This vision of a better life for all as technology spreads throughout society is, of course, an old dream. Just as its appeal has not lessened, so its likelihood of ever coming to pass has not increased significantly since technology critics dreamed the same dream in relation to the Industrial Revolution. Every new technological development creates opportunities and new levels of comfort, but also new sources of discomfort and new opportunities for oppression.
This becomes obvious--to cite one particular context--when one looks at the extensive literature concerned with gender issues in relation to information technology, the majority of which does not at all support taking an optimistic view toward technology as an evenly-distributed social good. In fact the research suggests that there exist systemic inequities in women's access to, and participation in, information technologies. Thus, the cultural prejudice against women becoming involved in information technology (as in all fields that involve math and science) remains very strong; when women do take information technology courses they are likely to find a climate that actively discourages their contributions, or does not take into account different approaches or needs based on differences in learning style.
The few women who do make it through and find employment in information technology fields often face entrenched institutional sexism. Mary Frank Fox, for example, provides a careful statistical analysis of women engaged in scientific careers generally, concentrating mainly on the job opportunities and placement of women with doctoral degrees as she argues that it is these women who have a chance of actively shaping the technological environment. She concludes that although women have substantially increased their participation in scientific fields over the last couple of decades, "[w]omen and men are differentiated in their fields and academic locations and ordered in their ranks and salary rewards. At the same time, the publication productivity of women is lower than that of men. Status indicators (location, rank, salary) and productivity are connected, although the associations are not equivalent for women and men. Thus, in explaining career attainments in science, one must consider both status and performance" (222). An important explanation for these disparities lies in the fact that "women and men may have different experiences in quality and character of graduate training, clues may lie in the nature and patterns of advising, collaboration, and apprenticeship in doctoral education" (222).xxiii
This is a picture that has remained remarkably consistent (and disturbingly unchanged over time) despite changes in methodologies and an interrogation of some early research assumptions. For example, an early (1985) article by Kiesler, Sproull and Eccles begins by observing that computing is a culture and that in order to understand questions of access it is necessary to look at the values and assumptions involved, rather than just the issues of how useful and interface is or how quickly skills are acquired.
But the authors don't follow their own advice. They examine the environment (the degree to which video arcades are like the pool halls of yesteryear, places of masculine display and feminine supportiveness, the domination of school computing resources by male computer clubs) but don't examine how and why those environments got to be the way they are. The reason for this appears to be a disturbing essentialism: they assume for example that girls shy away from competing with boys because they don't like face to face confrontation and aggression: "All of the preceding observations suggest that the culture of computing may be a reasonable explanation for the apparent difference in girls' and boys' attraction to computing. it is a world of electronic pool halls and sports fields, of circuits and machines, of street-corner society transmuted to a terminal room. This is hardly the kind of world girls find enticing. It is a world that many girls will not enter or, if they do, it is a world in which many girls will get "turned" off" (459).
The authors don't ask the obvious questions here: what is it about educational situations, for example, that allows boys to take over computers? Their assumption that the culture of computing is not a girls's thing is also contradicted by the evidence from some of their own studies - that girls who play games prefer ones of dexterity and violence, the same as boys. Lastly, they don't ask the truly interesting question - if the culture of computing is so unattractive to girls, what do those girls who are inside it find attractive?xxiv