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Weekly Column

Clueless in Seattle: Can There Be Some Psychological Basis to Microsoft Court Behavior?

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

"Stifle yourself, Edith!"

That was Archie Bunker's reaction to what he perceived to be an ignorant response from his wife, Edith. But of course Edith was usually correct, if shy. Archie was the one nearly always wrong, but he never seemed to know it. Well, it turns out this Archie Bunker syndrome is rampant and measurable according to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Titled "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments," the entire paper can be found in this week's links. I think it explains a fair amount of what's wrong with the world today.

The idea is simple: People who are incompetent are also not competent to measure their own competency. Got that? In other words, people who are ignorant -- I mean really ignorant -- are less likely to see themselves that way and are more likely to fight for their mistaken beliefs. And the Internet has taken this effect to a whole new level because now we can have global discourse in which nobody involved knows what he is talking about.

Remember flame e-mail? We don't hear much about flaming anymore, perhaps because it drowned in spam, perhaps because we learned to ignore it, perhaps because the flamers ultimately wanted more to interact than to alienate. The essence of flaming was that here was a perfectly flat social structure that had no barriers to contact at all. The kid working in the mail room had direct e-mail access to the CEO and -- if you think about it -- not all that much to lose by spouting-off.

These days we see this behavior a lot in news groups and other online forums. Newbie participants either ask for too much ("So tell me in detail -- and with references -- what was the social impact of the personal computer"); ask for information they could find for themselves in a few seconds by making a web search ("Didn't you write a column about a computer that could be manufactured by printing?"); or make sweeping and highly-negative conclusions ("You are an idiot´┐Ż I eat guys like you for lunch"). And for me this is just a sample from yesterday.

It seems that this confusion about competence diminishes somewhat with age and experience, which proves the old adage, "There is no fool like an old fool." I should know.

But one thing the study misses is what I believe to be a corollary effect -- that people at both ends of the experience spectrum tend to have distorted views of themselves. You won't find much humility, for example, among so-called titans of industry, no matter how accomplished they are. In part, that's because they know their cajones (and a large dose of luck) are the major reasons for their success. So why not rely on what has worked so well in the past? I remember sitting at dinner once with a Nobel Prize winner, I was going on and on about some subject dear to my heart and the guy seemed to be following with ease what I believed to be my every highly-nuanced thought. I was really impressed until I suddenly realized that he wasn’t really listening.

Silly me.

This is all preamble to my attempt at understanding three documents you'll also find in this week's links. They are two legal briefs and the transcript of a recent hearing in the Burst v. Microsoft case I have written about before. The hearing took place a couple weeks ago, and at that time, the mainstream press noticed for a moment that Microsoft was being accused of deliberately destroying e-mails that probably should have been retained as part of ongoing litigation. There were some dark suggestions that this behavior, if true, could have impact on other anti-Microsoft cases, but then of course, the story just faded away.

Read the documents, please, and tell me what you think.

Here is a company that prides itself on both its technology and its corporate discipline, saying that its policy on whether to archive e-mails dates from either 1994, 1996, 1997, 2000, or 2003, they aren't sure which. The apparent decision to ban e-mail archiving was sold to the troops as being "for legal reasons," but nobody can remember who put that language in or when. Lawyers were consulted, but they don't know which lawyers. Of course, you could put out a company-wide bulletin asking for the appropriate lawyer or anyone familiar with the decision to step forward, but they don't. Jim Allchin, the senior VP on the spot, changes his story a number of times, two of them only a month apart. Jim Allchin is not stupid.

So what's going on? Is Microsoft just plain incompetent? Are they deliberately lying to the court? Do they simply not care? Or is this just a lawyer billing frenzy?

Probably all of the above.

I have a friend who used to say, "All IBM stories are true," and I think that adage can now be extended to Microsoft. What's obvious to me is that Microsoft as a corporation sees itself above all this. Rules, regulations, laws, and agreements are for the little people, not for those whom history has shown are able to finesse the system. This attitude isn't peculiar to Microsoft, it is an artifact of privilege.

Asking for consistency and compliance is apparently too much. A company with 50,000 employees doesn't have enough labor available to track down a few dozen backup tapes. A company with more than $40 billion in cash feels burdened by what it sees as frivolous accusations by a little company that won't die.

At PayPal a couple years ago, the company was plagued by a Russian hacker who liked to both rifle PayPal accounts and gloat about it in e-mails to the company. He claimed that he was unstoppable because even if PayPal could take legal action against him in Russia, he had accumulated a nest egg of sufficient size to bribe every Russian judge. The guy would fit-in perfectly at Microsoft. No opponent, not even the U.S. government, has more money than Microsoft to spend on these issues, so Microsoft sees itself as immune to both criticism and punishment.

The simple fact is there are different sets of rules for different sets of people. This is nothing invented by Microsoft, they just play the game better than most. In many ways, it is simply how big business is done in this and many other countries. And we certainly can't count on the mainstream media to bring these issues to light. They are much too busy keeping track of Jennifer and Brad to notice anything that isn't shoved repeatedly in their faces. That's why documents like those with this week's column are so important. These documents were under a court seal for months because Microsoft claimed making them public would have hurt their competitive position. How?

That we can all get things so wrong was brought to mind for me recently when a friend sent me story about his experience in the original energy crisis of the 1970s. Read it and think how easy it can be, sometimes, to hide that elephant in a room.

"During the summer of 1973 I worked on a tow boat on the Mississippi River. Every 10 to 14 days, we'd load our barges on the Gulf Coast and deliver petroleum products to some place in the Midwest. That was the summer of the big gasoline shortages. As we would travel up and down the Mississippi, we'd pass an Exxon tow. It would have eight barges (a double unit) fully loaded, or about 10 million gallons of gasoline. The tow wouldn't be moving, it would be tied up in a quiet spot on the river. Each trip we find more tows tied up. Shell, Texaco, Exxon, Amoco were all doing it. One day they announced in the news how much gasoline would be used in the USA in a single day. I made some quick calculations and realized we had passed a month's supply on our last trip."

Things are hardly ever as they seem.

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