Janet Reno gets a case of the butterflies

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The Independent Online

There is an institute in France called of the College of Pataphysics, whose sole focus of research is the science of the rules of exceptions and contradictions. The term pataphysics was coined by Alfred Jarry, the surrealist playwright. It seems to me that this college should examine what on earth has gone wrong with the apparently logical and seemingly correct proposal to break up Microsoft.

You'd have thought the possibility of Microsoft being carved up would cause stock prices to soar for companies that stand to benefit from its demise. For example, Linux-related companies such as Red Hat, VA Linux, or even Sun Microsystems were predicted to do well, along with many others in the operating systems area that would be well-positioned to take a slice of the Microsoft pie. After all, Microsoft's demise would surely bring more innovation, more space for new thinking, and send a fresh wind through the market.

However, nobody remembered Jarry and his science of exceptions. According to pataphysics, exceptions have their own set of rules which do not follow laws of causality. In fact, the effects of exceptions have a lot more in common with butterfly effects in chaos models than with any nice, tight causative concept of the non-exceptional universe. Breaking up Microsoft was an exception of notable distinction.

Consider the last time the US government broke up a monopoly, when it forced AT&T to divest itself of Bell Telephone. There the case for breakup was relatively straightforward and the result was positive, creating new competition and benefiting customers by driving telephony prices down fast.

The breakup of Bell was the inspiration for Janet Reno and her legal team on their mission to stop Bill Gates from controlling everything from PCs to mobile phones and interactive TV. Reno was simply trying to bring about a similar result and open the market to competition. She didn't stop to think and examine the difference between breaking up a market-created monopoly such as Microsoft from what had been a state-sanctioned monopoly such as Bell. The solution required to deal with the former was clearly not the same as the solution applied successfully to the latter.

The fact that her decision to seek the breakup of Microsoft caused the biggest crash on the Nasdaq stock exchange in living memory (practically killing the tech markets on both sides of the Atlantic for months, if not years) must surely be examined as a key example of pataphysics at work. The underlying health of tech companies is better than ever. Strong sales figures are coming in from all over the tech world, from Oracle to Sun. There is no reason for investors to worry as IT spending budgets are going up, not down. These companies must do well.

Since exceptions have rules on their own, and for all practical purposes Janet Reno has brought down Nasdaq and Techmark in the UK as a result of the Microsoft case, it is pretty clear that governments should not meddle in areas that are far too complex to predict without consulting pataphysics, or at least a few butterflies.

Bringing down the whole tech market, and causing lack of capital for the innovative companies by one government decision, proves the power structure between the market and the government is incorrect. It gives power to people who are clearly not qualified to predict the outcome of their own actions, particularly in such hugely complex and fast-changing areas as IT and the Net.

So pataphysicians of the world unite, and help us to keep governments out of the area that should be governed by innovation, free information flow and, most importantly, market decisions lead by the customer. No attempts to regulate, break up or otherwise subvert the dynamism of the new digital economy will succeed, thanks to Alfred Jarry and followers of the science of pataphysics.

eva@never.com

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