Bill and Dave’s Excellent Adventure

[box type=”note”]This was something I found on the Internet back in 1996 when MSNBC began (now defunct). I remember studying about David Sarnoff and this piece seemed especially topical. Almost 20 years later, it still seems quite prophetic. — Bill Darron[/box]

NBC, Microsoft and the Cycles of History

by Mark Surman

It was a moment of epiphany. A man on the flickering tube in front of me was talking about a new technology. It would change the way we live. It would bring the world together. It would create electric wonders beyond our wildest dreams. It was – in its very essence – revolutionary.

Who was this eloquent prophet? It was none other than David Sarnoff – inventor commercial broadcasting, creator of NBC, and long time monarch of the Radio Corporation of America. He was announcing the birth of television.

Sarnoff is a man who – plopping down radio and the TV on the hearth for all to consume – makes you shiver in your boots for the vitality of human expression. He is the spirit of big, big, big crushing small, small, small. He is the spirit of technological hopes and fears turned into the best darned global marketing campaign you’ve ever seen. I listened to him and his spirit filled me. It felt familiar. I was suddenly aware that his spirit is alive and well and living with us today. Its name is Bill Gates.

As I wandered away from Sarnoff’s electric podium – in a museum exhibit called Watching Television – the connection with Gates became clearer and clearer. Both understood that software meant more than hardware. Both understood that their technologies would have the most impact and the most utility when sold en masse to individuals. Most of all, both understood how to define the ways that cultural data is organized – the ways that we eat, sleep and breathe information.

Looking at these similarities, I knew it was true: Gates and Sarnoff are of the same spirit, they are deities in the very same church. A list started to appear in my mind. It made connections between these two historically disconnected lives…

davidsarnoffDavid Sarnoff

  • Transformed himself from radio geek into mythological cultural hero.
  • Claimed that his company could make the world a better place if everyone would just buy a TV set.
  • Turned a hardware industry into a software industry by inventing commercial broadcasting and NBC.
  • Cooperated with and then snubbed AT&T.
  • Investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for anti-competitive behavior (1924).
  • Made so much money that he could buy people and tell them what to do.
  • Created the company – and the paradigm – that dominated the use of radio and television for many years.

billgatesBill Gates

  • Transformed himself from computer geek into mythological cultural hero.
  • Claimed that his company could make the world a better place if everyone would just buy Windows 95.
  • Turned a hardware industry into a software industry by inventing Microsoft.
  • Cooperated with and then snubbed IBM.
  • Investigated by Justice Department for anti-competitive behavior (1995).
  • Made so much money that he could buy people and tell them what to do.
  • Created the company – and the paradigm – that dominated the use microcomputers for many years.

Staring at this list, I couldn’t help but think that the more things change the more they stay the same – especially where money and power are concerned.

But how could this be true? We live in an age of collective glee about the fruits of the net.revolution. We’ve got all this young, imaginative talent running circles around Gates. We’ve got Netscape’s and Java’s that ask – more honestly than Gates ever could – Where do you want to go today? We’ve got real hope.

The thing is, we’ve been here before. While Sarnoff’s spirit – and bank account – grew in his own time, the buzz of technological innovation and excitement often spun around furiously and far from his grasp. ‘Amateur’ radio operators built their own informal, two-way networked culture. Young talent like the 24 year old TV inventor Philo Farnsworth snuck past the likes of Sarnoff and grabbed key patents. There was hope. There were dreams.

When I think about the upstart Farnsworth, I can’t help but smile. But I also have to remember Sarnoff’s spirit. He licensed Farnsworth’s technology and took TV down the tired old road he’d built for radio. He crushed the amateurs with regulations and lawyers. He won.

175px-MSNBC_logoA few days after leaving the museum, I opened the newspaper to find the images of Bill Gates and NBC president Robert Wright (Sarnoff’s corporate offspring) merged on the page. They were announcing MSNBC – a 24 online and cable news extravaganza. This marriage of corporate technological visions from opposite ends of the century proved it beyond a doubt. Gates and Sarnoff are one. Their spirit is truly with us and it – as much or more than any other – is defining where we will really go today.

Of course there are other spirits that surround us, especially on the net. Emma Goldman and Thomas Paine jump to mind. But we should not let ourselves be overly mesmerized by the beauty and wonder of these spirits. For, if we are not careful or if we happen to be looking the other way, the spirit of Gates and Sarnoff may stomp by and crush us like bugs.

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