Silicon emperors

Tuesday, June 22nd, 1999

We went over to my brother and sister-in-law’s Sunday night for dinner and a chance (for us cable-free types) to see "Pirates of Silicon Valley" on TNT, one of those made-for-television movies "based on fact" that purports to reveal the real behind-the-scenes machinations of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and other pioneer computer-robber-barons as they built empires.
I felt a certain sense of self-interest since these were empires built, in part, with my money. Yep, I bought one of those Apple 2e things back in the early 80s.a couple of grand there. I was the first on my block with a Macintosh-paying $2200 or so for a cute little beige computer (from a small store in Gainesville) with less memory than our microwave has now. I am what computer marketers gleefully label an "early adopter," willing to pay a premium for the latest and greatest. And so, during my last trip to Northern California, I paid a brief pilgrimage to Cupertino, California, home of Apple. Drove by the gleaming building at 1 Infinite Loop, and said "well, there’s some of my computer dollars at work."
And I’ve certainly kept up with the melodrama that has been the lives of these geeky millionaires, who sold what has come to be known as vaporware to anyone who would fork the cash over. They’d then work weeks of all-nighters to create what they promised as accomplished fact. They stole ideas, erected rhetorical "reality distortion fields" around themselves at computer shows,, pushed employees to and over the brink, and apparently, those were their good qualities.
This territory has already been covered in a much more non-fictional forum on PBS, where pseudonymous Robert X. Cringely’s multipart "Triumph of the Nerds" chronicled the rises and falls, vividly told by the principals themselves. So why do we need a fabricated, abstracted version of history? I suppose it’s only through the exaggerated mirror of the fabled docudrama form that we get the sense of just how manipulative Steve Jobs was-and why (according to the TNT filmmakers) his dysfunctional personal relationships, children out of wedlock, and anger over being adopted came together to create the guy who could sell America computers as appliances (now available in five perky colors!) It’s only through a marginal fiction that we can plumb the true dweebiness (and poor personal hygiene habits) of the richest man in the world, that Bill Gates guy. And of course, it’s hard to get millionaires to sit down for PBS cameras and talk about dropping acid, racing bulldozers at midnight, and infringing on each other’s trade secrets.
Then, of course, there’s the sidebar sport of docudrama-watching: rating how well the person they cast succeeded in rendering the actual person. How long did it take watching a bearded, grubby Noah Wyle pinballing around until you stopped thinking "ER doc"? Anthony Michael Hall-who was a Saturday Night Live castmember while these guys were changing the world-was easier to buy immediately as Gates. But my favorite had to be the guy who played Steve Ballmer (Microsoft’s current president) totally over the top-to great effect. Close your eyes and zero in on his voice-yes, it’s Futurama’s Bender the robot, John DiMaggio.