away from the overflowing over-excitement and report clearly and, you hope, objectively on what is in front of you.

The problem is that companies that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a product, and whose future is dependent on it being a success hate this sort of objectivity. Instead, they know from past experience that if you spend enough money it is possible to cause people to believe something entirely untrue for a short while. Keep that up for long enough and not only will they buy it, but they will also defend what they believe they know long afterwards. Get enough of these people and even the truth can’t dent the fantasy.

Short, encapsulated summary

This is what you need to know about Windows Vista. This is what, if the media worked properly, and if people weren’t constantly willing to exchange truth and reality for a brief sense of excitement, you would have read in everyone single news story, and on every television channel that covered the launch today.

“Windows Vista is an over-priced piece of software, inferior in almost every way to its competitors, that had been specifically designed to make it increasingly difficult for you choose anything but the same product again, and which will see you paying significantly more than you need to for a whole range of products from music to films to your own photos, for the next five years.”

That is the reality of it. It really is. And yet everyone will still buy it. They will still think that it is wonderful, at least some of the time. And Microsoft will do its utmost to make sure that that baseless belief is milked again and again and again. And it will work.

Planes and idiots

I saw an extraordinary thing walking home from the supermarket this week. There is a fairly narrow road near me in a residential area and as I crossed it, I saw a bloke in his 20s bringing out a new toy – a remote-control plane – and placing it on the road.

It wasn’t the old-style planes that were proper pieces of engineering with tiny Wankle engines and propellors, it was some new design that has presumably just hit the market. I only glimpsed it but it appeared to be a flying-bat type of design. The bloke ran it along the road until, under its own steam, it lifted off the ground. At which point, he clearly had to rethink how to control it (80 percent of crashes happen very soon before or after take-off and landing). He failed and barely had it lifted off than he panicked and it crashed down the ground, very inelegantly.

Naturally enough, he immediately set about doing it again. This time the takeoff went smoother, it rose up about 10 feet but the moment it banked, he clearly panicked and oversteered and it went careering off and smashed into the side of a building. Whatever aerodynamics it had were lost in a second so there was a second crash as it feel ten feet to the concrete below. It was quite clear – at least to me – that if it continued to work after the smash, he had to immediately get to a more open area or it would go into a wall again the next time and would never work again.

Now this is the thing. Literally 20 seconds walk away is an enormous park with wide open spaces and a new smooth tarmac path that is perfect for exactly this sort of thing. So, naturally, he picked up the flying bat, and set it down on the road and, to my absolute amazement, did exactly the same thing again. It took off, got about 10 feet in the air and he then crashed it into the side of a building. It then smashed into the ground again.

I started wandering off with my shopping. But heard him revving up what was clearly a damaged plane and trying again. And as I headed out of earshot, I heard another smash, and various expletives.

People don’t tend to think very much once they have made a decision. Human beings don’t revisit their ideas unless forced to, or unless they are trained to. And they stick with what they know, even when it is clear it isn’t working. This trait makes us all, frankly, rather stupid.

So you’re saying buy a Mac?

No. Microsoft has distorted the computer market to such a degree that an operating system is not just a piece of software you get used to, it is somehow a choice of significant value. As a result, competing systems such as Mac OSX or Linux feel the need to offer an even greater sense of worth and value in what is, let’s be clear about this, just computer programs running together.

People have been led to believe that they aren’t just buying some lines of code that do various useful functions they are standing up for something, or at least representing some kind of common philosophy. Although of course the only thing they are providing support to is the immeasurable gulibility of people when presented with something that they believe values them.

You know we don’t teach children possibly the three most important foundational skills for modern Western life: financial management, logical reasoning, and nutrition. It is no mistake that these weaknesses have provided and continue to provide the largest unjustified accumulation of personal wealth by individuals in our society.

Logical reasoning

Ingrained logical reasoning would enable people to not only make decisions based on their own personal benefit but also recognise manipulation of their emotions for others’ personal gain without having to feel guilty about it.

I have an iPod. It is a lovely machine. It stores my entire music collection which has proved to have enormous value to me, especially when before the iPod all companies were offering were cheap and weak MP3 players that stored 20 songs and other 30 if you paid for an extra component. But it is still a piece of equipment. I don’t find Steve Jobs any less objectionable. I don’t want to put an Apple sticker on my forehead because the company made a good product. And if a better MP3 player comes along, when my iPod stops working (which it will thanks to the built-in battery), I will buy it. I couldn’t care less who makes it.

Right… so how exactly does the Net make people stupid?

Everyone is stupid. It’s just that some people are bright enough to realise that they are stupid. However a majority of human beings have tremendously difficulty, for one reason or another, recognising their own stupidity.

I know a fair amount about a comparatively tiny number of things. But thanks to being a journalist where I write about subjects publicly all the time, I have been forced to realise two things:

1) Most people reading your article know less than you do about it – which is why you are there, writing it in the first place
2) A certain number of people reading it will know far, far more than you do and will balance in their minds whether the educational aspect of the article, outweighs the countless errors contained within it

Now the belief is that the Internet – with its extraordinary ability to spread information and hence knowledge – will end up making us a race smarter. Wikipedia is often quoted as an example of how a great many minds can collaboratively make something far and beyond what is possible as individuals, or even groups of individuals.

Except that concept ignores the basic human feature which is that most people don’t know, or wish to reflect on the fact, that they are others out there less stupid than they are. Such is the power of the ego. The Internet has provided not only those that have recognised they cannot be an expert in anything more than narrow elements of life with a method of sharing that knowledge, it has also provided the vast majority of people who have no interest in focussing so intently on one subject with the ability to flood the world with their thoughts about any subject that happens to wander across their mind.

Guilty as charged

Which is precisely what this blog post is doing at this moment. I already know that at least 1,000 people have written books about this strange element of human psychology, and have probably dedicated more years than I have been fully conscious to its investigation.

So I shall return rapidly to an area where I can at least hold my own: Microsoft and the Internet.

Microsoft wouldn’t provide copies of Windows Vista to journalists. Even though this software has been in development for five years; even thought countless thousands of people across the globe have downloaded its unfinished beta product and tested it; even though it was released to businesses two months ago; Microsoft purposefully withheld copies of Vista from the mainstream IT journalists.

Why? Because it has a much better way of getting the word out. It gave copies to bloggers. Bloggers who aren’t journalists but who write about technology because they love it. People who are excited about receiving something new, and who haven’t had it imprinted in their skulls that the value in being objective far outweighs the thrill of being there first.

And so, naturally, the first wave of information about this new software is over-excited and unfocussed. Even if faults are discovered and pointed out, the feel and pace of the words surrounding the criticism are such that they are quickly forgotten. In many cases, the “reviewers” even find themselves apologising for not being entirely happy with their new toy. They wrongly mistake that as objectivity when it is really just amateurism.

Microsoft feeding

What do people believe? Even people who question their beliefs still build beliefs, and as new subjects and objects come along they are forced to find ways of connecting them to an existing set of parameters that help them decide how they feel about something.

Being less vague, people tend to belief something if they hear the same thing, without disagreement, several times from several different sources. This is how hype works. You design a concept that draws shortcuts in people’s minds and then you push it so relentlessly that people feel that the repetition of this information is somehow of value. Once someone out there has heard the same basic argument put in the same way four or five times, they instinctively accept it as true.

And that works even if the “argument” is a feeling or sensation. If people are excited about an issue – say, the release of a new Windows operating system – then that product brings with it a sense of excitement. To then criticise that product – to damage the excitement – is to effectively tell all those that have picked up the excitement and connected that with the product that they are wrong. And so people display another fine trait – aggression.

And the really corruptable influence of all this is that a media chasing readers will, as the old cliche holds, give the people what they want. So if people want over-excited, shallow, blinkered, even shamefully inaccurate reviews of what this software represents, they will provide it, happily, just so long as you come back to them tomorrow and the next day.


What sparked this long, slightly rambling reflection on Vista and the collective pressure that determined stupidity exerts?

I was scouring YouTube and I found an interview with Bill Gates on the Daily Show with John Stewart. The Daily Show became an enormous success because of its uncompromising (and very funny) takes on the hypocrisy of people in public life. The news channels certainly weren’t providing it. In the same way that The Simpsons managed to make observations that would never have been allowed to be said by real people, the Daily Show did the job of real journalism by being satirically funny.

And yet, somewhat inevitably, its success has led it to invite on Bill Gates and allow him to give a five-minute sales pitch for Windows Vista. Once the nonsense was over, John Stewart was his usual witty self but the fact was that it shouldn’t have been Gates there.

It should have been Stewart interviewing a comedian posing as a Microsoft employee. And that employee would have been quizzed by Stewart about why Vista is expensive, unnecessarily controlling, late, inefficient and, basically, the worst product on the market with the biggest price tag. And it would have been hilarious and everyone would have learnt some of the reality rather than been blinded by the shimmer.

You can watch the Daily Show’s raison d’etre ebbing away right now:


The reason why the Net makes people stupid is because a few thousand people will read this post, but tens of hundreds of thousands will read crap like this

or this
or this
or this
or this
or this
or this
or this
or this
or this or…

In amongst them there by the way: the Financial Times, Forbes, CNN, The Australian, Business Week, and one or two blog posts (or which there are countless thousands more).

Is it inevitable that the Net will make us more stupid? Not on your nelly. Hype works both ways. The difficulty comes in finding the initial impetus.

  1. Microsoft has not just courted bloggers: it also assiduously courts the mainstream media that it knows will give it an easier ride, witness the oleaginous ‘interview’ by Huw Edwards on the BBC yesterday (of, for those with longer memories, Paxo’s interview nearly a decade ago where the BBC’s famed rottweiler looked distinctly ill at ease).

    But the company’s marketing people aren’t stupid: they do this because it works. You’ll wait in vain for any indication that Vista’s pricing is not quite what it seems or any concerns about DRM …or indeed anything negative.

    No doubt in time, there will be much more critical dissection of Vista but the damage has already been done. Yes, the web makes everyone a potential journalist but I’m not sure that that leads to better reporting.

  2. Well, I’ve informed anyone who wants me to help with their PC that if they’re running Vista, I won’t be helping. And no refunds. I only recently moved to XP myself, and that was only due to hardware which was deliberately designed not to work under 2k.

    There is simply nothing whatsoever compelling about Vista, and the damage it’ll be doing to a number of industries (starting with casual games) is going to be dramatic. It’s creating jobs…yes….jobs because it’s so inherently inefficient. When did this become a GOOD thing?

  3. […] Via a man who tried to fly his model airplane in the road instead of the nearby park, and the Daily Show and Wikipedia, Kieren (yes, him again) offers a tour de force on why the Net won’t make us any more clever – at least not until we admit that we’re stupid. […]

  4. […] Kieren McCarthy’s written about the Net, Vista, journalism and remote controlled planes in a typically epic post – but almost in passing he nails something I think about a lot. I know a fair amount about a comparatively tiny number of things. But thanks to being a journalist where I write about subjects publicly all the time, I have been forced to realise two things: […]

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