Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


Jane McKie (1996) 'Is Democracy at the Heart of IT? Commercial Perceptions of Technology'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 1, no. 4, <>

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Received: 1/10/96      Accepted: 9/12/96      Published: 23/12/96


The article uses two adverts for Microsoft Office products as a springboard from which to discuss claims about the democratic potential of IT (information technology). Adverts for technological products frequently use glamorous icons as metaphors for the exploratory mode of hypermedia technologies (including the World Wide Web). These metaphors find subtle expression in the textual conflation of virtual and physical 'realms' exemplified by the Microsoft slogan 'Where do you want to go today?'. It is a small step from suggesting that you can go anywhere you want to go, to the assertion that you can be anyone you want to be. This assertion underlies the textual construction of democracy that is singled out in the first advert: a democracy that is forged from individual versatility rather than cultural diversity. Roles and functions become blurred as specialized worker is transformed into jack-of-all trades through the use of technology. This vision of democracy is contrasted with two related pictures of contemporary technologies: the Internet as a world-wide cooperative community and hypermedia texts as the poststructural antithesis of the modern univocal text. Claims of this nature, and their critiques, are positioned within discourse about the impact of technology, both personally and culturally. Personally, job satisfaction and versatility are indicators of success in the texts examined. Culturally, constructions of 'cooperative community' and 'self-sufficiency' are examined with reference to the myth about the computer as an isolationist tool, revealing a theoretical ambivalence towards the impact of technology that underscores recent intense media and academic attention.

Advertising Imagery; Information Technology; Microsoft Office


I first became interested in writing this paper after reflecting on how the media depiction of technology as a tool that empowers the user has cultural and individual application (the implications for 'individual' and 'culture' emerge from textual interpretation; I would hesitate to imply that they are unproblematic constructs or, indeed, that the following interpretation lays sole claim to the meanings generated by the selected texts). It seemed to me that messages about the relationship between versatility and success, work and play, were imbricated with a text about the communicative potential of technology: the inter- personal dimensions of contemporary technology touch upon definitions of democracy, even what constitutes 'culture' itself.

I have selected two adverts for Microsoft Office products on the basis that they each tell an interesting, and mutually enlightening, story about the place of technology in the above definitions; furthermore, the stories they tell are rendered doubly significant in the light of Microsoft's current market position. The first advert's version of democracy is one in which the individual is empowered to such a degree that the need for inter-dependency is obviated. This provides a notable contrast to discourse about virtual reality (VR) and the Internet which locates its 'revolutionary' potential in the opportunity for fostering a 'cooperative community' (however vaguely or sharply evoked in the literature). Similar oppositions, paradoxical within the texts of the adverts, inhere in literature about VR and hypermedia technologies. The interpretation that follows uses the perception of technology in the selected adverts as a vehicle for teasing out salient oppositions and discussing them in the light of speculation about the impact of technology more generally.

Rock Star, Revolutionary

Prima facie, in Figure 1 the reader is confronted with the representation of what is obviously meant to be a rock star (in the U2 style, appropriately enough given their multimedia performances). The face is confident, sanguine, a little rough around the edges. The characterization can be starkly contrasted with its sister image (Figure 2), an image which is first intimated on the same page in miniature in the form of an icon accompanying a pull-down menu from a Windows application. The icon reveals the hat, part of the uniform of the businessman, along with black shoes occluded by the edge of the page, forlornly discarded on what we presume is a city pavement outside a corporate building (signalled by the suggestion of neo-classical architecture). I use the adverb 'forlornly' because the message is clear: the traditional uniform of the business world is outmoded, hence the fallen leaf which, too, has outstayed its welcome. The appearance of the business-guys (this latter used in conjunction with 'idea' perhaps in an effort to avoid accusations of sexism in the traditionally male-dominated domains of IT and/or business), their face, is to be revolutionized along with their modes of working and communicating. The text makes this explicit. 'Rock stars...' (in the largest typeface, catching our eye, identifying our desired protagonists) '...and CEO's are starting to dress alike. There is a revolution going on.' The words 'revolution going on' are in the middle-sized typeface, and are separated, dislocated even, to draw attention to the word 'revolution' which occupies pride-of-place in a left to right reading. 'The walls are coming down. The best artists are business-people. The best business people are artists.' The reference to walls coming down suggests the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and its emplacement immediately following 'revolution' fixes this interpretation. The adverts are black and white with the exception of diagrammatic boxes and the outline and highlight of the pull-down menu. Appropriately enough, they are red, the colour associated with revolution (even the word 'red' can be used as a synonym for 'revolutionary'). It is ironic, then, that the advertisers invoke the collapse of the Berlin Wall in conjunction with the colour red, also a widespread symbol of communism. Nations asserting their independence fits well with the theme of the artist - conceived of as something of a loner or visionary in the Romantic imagination. Assertion of independence coupled with the adoption of a capitalist monetary system fits well with the theme of the entrepreneur - conceived of as something of a hero in the capitalist imagination. What needs to be married for the message of the advert to take effect is the artist and the businessperson (perhaps this marriage itself sustains the notion of an entrepreneur, who is often ascribed more creativity and singularity of vision than corporate middle-management).

Figure 1 (72k)

Implicit in the claim that 'Rock stars and CEOs are starting to dress alike' is the assumption that CEOs are starting to dress like rock stars and not vice versa. This is confirmed by the 'Next Page' device of the pull-down menu which suggests that CEOs are literally turning over a new leaf. Although the hat and shoes of the businessman have been discarded because of their drab associations, their disembodied abandonment retains associations with the artist Magritte. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this advert, glamour is located in the jewellery, leathers and designer stubble of the depicted rock star. Indeed, glamour inheres in the whole evocation of 'rock star' as icon, a profession that is lionized by the media.

Glamour is frequently injected into adverts for technological products by virtue of their new connectivity. With the advent of the Internet, it is possible to communicate, modem to modem, anywhere in the world. Exotic locations are represented on screen and page in advertising copy, creating a pervasive metaphor for the exploratory mode of hypermedia technologies. Hence the Microsoft slogan, 'Where do you want to go today?', and the IBM slogan, 'Solutions for a small planet'. These intimations of going places, of circumnavigating the globe, have been popularized by the conceptualization of cyberspace (a term that has somewhat inexact application. It is often referred to as if it underwrites communication via the computer in general, though it is also used in conjunction with VR). Metaphors for cyberspace usually take two forms: cyberspace as a resource, or as an environment (see Heim, 1991: p. 54; Delany and Landow, 1994: p. 32; Rheingold, 1995: p. 56). As far as its identity as an environment is concerned, the familiar methods of orientating oneself within terrestrial topography are absent from this informational space:

Magnetic storage offers no three-dimensional cues for physical bodies, so we must develop our own internally imaged sense of the data topology. This inner map we make for ourselves, plus the layout of the software, is cyberspace. (Heim, 1991: p. 31).

Where Haraway (1989; 1991) takes our definitions of ourselves to be mutually defining, Baudrillard (1988) dwells on the ability of simulacra to efface the 'reality' that they model. The representation is no longer anchored to the referent but is imbued with a power, indeed, a reality, of its own. In Baudrillard's own words 'the map is the territory'. This is nowhere more evident than in the Microsoft slogan which, effectively tapping into the zeitgeist, conflates virtual and physical displacement. Baudrillard's hyperbolic dissolution of reality is rendered all the more credible, then, by the hype that surrounds the emergence of virtual reality: VR is the watchword of an industry whose stated purpose is to engineer the demise of a perceptible difference between the world and its high-resolution simulation.

Solutions for a Small Planet

The virtual shrinking of the globe increases the possibility of vicarious travel. By learning more about the cultural terrain, computer mediated communication (or CMC) surely represents a real chance for global democracy (evoking McLuhan's oft-cited 'global village', a term first coined in 1964). The smallest and densest text on page 2 of the advert certainly concurs with this assessment:

Microsoft® Office is more than just the world's best- selling family of business software. It is a tool of massive social change.

That's because it's empowering people to do all sorts of things they never dreamed were possible. For instance, with Microsoft Excel, an idea guy can now make sense of numbers. With PowerPoint®, the number-crunchers have more convincing ways to express themselves. With Word, a sculptor can craft a compelling argument for a grant. And so on. What you are good at no longer limits what you can accomplish.

And if there's something you wish to do that you can't figure out even with our IntelliSenseTM technology and built-in product help, we have people waiting to solve your problem for no extra charge by phone.

This is the ultimate democracy.

This is our goal: no starving artists, no artless business people.

Figure 2 (182k)

In this text, the ultimate democracy is visualized as one in which roles and functions are blurred: an idea guy becomes a number guy too (incidentally, the assertion that the best artists are business people and vice versa, in seeking to establish an identity between the two, only serves to reinforce the perception that they are separate roles). Such homogenization can be effected through the adoption of technology as a 'tool' of massive social change. It empowers the user to effect this social change. Democracy is at the heart of it (IT). Microsoft Office is at the heart of it (IT). Hence, Microsoft Office is at the heart of democracy, and democracy is at the heart of their products.

There are other ways, aside from the eradication of differences between roles and functions, in which technology is hailed as offering unprecedented opportunities for democracy. There have been recent claims that hypermedia technologies are 'more democratic' than linear forms of presentation such as the book (though whether books are purely linear, and the implicit assertion that linearity is inferior to non-linearity, are debatable points). Hypermedia is exciting because it is precisely through its flexibility of focus, or 'infinite periphery' to use Delany and Landow's (1994) phrase (itself evocative of Derrida's floating chain of signifiers), that we are made aware of the historically contingent and consensual nature of the information we are interacting with at any moment on the screen. Through the displacement of the 'author function', and the recognition of polysemous discourse, hypermedia is the electronic embodiment of a poststructural critique of the univocal text. Furthermore, Rheingold (1995: pp. 5 - 6) compares cyberspace to a social petri-dish in which the communities are colonies of micro-organisms. Indeed, he believes that CMC has the potential to encourage a citizen-based democracy. By providing an electronic meeting place for the disparate voices of computer-endowed citizenship all over the world, CMC could become a virtual agora.

Such seemingly guileless assertions beg a question about the desirability of such a vision of democracy. Cultural homogenization is one of the entailments of a shrinking earth (itself a consequence of the human thirst for exploration, and in the Internet we have created both an informational territory and a new mode of interaction to get the measure of). Others have observed how channels of communication are open to abuse. For example, talk- time could be financially exploited by media conglomerates with a stranglehold on the networks; Heim (1993) feels that loss of the special immediacy of face-to-face communication would absolve us of our concomitant face-to- face responsibilities; finally, the accessibility of encoded information increases the opportunities for Orwellian forms of surveillance. Poster (1990) explains that the computerized database can be construed as a Superpanopticon through the distillation of information, fixing the biography of the subject. In the same work he draws attention to the unique character of what he terms the mode of information - a form of language that permits unprecedented play with identities through the very evanescence of electronic traces, and the anonymity of electronic conferencing. In some ways, his account of the mode of information corresponds to the interpretive paradox that is the subject of this paper:

Electronically mediated communication to some degree supplements existing forms of sociability but to another extent substitutes for them. New and unrecognizable modes of community are in the process of formation and it is difficult to discern exactly how these will contribute to or detract from postmodern politics. (1990: p. 154)

The advert deliberately shies away from the darker implications of CMC by situating the rock star as the subject of its discourse. Indeed, the coupling of artist with businessperson, while effecting a semantic separation between the two, brings to mind performers such as Madonna whose creative control, having devolved from the corporation, has spurred a wealth of debate about her multiple and plastic representations of self (Schwichtenberg, 1993).

Engineering the Self

Where the message about personal change (and empowerment) is encompassed by the overarching message about social change in the first advert, the reverse holds true for the second advert under consideration (see Figures 3 and 4): 'If you do not love your job, change it. Instead of pushing paper, push ideas. Instead of sitting down, stand up and be heard. Instead of complaining, contribute. Don't get stuck in a job description.' The text that is picked out in a larger typeface reads (in descending order of size): 'change it'; 'push ideas'; 'stand up and be heard'; and 'contribute'. 'Change it' is highlighted in gold, and yet again 'it' (IT) is at the heart of it (the text). The revolutionary motif continues with urgings to assert one's voice, to be heard in what can only be assumed to be the deadening halls of middle-ranking executive life indicated by the accompanying image of a plainly weary middle-aged businessman with his hands to his forehead and eye in a gesture of defeat. The outward appearance of respectability (the greying hair, pinstripes, striped shirt, wedding band, and glasses) is perturbed by frowns and creases, the downward lines of the mouth and the chaotic positioning of his hands, creating an image of helplessness by the displacement of his glasses. The glasses awry are especially significant, because, as well as respectability, they are indicators of intellectual activity in the visual language of advertising. With the aid of the text, the reader is enabled to diagnose the distressed man's malady: he is suffering from a form of intellectual starvation brought about by the inability to express his ideas and be heard. He is suffocating under a stack of paper. He is unfulfilled. The reference to contribution ('Instead of complaining, contribute') assumes the indefatigable desire to contribute. The question, then, becomes how to enhance levels of contribution. The answer to this question is contained at the heart of the first page's text: IT enables you to change your job.

Figure 3 (65k)

Figure 4 (143k)

Like the 'rock star' advert, the implication is that, by changing your job (recall an idea guy can make sense of numbers with the help of Microsoft Office), you can change yourself. The 'Next Page' icon that fills the window of the pull down menu in Figure 3 is that of a silhouetted figure retreating across sand towards the sea. This image fills the page in Figure 4, using the same stylistic device of substitution as the first advert examined (with the concomitant literal action of turning over a new leaf), although the order of substitution is reversed. In this case, the desired image succeeds the harassed persona that is, ultimately and unsurprisingly, rejected. The text compliments the relaxed posture of the retreating figure: 'This is important. This is your work. Microsoft Office can help you enjoy it.'

This juxtaposition of images creates a number of salient oppositions. A casual/formal opposition is underwritten by the pervasive contrast between inside and outside (which is itself mirrored by a corresponding contrast between darkness and light). What we assume to be an interior shot of the harried executive signifies an inner anxiety and figurative constraint, whereas the exterior shot of the solitary figure indicates a number of opposing descriptors: freedom, calm, relaxation, confidence. This confidence not only emanates from the relaxed posture, but also from the implied individuality of the transformed man (for a metamorphosis of sorts has taken place). He has literally 'freed' his individuality (embodied in his ideas) by freeing up his role in the office hierarchy. He has managed to 'escape' metaphorical invisibility by getting his ideas heard with the aid of a liberating technology:

Is Microsoft® Office so extraordinary that it can actually help someone love their job? That depends.

Would you enjoy your work more if you could get people to take your ideas more seriously? Since Office seamlessly brings together top applications like Excel, Word, PowerPoint® and Mail, to name a few, it can certainly help you do that. You can analyze sales trends in Microsoft Excel, write a report about them in Word, turn it into a snappy presentation in PowerPoint and distribute your findings throughout the organization in Mail. All at your computer. All before lunch. And with Office's IntelliSenseTM technology, many routine tasks can become automatic with a single click of a mouse.

If that kind of job change sounds appealing, we can make the process even easier with Business Source, a free software hotline to help you make the transition to Office. Just call 1-800-607-6872 to get started. It's one more reason Office is the world's best- selling family of business software.

Because it doesn't just get the job done. It actually helps people enjoy the process.

The identification, and sympathy, of the reader is secured by the use of the silhouetted figure, paradoxically both an individual and an Everyman. The ubiquitous 'you' that is addressed in the text of the advert can be substituted for the man disappearing towards the black and white seascape through the visual ellipsis of any identifying feature. The sea functions as that favourite metaphor, the sea of opportunity. Remember the harassed executive's diagnosis: inability to make a contribution results in mental stagnation. A cure for this malady depends on the reader. The power to become transformed into the man who enjoys his work depends on 'your' willingness to adopt the enabling technology described in the dense text of Figure 4. Microsoft Office can help you come to love your job, but it depends on a pre-existing desire to change. So this can be interpreted as a text about readiness for change as much as a text that makes promissory claims about the products in question. A symbiotic relationship is implied by the advert. Microsoft Office products can help you enjoy the process of work by virtue of their versatility, but this presupposes two things: that you already value your job and that you are willing to learn to be versatile. Your work is important. But it is equally important that you enjoy your work. The dichotomy between work and pleasure is asserted in an effort to erode conventional boundaries between the two.

Engineering the Future

In both adverts a bucolic vision is contrasted with a dystopian one. Taken as a pair the adverts suggest that change from dystopia to utopia can happen on the cultural as well as the personal level. The imaginary actors - the rock star, the absent executive, the harassed executive, Everyman - through their respective transformations act as metaphors for cultural flux. The actors, with the aid of the technology at their disposal (technology itself and its representations are also cultural actors according to Haraway, 1992), provide the narrative framework for a story about a special kind of revolution taking place. This revolution encompasses the way that the workplace can be changed so that swapping roles becomes child's play. A new versatility with respect to different functions lends a glamour to occupations that were previously perceived to be unglamorous (CEOs can become rock stars after all). Furthermore, this new versatility is instrumental in the valuation of one's job. Once it has been wholeheartedly embraced, the disillusioned worker can take pride in diversifying, and in the potentially powerful voice that has been discovered as a by- product of willingness to embrace change.

In the same way that the (creative) idea can be liberated from the status quo by discovering a previously silenced voice, so the idea-guy can be liberated from the office hierarchy by becoming a professional jack- of-all-trades. Through explicit reference to 'the new democracy', the adverts' discourse about individual versatility is harnessed to contemporary claims about the Internet. These claims are clothed in seductive talk about cooperative community, or 'the global village', as we have seen (Woolley, 1993: p. 124). But there is an ironic dissonance at the heart of this coupling: reference to the democracy that can be facilitated by IT carries with it images of computer conferencing, the sharing of expertise, pulling together as a world-wide community of learners. In contrast, the kind of democracy to which the first advert alludes is facilitated by a self-sufficiency - the business person and artist are one and the same person - that obviates the need for teamwork. The only conferencing, or cooperating, a worker needs to perform a thousand and one different tasks is with the available technological tool(s). This tension is clearly articulated in the evocation of 'artist', the individual par excellence, in a text that celebrates an individual versatility in the context of democracy. The use of contradictory messages in adverts for technological products fits well with contemporary ambivalence about the cultural impact of technology itself. Cooperation is contrasted with self-sufficiency, individualism with community. Are any of these stark oppositions enlightening? A brief look at the prevailing myth about the computer as an isolationist tool may help to illustrate that the oppositions referred to can be collapsed so that, paradoxically, they both do and do not apply.

Woolley (1993: p. 9) believes that a radical individualism accompanies VR, and the 'sight of someone wearing a VR headset is the ultimate image of solipsistic self-absorption'. Benedikt (1993: p. 124) picks up on the dichotomy of response to the VR phenomenon, and suggests that how the process of VR is perceived conditions the nuanced arguments of detractors and enthusiasts alike: 'On the largest view, the advent of cyberspace is apt to be seen in two ways, each of which can be regretted or welcomed: either as a new stage in the etherealization of the world we live in, the real world of people and things and places, or, conversely, as a new stage in the concretization of the world we dream or think in, the world of abstractions, memory, and knowledge.' I have already referred to Heim's (1993) belief that the relationships between on-line personae become more abstracted and less involved than face-to-face interaction, an intuition akin to the 'etherealization' of real life that Benedikt alludes to. The fear that the anonymity of screen and keyboard can mask our humanity is the antithesis of Rheingold's electronic agora.

So far I have been discussing critiques that deal with the quality of on-line interaction. What about the social interaction that can take place in and around computer clusters in schools and other institutions? The lack of face-to-face contact is more applicable to the home computer scenario. In defence of the agora, writers like Stone (1992; 1993), drawing on Haraway's (1989; 1991) construction of the cyborg, argue that the disembodied character of electronic communication allows a freedom from stereotyping that would be impossible in the 'physical' world. This assertion can be partially countered by Wakeford's (1996) caution that most of the exchanges on the Internet are still gendered. Not only are women more likely to problematize what it means to be a woman on-line than men are to problematize their masculinity, they are sometimes asked to prove that they have female bodies.

Cyberspace is above all the 'territory' of contradictory claims: it represents the antithesis of urban alienation through the establishment of a world-wide cooperative community; by collapsing the distinction between biology and technology, cyberspace renders the concept of a unitary self in a single biological body untenable. Whether or not one agrees with claims of this nature, we are left with the theoretical paradox that cyberspace represents both unification and fragmentation. This kind of paradox is insightful not only because it signals the contemporary ambivalence towards technology, but also because it has wider application. To some extent at least, the views polarized in this text are symptomatic of a fascination with the differences and similarities between modernism and postmodernism, each term a polar construct that inheres within its opposite. If the transformation of self or selves, world or worlds, can be identified as a postmodern process, within the text of the two adverts they are articulated through a pre-eminently modern mechanism: the drive towards technological advancement.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996