Contrarian: The Evil Emperor

All hail cable guy Brian Roberts and his coaxial of evil!

Monopolies aren’t just unfair. Monopolies suck. Computer viruses stalk the Internet thanks to the monopoly of Microsoft Windows. Comcast keeps raising its rates, even though its customer-satisfaction rankings are lower than those of the IRS. What company without monopoly power could ever pull that off?

Bill Gates and Brian Roberts have a lot more in common than just being America’s premier monopolists. Gates has $1 billion invested in Comcast, and Microsoft is supplying Comcast with new digital video recorders, so the two can put TiVo out of business. Both Gates and Roberts rank among the top 10 most powerful men in Vanity Fair’s annual “New Establishment” list, in part because, unlike most entertainment moguls, they actually have effective voting control over their corporate boards.

Worshipful local coverage like that long mash note in last May’s Philadelphia magazine tends to downplay Roberts’s ruthless drive to be the next Rupert Murdoch. So here’s what’s so scary — Comcast is already the largest cable TV and broadband provider in the country, and next, it’s adding home phone service. Comcast almost bought Disney, and it owns a piece of MGM. Meanwhile, Microsoft has a stranglehold on the computer desktop and is trying to corner the market in music, home entertainment and computer games with its Xbox. There’s a ­Seattle-Philadelphia axis in the making that will control just about everything we work with during the day and play with at night.

We can only hope this will be a good thing for Philadelphia, since it’s likely a disaster for the rest of the country. Outside of New York, L.A. and D.C., it seems like the best any ­second-rank city can hope for is an Evil Empire to call its own. Seattle has Microsoft, and it benefits from the hordes of software developers flocking to serve at the court of Bill. Bentonville, Arkansas, of all places, is booming thanks to the parade of product suppliers supplicating before the power and glory that is Wal-Mart.

So all hail Brian Roberts, our own Evil Emperor. And give him that tax-free building on 17th Street that he wants so badly — before he gets tempted to abandon us. Brian Roberts, Lord and Master of the magic cable box, puts Philly on the map. Without him, we’re just Baltimore with a bad attitude. We’re Cleveland with cheesesteaks.

But even the most evil of emperors knows that much is expected from those to whom much has been surrendered. Here is my humble request to Brian Roberts. Once you’re finished rinsing the taste of Karl Rove’s ass off your lips, how about you and your buddy Bill Gates get together and do us a favor?

Get rid of spam.

We know you can. Just lock up some of your smartest people with cases of cold Mountain Dew and a fleet of Domino’s delivery vans idling outside. Don’t let them out until they’re done. The Internet is your room now. So clean it, okay?

I think that’s all we can ask for. With Wal-Mart, Comcast and Microsoft in the lead, our new high-tech century is birthing a bright, shiny authoritarian aristocracy, one filled with neat gadgets and brain-dead fun, run by grand families like the Bushes, the Powells, the Gateses and the Robertses. As government, commerce and the media consolidate power and manage dissent, the rest of us will, in the damning words of one pundit, “amuse ourselves to death.” All that’s left to do is tend the machines, mow the castle lawns, fight the foreign wars, and help count all the money.

It’s the story of the century. It would make one hell of an epic. You’ll just never get to buy the book at Wal-Mart, play the game on Xbox, or see the movie on inDemand.

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