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Revolution 99999

Microsoft's random acts of weirdness

By Annalee Newitz

I SAW THEM wheat-pasted on the walls and on the bus stops. Construction sites were covered in them, glowing in Wired-style neon green, yellow, blue and orange. Everywhere, all over San Francisco and San Jose, you couldn't help but see 99999. The nines were random, seemingly meaningless. Was it some kind of Andre the Giant campaign? A new message from the Billboard Liberation Front?

No. An intrepid pedestrian could discern, upon closer inspection, a tiny URL tucked into the lurid corners of a few nine posters. When I realized this I wondered myself, What new underground movement will this URL lead me to?

Dearest reader, what do you suppose that URL said? Perhaps you are wise and already know the answer: www.microsoft.com/windows2000/server. If only I could whip up an audio file quickly, I would insert a link here to a brief clip of me screaming. All those nines were ads for a Microsoft product--and one that is nearly a year old to boot. Of course I went to the stupid URL, which has a teeny gif of the nines and explains that "'Five nines' is a measure of reliability for server operating systems. ... Windows 2000 Server-based systems [are] designed to deliver up to 99.999% server uptime."

But I still had some burning questions. Did this strange new ad campaign go all the way to the top? Did Bill himself dream up the nines during some weird antacid trip? Hoping to find out more, I called the local Microsoft office.

"What exactly are those nines supposed to mean?" I asked. A sunny PR rep explained that Microsoft was launching a new ad cycle--a "wild postings" campaign--that targeted several major metropolitan areas. Apparently the wild postings coincide with their "agility campaign, which is aimed at business leaders and IT professionals." More surreal information. She had no idea who had done the actual wheat-pasting.

I kept imagining this secret cadre of Microsoft employees, dispatched late at night with buckets of wheat-paste and big rolls of nine posters. They would be just like those hip-hop kids who used to slap up stickers with their label's logo on them, or like those old-school culture jammers who wheat-pasted hyperintellectual slogans on billboards. In the truest spirit of co-optation, Microsoft had appropriated the methods of anarchists and subversives in order to market their corporate technology.

So my thoughts turned to real anarchists, the people who had originated this model of wheat-paste communication. I visited the ®™ark website (www.rtmark.com)--known for its hackerish activities, pranks and protests--and discovered that they'd organized their website into semi-joke "mutual funds," their term for various projects they're sponsoring. Their site looked exactly like a professional investment firm setup.

Then I visited www.billboardliberation.com, and sent them an email asking what they thought about the 99999 wheat-pastes. No reply. It was just like trying to reach somebody at a big corporation--no response unless you have direct business with them. At least the Microsoft rep had gotten back to me within a day.

The subversives were creating mutual funds, while Microsoft was trying to get some street cred with their "wild postings." This mutual co-optation pointed up a deeper form of cultural confusion. You can't tell the subversive wheat-pastes from the server ads anymore. And you can't tell the difference between ®™ark and Charles Schwab.

I whined about all this to my pal Jeff, who swore, "I'm gonna go out and wheat-paste over all those nines for you." It was a cool idea and I took some comfort in imagining the results. Maybe a bunch of 666s? Still, it seemed like another iteration of the same problem: wheat-pasting over other wheat-pastes; posting websites that resemble other websites in order to "make a point."

It reminded me of the end of that Douglas Adams novel, where the most brilliant computer ever made reveals that the answer to the question "What is the meaning of life?" is the non-sequitorial "42."

I'm surrounded by 99999, and still there's no meaning in sight.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who 99999 in the afternoon, and then 99999 some more. She's at [email protected].

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From the January 25-31, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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