Few activities are as absorbing to the participant yet as uninteresting to the nonparticipant as computer programming. For a couple of years after I got my first computer in 1984 (a Kaypro 10 running CP/M on a 4 MHz Z-80), my wife suffered through many lengthy descriptions of programming techniques and implementations. After writing dozens of assembly-language programs, I briefly went into the software business with an associate, the only result of which was a TSR package that I wrote and he got paid for. But what turned me away from programming was the penetration of Graphical User Interface (GUI) from its Macintosh enclave into the PC world. DOS graphics was a simple affair where a window was just a box (you were supposed to save what was underneath), but with the advent of Windows and its multi-megabyte applications, the low-level programming I liked became impractical.

For several years, I limited myself to writing what may be the last DOS graphic card games (with cards that look like: [7h], except that DOS is kind enough to provide a little heart symbol), and putting together some QBasic kludges to calculate hit statistics for Anthropoetics. But now, thanks to John DeCuir‘s Computer Science Association’s Java course, I have finally made the leap into object-oriented programming (OOP) and have learned how to put an “OK” button on the screen.

There is a lesson here about the flexibility of the market system. As I have often noted, as soon as one becomes frustrated with its limitations, it tends to generate new degrees of freedom that permit one to extend it, as you “extend” an object in OOP. If the academic community won’t fund a journal, the WWW makes it possible to run a journal without funds. If software creation is taken over by twenty-programmer teams writing megabyte applications, the appearance of Java offers a little window of opportunity for amateurs to add applets to their Web pages. I have no illusions that my DominoApplet (selected for Gamelan‘s annual “best applets” CD-ROM) will lead to a seven-figure salary. But the WWW adds enough degrees of freedom to our communication system to leave room for these little amateur efforts.

This leads to a few reflections on Robert Frank‘s recently popular The Winner-Take-All Society. In an earlier book, Frank described our society by the metaphor of Choosing One’s Pond, noting that in each pond=place of business, the big fish must pay “rent” to the smaller fry: salaries for top producers are diminished by the need to reward less productive personnel for accepting their inferiority. This pattern privileges local prestige; people tend to choose their “ponds” by the degree to which they prefer to devote their energy either to acquiring status or to enjoying the pleasures of life made possible by the inflated salaries at the bottom of the ladder. (Of course these are lower than those at the top, but the salary differential is far less than the productivity differential.)

Frank’s new book, written with Philip Cook, contradicts the earlier one. Now, he suggests, status has become global, so that rather than being available as the reward of hard work, it is a goal only few can reach. If we are all stuck in one big pond, those on top have no need to reward the others lower down.

Surely there are trends in the contemporary marketplace that support the winner-take-all theory, notably the increase in salary differentials and the universalization of the star-system. But “ponds” still exist, and a more comprehensive theory inspired by originary thinking can synthesize these two apparently contradictory observations.

In the winner-take-all model, many compete for few prizes, and the losers’ energy is wasted. In the days of Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinism, this was the common model of capitalism: the survival of the fittest. Traditional economic doctrine gives no reward for second place: if my firm makes widgets for a penny less than yours, I don’t just make more profit than you, I drive you out of business.

How then did the pond become a metaphor for the marketplace? The pond world is a metaphor for consumer society ruled by the value of prestige, or mimetic envy. I must pay you a premium in exchange for the homage due one higher on the totem pole. In this situation, it is both worth my while to purchase prestige from you and worth your while to sell it. Since my higher status does you no good, it is understandable that you must be rewarded with the equivalent of bonus pay for undesirable shifts or work assignments.

But the star system does not operate on prestige, but on celebrity. How ever much we rail against those who are famous for being famous, celebrity is a not-so-distant derivative of the sacred. My boss’s prestige confers no benefits on me, but the star sheds light on all of us. In providing a commonly recognized object for our love and resentment, the star performs the task allocated to sacred figures in all societies. When we speak of the expansion of the star system, we refer to the penetration of the aura of sacrality into formerly profane areas, to the rationalization of sacrality in the age of the mass media.

The little ponds we work in are increasingly less insulated from the winner-take-all world outside. Every day, in the academic world and elsewhere, more energy is devoted to stardom, the concentration of media attention and mimetic attraction on oneself. The pond system, which dilutes and spreads prestige, no longer affords protection against the invasion of sacrality–which, as all good Girardians know, is but another term for our potential violence.

But in a system where the intensity of competition sets the entry fee to the contests for stardom so high, the social order is willing to invest in means of relief. Which leads me back to Java, a new platform-independent language created by Sun Microsystems as the language of the Internet. If my little applet can be rewarded–not with money, but with visibility that might be of real financial value to a software developer in search of new contracts–this is because of the growth of the Internet as a demotically interactive means of communication. There are hot pages on the Net, but no sacrality: in McLuhan‘s terms, cyberspace is the coolest medium of all. The shift of marketing and other resources to the Net allows us to anticipate a welcome desacralization of the overheated world of the one-way communications media. In the meanwhile, keep checking my Java page for new applets.