Amherst, Microsoft: compare and contrast
By Tal Liron, "Press any key to continue"
One of the first things I did when I arrived at this fair college was head for the woods. I was running around the bike trails looking for a circular route I could jog regularly.

An hour later, on a stretch of recycled pavement, breathless, panting, and utterly lost, I experienced deja vu. A year before I was lost and breathless on very similar paths but at a different campus; it was on the west coast-near Seattle-and the paths are called the Microsoft Recreation Trails™. As you may guess, they meander around Microsoft's corporate campus in Redmond.

Their campus is a large complex of buildings arranged in groups, with fluffy names like "Pebble Beach," nestled snugly in lush woodlands sprinkled with streams and in view of the majestic snow-capped Cascade mountains. There are other large, hi-tech campuses in the Bellevue area-drawn to the excellent facilities and face-to-face networking with Big Red. It's not as wired as Silicon Valley, but, hey, the trees compensate.

My project manager and I (merely a developer) were flown in as subcontractors on a top secret project. We spent two weeks working our asses off, but had a good time, met a lot of interesting people and even saw some of the big city. To get my mind and body off work, I went jogging around the campus, took a few adventurous turns, and … well, you know the rest.

In a Valentine conversation with one of my friends, it occurred to me that the similarities between Redmond and Amherst go beyond architecture, "landscaping" and environment. Campus life is similar-although Redmond employees don't live on campus, you can still find them working there at all hours of the day. They move around a lot, as they are encouraged to choose their next project in any department in Redmond campus where they are qualified to work. New people and fresh ideas keep their work exciting. We have similar freedoms here at Amherst, in our ability to choose new courses each semester, from any department and any field.

On the two campuses, work is similar in intensity with considerable research demands for any project/course, and plenty of reports/papers to be submitted to superiors. At Amherst, we can study abroad to expand our horizons, while at Microsoft there are frequent overseas business trips. On both campuses, lots of idle time is spent on the web and email and in state-of-the-art recreational facilities and gyms.

Even the people are similar-and not only because they come from similar class backgrounds. We have an enriching minority presence of international students here, on student visas; at Redmond, employees from around the world are flown in on work visas-it's more expensive than hiring Americans, but worth the price. In fact, it's policy: "diversity" is in Microsoft's mission statement. There are, of course, lots of people working in the background besides the center-stage producers-students here, programmers there. They work to maintain buildings, mail packages, cook, clean, guard, calculate paychecks, even answer the phone; they are equally invisible on both campuses. Lastly, they are, not too obviously, both called "campuses."

There is a striking homology of ideas about landscape, community, individuality and internationality. It can be argued that their superficial similarity hides deep and significant differences, but to what extent are they really significant?

In a country where we pride ourselves on "voting on issues," ideology has become a non-issue-apparently, it has not heard of its own demise. Redmond and Amherst are ideological factories: environments consciously designed to promote specific ideas about society and progress, their participants acutely aware of their "products'" power to change the world.

Steering people to a certain way of life by giving them appropriate tools is as pretentious as marking a path through a scenic forest. Run through the bushes if it pleases you, but why not enjoy the trees from firm ground?

Microsoft's ideology is alive and kicking. Where? In our foreign policy, zealously exporting the Internet; in our education system, where kindergarteners are taught by machines; and in automated factories, where products, even animals, are bits of data.

I draw two conclusions. The immediate one is that you don't have to wait until graduation to be a corporate minion. Congratulations, you already are one! Amherst is a successful private business enterprise, and you are one of its investments-as well as one of its clients (if you pay tuition). But you already knew that. Hey, it's the 21st century, and we're far too cynical to take pretensions about "education" at face value.

My other conclusion is more controversial. After you graduate and "incorporate," things will not be as different as you fear (or hope). The most significant change will probably be the lack of grade inflation-oh, and no freshman drop (unless you refer to the boss as "mommy"). Otherwise, it's the same pretense similar aspirations, and another bubble.

The picture of the greedy capitalist screaming at her underlings to go make money for the shareholders is as rare as that of a professor telling his students to study hard so they can get good jobs. Hold your cynicism, for corporate America is as idealistic as any liberal-arts academy, and their ideologies are more similar than we would like to think.

Microsoft's "solutions" are here to make our lives better, by giving us skills for organization, communication, community-building and, most critically, education-oh, and to make money. That describes Amherst's goals, too, with the arguable difference in emphasis overwhelmed by the net effect. Amherst directly educates less than 2000 clients per year. How many millions of people does Microsoft touch?

Undoubtedly some of you now reading this will eventually find yourselves high up the corporate ladder. First, I want you to remember Tal Liron '03 when he comes applying for a job and pay him good money to tell you what to do-err-consult for you. Second, I want you to justify your arrogance not only to yourself but to others. Make sure you know the price you, your environment and people around you are paying for your lifestyle. If you choose to live in a bubble, even temporarily, do so with open eyes. Don't fall in love with it, because it will burst. And when it does, it's time to leave. While you can't avoid ideology, you can avoid promoting one you don't believe in.

So as not to be totally negative, I would like to stress important differences between Amherst and Redmond. In a chilling correlation, Microsoft's ideology assumes people are like the computers that it works on. In its "solution oriented approach," it tries to give us things that can do "anything," as long as they are not things that we need.

I do not share the optimism as to how useful these generic solutions are. Particularly, I find the solutions applied to education to have disastrous consequences, as schools and state legislatures spend fortunes on computers in classrooms, in the misguided faith that they will help or replace overworked teachers. I would prefer running Amherst's liberal-arts "software." It is more wary of the whole picture, of the real problems, and of sources of appropriate solutions, which usually gain nothing from computer enhancement. Still, as an alternative approach, Amherst's is lacking. We are too often treated as machines that can be programmed with "diversity," post-colonial and anti-racist sensibilities simply by inserting the disk.

Students can go through Amherst while avoiding its crucial goals. The fault may be in a program that, in allowing free course selection, asks students "Where do you want to go today?™," a-la Microsoft, instead of "Where should we be going today?"

(I'm not sure if the trademarks are real or not. Please don't sue me. You can read a brief about Microsoft's ideology at: Happy deja vu!)

Issue 14, Submitted 2001-02-07 15:39:44