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Silicon Snobbery

Ten things I hate about the computer industry

By Annalee Newitz

So I'm hanging out in one of those San Francisco nightclubs where you can't really hear yourself talk but you do it anyway. And I was trying to have a conversation with a friend about Netscape. Distractingly enough, the corner of this particular club contained a raised platform where fetching, naked women were being tied up and flogged by men in dark capes. Very decadent, and yet somehow so SCA that it felt quintessentially geeky.

But ignore those naughty revelers in the corner--back to our discussion about Netscape. I've been thinking about LINUX a lot lately (Andover.net and VALinux go public! Everybody's brain explodes!), and I began grilling my pal about whether Netscape uses LINUX on its web servers. He looked confused and then responded, "Oh, you mean Netscape dotcom." I noted a peculiar emphasis on the "dotcom." I wondered briefly if I'd missed some huge piece of news about Netscape.com splitting off to become its own special portal and escape from the AOL-ized empire that is the dotcomless Netscape today.

"So what's the deal? Isn't Netscape dotcom part of Netscape?" I asked.

"Well, it's in a different building from the engineers who work on the browser."

"But it's part of the Netscape campus, right?"

"Well, I wouldn't say that Netscape had a campus," my pal said, again with the weird emphasis. Turned out that after he'd seen the sumptuous Apple campus, nothing could ever really be a "campus" to him again. This irrational belief persisted despite the fact that Netscape's headquarters (comprising several buildings next to each other) does indeed match the definition of "campus" as it has been casually elaborated among geeks who are notorious for confusing their college years with high-tech labor.

Now I would never accuse this particular friend of snobbery, but his mildly xenophobic reaction to the dotcom crew at Netscape, and the non-Appleness of the Netscape campus, reminded me of the increasingly irrational feeling of competitiveness and entitlement I see everywhere in the Bay Area computer industry these days.

Computers used to be synonymous with information sharing. Sure, there were always pissy companies like AT&T which had the audacity to claim that anyone who had used UNIX code during a 15-year period was somehow "mentally tainted" and implicitly owed AT&T money for helping to provide them with thoughts. And there's always a Microsoft around to play Hannibal the Cannibal with companies owned by your friends and family. But in general, the industry has been known for its exceptional devotion to freedom of information, equality among colleagues and, of course, frequent free lunches. We like to geek out and talk about Java source code together, without worrying whether that's a "company secret" or not.

But now in an era of encroaching pissiness and--dare I say it?--greed, everything is a damn company secret. No information sharing for you! I've heard rumors that even the megahip Craigslist.org asks employees to sign a nondisclosure statement (fondly referred to as an NDS) which actually stipulates that they can't disclose that they've signed an NDS. What kind of demented doublethink is that? It's as if your next software engineering interview will have to be conducted like the one in Apocalypse Now: "I have no knowledge of that operation, and even if I did, I would not be at liberty to say so."

Partly this anti-social NDS phase in the industry is caused by Money with a Big M. Having gigantic mountains of cash everywhere makes people fussy and irritable. They start getting territorial about weird things, and when you're dealing with commodities that are produced mostly in people's heads, it becomes insanely difficult to draw boundaries. "That thought is ours!" scream the lawyers. And the poor geeks are left feeling like schizophrenics whose minds have been split into little pieces, some of which are patented by the company that employs them.

As Hunter Thompson once said about something utterly different, "This is bad craziness."

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd and it won't cost you anything to send her email, violently disagree with her, or write her love letters at [email protected]

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From the December 16-22, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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