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Bill Gates' Microsoft morality.

It was a minor, modern-day morality tale. No surprise, then, that it had Bill Gates and Microsoft at its centre. Arriving home recently, I saw my teenaged daughter and her friends gathered 'round the flickering computer screen. They were threatening to install a pirated copy of Windows XP, Microsoft's new and allegedly improved operating system.

"No," I said. "You can't do that. You'd be violating copyright. That's stealing." "Yeah," one of the friends replied with the rapier logic of a 17-year-old boy. "So?"

I went into a fogey-length explanation as to why stealing Microsoft's intellectual property was morally no different from reaching into Bill Gates' pocket and stealing money from his wallet.

There was the sound, sharp as a mouse-click, of teenaged eyeballs rolling upward and locking on the ceiling in disbelief. "Bill Gates is a capitalist exploiter," the adolescent logician said loudly and slowly for the benefit of the dim old man in the room. "We're just taking back what he and his evil monopoly steal from us." Reckless in the pursuit of a point, I immediately went and bought a copy of Windows XP to prove that acting morally is always cheaper than a guilty conscience. While the principle was correct, the particular application of it went horribly awry.

Part of the problem was that I bought it at a store whose name I need not mention, but where I will never, ever again, in future, shop. When I took the software home and tried to install it on my PC, I got a warning that Windows XP would render virtually every part of my computer unstable and likely inoperable. Naturally, the next day I returned it.

"No," the manager affirmed, "we don't give refunds or exchanges on opened copies of Windows XP." "But it doesn't work on my computer," I appealed. "That's your responsibility," he said. "You should have known that before you opened it." "But how could I know it wouldn't work unless I tried to install it? " I asked. "And how could I try to install it unless I opened the box?"

I poked at him a printout of a confession in Microsoft's own words that its product would destabilize my system. There ensued one of those mad exchanges that the damned must surely endure from the Devil on their first nights in Hell. It ended with me arguing that if the store took my money for a defective product, and if on production of proof of the defect it would not return my money, then it was stealing from me. "Yeah," the manager said with the brute logic of a monopolist who has your money locked up, "So?"

Bumbling furiously from the store, I asked my wife for advice. Here I had set out to prove stealing is wrong. And there I was feeling stolen from.

"Can I now tell the kids it's all right to steal, at least from Bill Gates and Microsoft?" I asked. "No," she said. "You can't do that." "Can I at least loudly hope that Bill Gates suffers a painful death in the fly-blown charity ward of the same hospital as the owners of the store where I will never again in future shop?" I asked. "No," she said. "You can't do that, either."

So there I was, left holding in my hands a full and true model of modernity: a techno-junkie's promise of revolutionary improvement that in the end delivered only the threat of permanent systematic instability. No refunds. No exchanges. What to do?

The answer, by minor miracle, came that evening when a friend who recently underwent cancer surgery visited us for dinner. She talked about how the operating room staff used persistent inane chatter in a well-meaning attempt to keep her off the immediate future.

"I finally asked them to be quiet," she said. "I told them I had to prepare myself. I told them I had to talk to God. You have to make time to talk to God."

And so you do, especially in times such as these when the future will almost certainly be centred around some version of Microsoft morality. God has an answer, after all, even for Bill Gates.

Peter Stockland is the editor in chief of the Montreal Gazette and writes five columns a year for Catholic Insight.
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Author:Stockland, Peter
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2002
Words:718
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