'The Road Ahead': Will We Laud or Lament Our Destination?
Nolan, Michael, Public Management
In Bill Gates's bestseller, The Road Ahead, the master of Microsoft describes an information highway that doesn't exist yet. The Internet we know today is comparable to the Oregon Trail, merely the start of the future information highway system. Gates forecasts a highly competitive tomorrow in which global phone companies will set up the internet in direct competition with voice networks. All the world's goods will be available for examination, and customers' computers will "haggle" with sellers' computers. "It will be a shopper's heaven."
Gates acknowledges the problems of information overload, business and worker dislocations, loss of privacy, and national security concerns that may result. He also recognizes that society must address equity issues. "The information society should serve all of its citizens, not [just] the technically sophisticated and economically privileged." He does not specify how this could occur. Rather, he concludes, "We are watching something historic happen, and it will affect the world seismically, as the invention of printing and the arrival of the Industrial Age did. If the information highway increases the understanding that citizens of one country have of their neighbors and reduces international tensions, that, in and of itself, might justify the cost of implementation."
Are the reduced tensions and harmony envisioned in The Road Ahead going to happen? Among numerous emerging trends, several forecast a more perilous transformation than the one suggested by Bill Gates.
Extinction of national cultures. Edward Cornish, president of the World Future. Society, calculates that the world's population now speaks several thousand languages, "but within the next century perhaps 90 percent will disappear. . . . Global computer networks and telecommunications systems are reinforcing the status of English as the dominant international language. . . . Ultimately, English may become the native language of most people around the world," says Cornish in the January/February 1996 issue of The Futurist magazine.
Decline of the nation-state. The rise of multinational corporations continues to diminish the significance of national boundaries. According to William Van Dusen Wishard, in the Commonwealth Foundation book Building a Community of Citizens, more than 50 percent of effects on the U.S. economy are due to global forces not controlled by Washington policymakers. Though many economists argue that these relationships promote international accord and interdependency, there is no national consensus. Such findings regarding the NAFTA agreement, for example, remain inconclusive. The decline of nations may accentuate antagonisms that common citizens already feel toward conniving politicians who they believe are aiding and abetting the "haves" at the expense of the "have-nots."
Unraveling of civil society. A combination of factors, including the failure of the welfare state, the destruction of the family, and the increase of temporal values, are transforming societies. Cultures succumb to the marketplace. Unfortunately, the global shopping center esteems and presents ideas that entertain and sell, not necessarily ideas that nourish. For 30-plus years, the entertainment industry has denied the connection between film and television violence and societal health, claiming that "it's only entertainment!" Filmmaking has become amoral, "a business characterized by wildly egocentric, if not downright sociopathic, behavior," says Barbara Maltby in the Winter 1996 issue of The American Scholar. …