Fight for the Future

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 August 1998

The modestly trumpeted launch of Windows 98 seems, on the surface, out of character for Microsoft – especially when compared with the global promotional blitz that accompanied the roll out of Win 95, for which Bill Gates spared no expense. For Win 95 he bought a Rolling Stones song and paid the owners of the Empire State Building to light the New York landmark in the same colors as the Windows logo. Why no fanfare for the operating system’s heir?

Because like its oddly toned down promotion, the Win 98 upgrade works mostly behind the scenes, changing things beneath the surface of the operating system, and out of the view of most users. Besides – Gates has to watch his step these days. The bigger deal he makes of Win 98, the more threatening his upgrade will appear.

The US Justice Department almost blocked the product’s release for fear it would only extend Microsoft’s monopoly. Incessant murmuring about the new system’s role in Gates’ step-by-step co-option of the Internet, banking, and television industries, coupled with its oddly low-profile launch, has led to paranoid speculation rivaling conversations about the summer’s other great covert release, the X-Files movie.

In fact, there are more similarities between Win 98 and “The X Files: Fight for the Future” than meet the eye. Both represent an incremental upscaling of already ubiquitous programming onto new turf, and both are depending on the word-of-mouth from experienced insiders for their success.

Compared with other summer “blockbusters” like Godzilla or Deep Impact, the X Files enjoyed a very humble release. Confident that his multi-million-member television fan base would fill theaters for at least the first few weekends, X-Files’ creator Chris Carter took a unique approach towards publicity: he had members of the production staff release fake pages of the script onto the Internet, where they would be endlessly replicated and deconstructed by hardcore fans. These artificial “breaches” of his supposedly ironclad non-disclosure agreements fostered the kind of second-guessing that conspiracy fanatics love, while creating the illusion that the show’s geekiest Internet fans really were “in” on the action.

Similarly, in the face of the widespread belief that Bill Gates is an unstoppable force destined to conquer the global economy, his first public demonstration of Win 98 ended in an unprecedented disaster. On a giant display screen in front of hundreds of onlookers and dozens of television cameras, Win 98 crashed. Bill Gates’ own demo froze and had to be rebooted. Was this embarrassing glitch really an accident, or a carefully staged public relations event? How better to humanize a man who seems to be so calculating, arrogant, and unstoppable? It would be like getting a pie thrown in his face. Oh, that happened, too? Trust no one.

This very air of mystery and unanswered questions is what compels X-Files fans to see the first cinematic installment of the sci-fi mystery. The final few episodes of last season, in fact, introduced plot twists and cliffhangers (what is that black slime, and what do the aliens really want?) that would only be answered in the film. (And we attack Microsoft for leveraging Windows against the Internet!) Once addicted to X-Files the free TV show, viewers find that, indeed, “the truth is out there” – for the price of a movie ticket.

Likewise, those of us anxiously awaiting the release of Win 98 are compelled by the hang-ups and crashes of Win 95. Sadly committed to the clunky and unstable operating system – and as dependent as addicts on our Internet services and word processors – we hope desperately for Win 98 to answer the nagging questions that its predecessor opened: Is there a way to actually remove all the remnants of old programs? Is there a way to stay connected to the Internet for more than six minutes without crashing? Will 16 and 32-bit programming ever work right together? Will Microsoft create a true “plug and play” hardware detection routine?

Now that I have installed Win 98 and seen “The X-Files: Fight for the Future,” I can answer all these questions, and more. The most important one, I suppose, is who needs to pay for either? The simple answer is, if you need it, you’ll know. If Win 95 works on your computer with a minimum of crashing, and you don’t expect to be installing any new hardware like cameras or video, then stick with what you have. Honestly, those who need Win 98 already know they need it. The upgrade is really just Win 95, release 3. There were so many loose ends and patches required to make Win 95 work with the Internet, that various programs and their extensions began to conflict with one another leading to crashes. It was time to release a version where everything was integrated from the beginning.

The X-Files movie accomplishes the same thing. A friend of mine who until recently served as a writer on the series once confessed that they really never had any idea where they were going with the story. They simply created more loops and twists and figured they would tie it together someday. The movie accomplishes this goal and, in effect, integrates the conflicting stories into a single plot with some direction.

The real purpose of “The X Files: Fight for the Future,” is just that: to fight for the future of the show in a new medium, so that its stars can go on to other day jobs. Likewise, Windows 98 is a simple placeholder, keeping the Win 95-style universe alive and functioning long enough for Microsoft to develop the next true generation of PC/Internet operating system (probably some hybrid of Windows NT).

Both movie and operating system correct some sins of the past, but their real purpose is to stake a claim to the future. Don’t pay for either one unless you know you need it now.