Masthead CMC Magazine / February 1, 1996
 Contemplating Roads Less Traveled, by Kevin Hunt

Equality in the Virtual World

Early in the book Gates reiterates the vision he had as a teenager contemplating the impact of low-cost computers. This vision is now Microsoft's much-touted corporate mission: "A computer on every desk and in every home" (p. 4). Throughout the book, he would like us to believe that his vision is democratic, that the advances in communication and in access to information that the information highway will facilitate will enable greater equality among all the world's citizen's. Indeed, this is how he describes it:
"We are all created equal in the virtual world, and we can use this equality to help address some of the sociological problems that society has yet to solve in the physical world. The network will not eliminate barriers of prejudice or inequality, but it will be a powerful force in that direction."
Yet despite this lofty claim, the examples that Gates provides of how communications technology will be used in the coming years all point to a scenario in which technology will be pressed into service primarily to increase the efficiency of a market-driven business culture populated by what Labor Secretary Robert Reich calls "symbolic analysts," those employed in professions involving the creation, manipulation, dissemination, and brokering of symbols--data, words, oral and visual representations. Symbolic analysts, according to Reich, include design engineers, software engineers, investment bankers, lawyers, public relations executives, and all manner of consultants: financial, management, organizational, energy, and so on. All share a common mode of doing work:
"Symbolic analysts often work alone or in small teams, which may be connected to larger organizations, including worldwide webs. Teamwork is often critical. Since neither problems nor solutions cn be defined in advance, frequent and informal conversations help ensure that insights and discoveries are put to their best uses and subjected to quick, critical evaluation." When not conversing with their teammates, symbolic analysts sit before computer terminals--examining words and numbers, moving them, altering them, trying out new words and numbers, formulating and testing hypotheses, designing or strategizing." (The Work of Nations, p. 179)
This is exactly the type of work that Gates describes over and over in his musings about vast increases needed in business productivity:
"Conventionally, businesses share information internally by exchanging paperwork, placing telephone calls, and/or gathering around a conference table or white board. Plenty of time and plenty of expensive face-to-face meetings and presentations are required to reach good decisions this way." (pp. 141-142)
Therefore, when Gates speaks of increasing the productivity at work via the information highway and other technologies, he is really talking about catering to the needs of a limited range of people. The cadre of symbolic analysts that Gates speaks to make up only about a fifth of the workforce in the United States, (and even less of the world's). For Gates, the other four-fifths occupy the employment landscape that is off the road. But Gates expresses this in --other ways too.

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