Bill Gates, Business @ The Speed of Thought: Using a Digital Nervous System, New York: Warner Books, 1999.
Technology @ The Speed of Business
Bill Gates’ Business @ The Speed of Thought is simultaneously a manifesto for the triumph of digital business as the dominant ideology at the cusp of the 21st century and a dynamic, well theorised, and ultimately chilling description of the business strategies involved in “using a digital nervous system.” Not so much “business @ the speed of thought” as technology @ the speed of business. Here, the creative possibility that was the digital future is effectively shut down in favor of a closed business culture that takes electronic culture and hijacks it as a way of powering up digital capitalism.
If Gates’ conception of digital business were simply a continuation, even an intensification, of the rhetoric of traditional capitalism that would doom his perspective, and his future business strategies, to the normal ebb and flow of the cycles of capitalism. However, what makes Gates’ perspective such a radical rupture in the rhetoric of competitive, although always monopolistic, multinational, capitalism is that Gates is both the author of a biological model of digital business and an astute business theoretician of the specific strategies necessary for booting up the “digital nervous system” as the operational language of, at first, business and then later of those other “special enterprises” – education, medicine, government, warfare. What is disclosed in this book is nothing less than a general political philosophy – a digital Walden Two – with Gates as B.F. Skinner’s overseeing manager installing the “digital nervous system” in business, in education, in human flesh, in public policy, in the bio-genetic body, in cyberwar. This is a book not so much about business, as about the nature of power – cyber-power – in the “digital information flows” that code electronic culture. Much like the ruse of the trojan horse in Homer’s Iliad, it may well turn out that Gates’ lasting importance may lie in both installing, and then making come alive, a biological model of technology in the seductive form of the “gift” of digital business. Business @ The Speed of Thought, then, as a post-human model of business for a post-business conception of technology. True to the implied destiny of his name, Gates is an astral gateway to a digital future of wired flesh.
Ramping up the “Digital Nervous System”
Gates is explicit about the biological basis of digital business. Consider the following:
An organization’s nervous system has parallels with our human nervous system. Every business, regardless of industry, has “autonomic” systems, the operational processes that just have to go on if a company is to survive…What has been missing are links between information that resemble the interconnected neurons in the brain. (p.23)
You know you have built an excellent digital nervous system when information flows through your organization as quickly and naturally as thought in a human being and when you can use technology to marshal and coordinate teams of people as quickly as you can focus an individual on an issue. It’s business at the speed of thought. (p.37)
What systems theorists such as David Easton and Norbert Weiner could only postulate in the 1960s, Gates puts into actual political practice in the late 1990s. In Gates’ cyber-world, the “feedback loops” of general systems theory merge with the dynamic logic of bio-genetics to create a post-human vision of digital business. Here, there are no human beings, only “inflection curves”; no digital dirt, only “interconnected neurons in the brain”; no accidents, only “autonomic systems”; no history, only “data mining”; no human vision, only “pivoting the data from every angle.”
An analytically abstract, fast circulating, highly coded, feedback loop of “good digital information flows” and “good analytical tools,” Gates’ model of post-human business is the key interface by which human flesh will migrate to the machine in the digital future. Once fully operational, the digital nervous system can be quickly installed in every form of organization. Microsoft is only apparently about products. In reality, it’s about a certain procedure, a certain form of cybernetic organization that, once installed, patterns digital information flows across the nervous systems of all the key institutions of contemporary life. Microsoft, then, as not so much a “global brain” but as a downloadable, ready to install, virtual memory: a cyber-Panopticon plugged into the flesh circuits of human subjectivity. The virtual architecture of the future, the digital nervous system boots up IT Being into living existence. Cybernetics finally comes alive, or as Gates likes to say: “Information flow is your lifeblood.”
The Ideology Of Information Technology
Information technology and business are becoming inextricably interwoven. I don’t think anybody can talk meaningfully about one without talking about the other.
– William Gates, Business @ The Speed of Thought
There is nothing more relentlessly ideological than the apparently anti-ideological rhetoric of information technology. Here, the question of ideology breaks with the received interpretations of ideology as “false consciousness,” as “spectacle” or as the historical spearhead of opposing class interests, sinking instead into the deepest tissues of everyday reality as the transparent, technical supporting infrastructure of digital life. The ideology of information technology, then, as a (business) gene machine sequencing human experience into the working data flows of a cybernetic system running flat-out on automatic. It’s what Gates describes as “manag(ing) with the force of facts.”
If, in practice, ideology is understood as a rhetoric machine that projects into power an underlying vested interest by presenting as the general will the specific interests of a particular will, then Gates’ “management with the force of facts” is the precise rhetoric machine that spearheads the emergent class interests of the virtual class – the dynamic, although inherently unstable, coalition of “knowledge workers” and digital capitalists dominating the e-commerce and e-government and e-medicine and e-education and e-war of the 21st century. In Business @ The Speed of Thought, the general will merges with the digital will, and the digital will is reduced to the technical, cybernetic procedures involved in booting up the digital nervous system, namely standardization (of digital information flows), surveillance (of knowledge workers and digital customers), subordination (of human intelligence to digital intelligence, of human flesh to machine flesh) and solicitation (of particular wills by the general will of digital reality in the name of greater cyber-communication, better digital knowledge, “raising your corporate IQ,” “empowering people,” “creating connected learning communities,” “preparing for the digital future”). In the Microsoft rhetoric machine, ideology always interfaces digital subjectivity. Consequently, the four leading war tactics of Microsoft digitality – standardization, surveillance, subordination, and solicitation – are the dynamic expressions of the hegemonic ideology of the virtual class, thinly disguised as forms of digital technicity. That’s why Business @ The Speed of Thought can be a bestseller: not only the charismatic lure of Gates as the “world’s richest person,” and not simply the now familiar recipes for “friction free capitalism,” but also because this book is a rhetoric machine, laying down the key codes for translating into political, which is to say business, practice, the particular interests of a global digital elite.
In the fully realized world of technocracy, ideology is a gene machine.
“To Think, Act, React and Adapt”
Early in his book, Gates confesses the intellectual origins of his business philosophy: a mixture of Alfred P. Sloan’s My Years with General Motors and Michael Dertouzos’ What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change our Lives. In other words, the organizational genius of General Motors in “standardizing” large-scale business practices and the digital vision of “augmented reality” authored by MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science. A perfect fusion, then, of information technology and business as the basis of the digital nervous system.
Gates is so drawn to Sloan’s business philosophy (“It’s inspiring to see in Sloan’s account of his career how positive, rational, information-focussed leadership can lead to extraordinary success,” p.7), and his vision of the digital future is so repetitive of Michael Dertouzos’ rhetoric of “augmented (virtual) reality” because Gates’ peculiar skill lies in combining a rhetorical veneer of technological utopianism with the business reality of a “by the numbers” large volume, networked distributor of an off-the-shelf “digital nervous system” for all the “special enterprises” of global culture, from corporations to governments, education, medicine, insurance, banking, and the (cyber-)military.
In the nineteenth century, Hegel might have diagnosed in advance Gates’ Microsofting of the world when he theorised the charismatic importance of “world historical individuals” – subjects who sum up in their personalities the ruling geist of the times. Writing in the turbulent aftermath of the Battle of Austerlitz, Hegel had the victorious generalship of Napoleon in mind, but given his philosophical commitment to the coming-to-be of the “universal rational state” surely he would not have been disappointed by the appearance on the (digital) historical scene of Bill Gates, this “world historical individual” whose technically obsessive, hyper-pragmatic, relentlessly acquisitive vision of installing a “digital nervous system” as the networked ganglia of the global digital body actualizes with a vastly larger historical sweep and certainly with greater messianic enthusiasm the idea of universal rational state than any of the particular military victories of Napoleonic campaigns. While force of circumstance and limits of technological development limited Napoleon to the European theatre as his stage of historical action, Gates’ vision of the digital nervous system operates on a planetary scale, downloaded here in Microsoft India and Microsoft France, uplinked there in Microsoft Office and Microsoft Exchange, streamed data flows in Microsoft Sales, “data drilling” and “data mining” for business opportunities “pivoted” for better digital vision – the “universal rational state” ground down to finite particles of data, revealed with brilliant “granularity of detail.” If Hegel were alive, he would immediately take to pen again to write another Philosophy of (Digital) History with Bill Gates as the historical subject who best expresses the ruling spirit of the times.
That Gates himself is hostile to “philosophical discussions of whether this is a Sun Belt or Rust Belt City” preferring to “drill data” deep down, to “pivot” data from impossible angles so as to tease out the “mathematical story” of markets unconquered not yet told, does him no disservice. In exactly the same way that Hegel said that history is always dialectical, always an active opposition between the antithetical poles of immanence and transcendence, so too Gates’ vision of the digital nervous system reconciles the contemporary dialectics of business history, unifying, for example, the grim organizational immanence of Sloan’s genius for “standardization” so aptly represented by the heavy-image weight of General Motors with the spuriously transcendent vision of “augmented digital reality” represented with such utopian enthusiasm by Dertouzos’ MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. Indeed, if Gates in Business @ The Speed of Thought can speak so decisively of “action numbers” and free-information flows and ceaseless network surveillance and “punctuated chaos,” if, that is, he writes as if in an animated state of always falling forward into decisive business decisions, that’s also because he is himself the first and perhaps best of all the “action figures” or maybe a digital G.I. Joe – a leading business personality who has thought so deeply and so well of the business applications of speed data and speed technology that he has become a “punctuated chaos” or, in his own terms, a personality of “constant upheaval marked by brief respites.”
And this is exactly as it should be because Gates has already claimed that “information work is thinking work.”
When thinking and collaboration are significantly assisted by computer technology, you have a digital nervous system. It consists of the advanced digital processes that knowledge workers use to make better decisions. To think, act, react and adapt. Dertouzos says that the future “Information Marketplace” “will entail a great deal of customized software and intricately dovetailed combinations of human and machine procedures” – an excellent description of a digital nervous system. (p.15)
For Dertouzos, human flesh will assist the cybernetic development of an augmented digital future. Human flesh will become the machine flesh of the digital future. Or, in Bill Gates’ case, the digital nervous system that he so eloquently espouses can be articulated with such main business force and compelling managerial confidence because as the leading exponent, and beneficiary, of the information marketplace, Gates is the first “intricately dovetailed combination of human and machine procedures,” the first living digital nervous system. Gates is already internal to that which he theorizes. He thinks the digital universe from the inside in terms of its unfolding matrices of business mathematics, and he can actually feel the architecture of a “three-tier computer interface” system. As the extended mind of Microsoft he spins its digital wheels while “waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.” Gates is the digital operating system that he thought he was only licensing.
An American (Digital) Revolutionary
A decidedly local thinker with global ambitions, Gates is only the latest representative of the spirit of rationalism that is the American business creed. While contemporary media culture in the United States assigns the Civil War an “augmented” historical importance as the determining moment in American political history, Gates’ book is a sharp reminder that the political DNA of America was genetically mixed in the Revolutionary War, and that the same ultimately bourgeois revolutionary spirit that broke with the British empire on the grounds of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” fostered a spirit, at first national and then world-conquering, of unfettered individualism and market competition. A single-minded spirit of action as being, trading as salvation, doing as morality, an American spirit that has always found its most enthusiastic representatives in the business class. What makes the American spirit a “world historical idea” and what makes Gates a “world historical subject” is that the American Revolution, while fought on the political grounds of constitutional and economic independence from European colonialism, installed in the New World the very form of unconstrained and unfettered human subjectivity – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – and the very expression of pragmatic and positivistic and willful human consciousness that was necessary for the remaking of America as a radical experiment in technology. In this country and in this revolution, the spirit of European rationalism as the intellectual backbone of what would come to be called the empire of technology could only fitfully and episodically be expressed, constrained here by agrarian class interests, fettered there by the political status quo, but not so in the American Revolution. In that revolution, the essential spirit of technology, the spirit of endlessly remaking and reinventing the self and the world, was what was at stake and what was ultimately won in the American Revolutionary War was nothing less than a Declaration of (Technological) Independence. In the “new morning” of America at Lexington and Concord, it was also the self as technique – American individualism as an open-ended process of struggling for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – that was born as an animating spirit of world history.
It is in this sense that Business @ The Speed of Thought is, above all, political theory: a projection into world history of the animating idea of the American revolution, although modified to conform to the spirit of the digital future with, for example, the development of a “web lifestyle” substituting for life, “augmented (digital) freedom” for liberty, and “e-commerce” as the electronic equivalent of the pursuit of happiness. Which is to say that the fundamental historical importance of Gates’ vision of the digital world is that it simultaneously recovers and reinvents the American revolutionary creed for the digital future. Long before the appearance of the digital world, what made American political culture distinctly modern and radically different from its European genealogy is that American identity was always coded, always booted into existence by a trinitarian code. What was really invented at the Continental Congress was the original American code as the dialectic of life (immanence), liberty (transcendence) with the “pursuit of happiness” as the mediation between the two. This trinitarian formulation was the essential spirit of the American will. Dynamic, restless, always given witness by action, regenerated by violence, strengthened by opposition, steeled by adversity, enthusiastically pioneering, going forward, future-bound, indifferent to the passing contents of its particular manifestations, this distinct expression of the language of the will flows directly from the American Revolution to Business @ The Speed of Thought. And why? Because Gates’ vision of digitality is extreme will: the American trinitarian code stripped of its covering rhetoric and its historical baggage, digitized and genetically booted, ready to be system-installed in the 21st century American mind. Here, the language of the will, at first anti-colonial, then pro-bourgeois, and finally fully digital, abandons its temporary refuge in the body of the enterprising American individual, breaks with its strictly capitalist determination, taking up a new residence as the animating spirit of the digital nervous system. Neither purely immanent nor solely transcendental, the digital will is both simultaneously. It is the virtual will, moving first at the speed of business and, only later, in its future appearance as unfettered technicity at the speed of light.
A computing architecture in which software systems are structured into three networked tiers or layers: the client or presentation layer, the business logic layer, and the data layer. PCs usually provide the presentation layer, PC servers the middle tier, or business-logic layer, coordinate relations between the user (client) and the back-end tier. The data tier often includes a variety of PC and non-PC systems. (pp.449-450)
The business model can be hegemonic today as the spearhead of digital reality because in the particular expressions of acquisitive business interests are to be found, in however an imperfect form, the general manifestations of the digital will.
That’s the specific importance, for example, of “three-tier computing.” Not so much a vision of the future of digital business as a specific model of the digital will which has already been installed at the nerve centres of networked society. In the smooth, seamless circulatory flows of “three-tier computing,” the system as a whole is front-ended by the disappearance of the human (into cyber-clients), mediated by business-logic, and back-ended by waiting data warehouses for remaindering virtual memory. A perfect cybernetic system, a smooth, although tentative and yet incomplete, expression of the operating logic of the digital will. In the cyber world, the digital will no longer expresses itself directly in the language of warfare or philosophy, but in the practical language of business, this seemingly non-violent language of studied superficiality and dynamic pragmatism.
Consequently, studying the business model in general, and Gates’ description of the digital nervous system in particular, is an exercise in political theory. The language of digital business is a precise diagnostic of the power points of the emergent digital future. Consider, for example, Gates’ favorite buzz words – “disintermediation” or “friction-free capitalism.” On the surface, these terms point to a digital (business) future in which the middleman is removed from a transaction, replaced by direct meetings between producers and consumers transacting on the Internet. A “friction-free capitalism” of e-buys and e-sales, with added value from the absence of the parasitical middle. Except, of course, there is always a hidden third party – the computer interface – and it is already under two forms of monopoly control: first, Gates’ licensing of the digital operating system; and secondly, Gates’ creation of an extensive virtual network of on-line sales. Friction-free capitalism perhaps, but certainly not fiction-free. Or, as James Glick, recently wrote in the New York Times: “Soon Microsoft will collect a charge for every airline ticket you buy, also every credit card purchase, picture you download, web site you visit.”
In the Microsoft model of the digital future, we have been transformed in advance into “dumb clients” and “dumb servers,” “data mined,” “data mart-ed” and “data warehoused,” “feed-back looped,” “groupwared,” “supply chained” and “electronic data interchanged” into “good digital flows” for better “horizontal integration” and “executive information systems” – “just in time” portals for “plug and play” in the “paperless office” of digital reality.
The Politics Of Digital Excess
Gates is correct in one important respect. Business @ The Speed of Thought provides a way of “rid(ing) the inflection curve” to a detailed understanding of the present and future computer architecture of the digital future. Gates admonishes us to “adopt the web lifestyle,” to “build digital processes on standards,” to “develop processes that empower people” by “know(ing) your numbers” and “rais(ing) your corporate IQ” and “treating IT as a strategic resource.” Because he is the spearhead of digital business, he is also a brilliant guide to its deployment of a global hegemonic ideology, from self-congratulatory chapters hyping “Managing Knowledge to Improve Strategic Thought,” “Bring Insight to Business Operations,” “Expect the Unexpected.” Not just a detailed analysis of the political methods by which business reduces Information Technology to its own acquisitive ends, but Business @ The Speed of Thought also provides a privileged insight into the future colonization by digital business into four strategic “special enterprises: health care – “No Health Care System is an Island”; public policy – “Take Government to the People”; warfare – “When Reflex is a Matter of Life and Death”; and education – “Create Connected Learning Communities.” Dispensing with the breathless missionary enthusiasm of technotopians, Gates’ prescriptions for the business takeover of these four “special enterprises” under the sign of the “digital revolution” provides us with an early read-out of the methods (disintermediation), propaganda (digital necessitarianism), justificatory assumptions (speed, efficiency, and simultaneity) and ends (profitability) by which the key institutions of public life will be compressed into the “three-tier architecture” of “friction-free capitalism.” Precisely because Microsoft has the technical ability, economic means, and political will to impose the reality of Business @ The Speed of Thought, this book is, above all, a futurist manifesto with a difference. It predicts a future that it has the digital means to create.