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As is the case with all representations in television advertising, it is as important to note what is not shown as it is to stress what is present. It is in the relationship between presence and absence that meaning is constituted. What then is missing in corporate narratives of technoscience? The most glaring absence in these narratives is the commodification of science; the market is neither as democratic nor humanitarian as we might surmise from watching the ads. While corporate science is governed by the logic of the market, commercials represent the benefits of science as universal and unmotivated by the cold calculus of capitalist accounting practices.

Few ads bring questions of corporate agency and motivation into view; the greater number perform songs about humanitarian spirit. Where matters of agency and motivation do poke through, as for example, in an American Pharmaceuticals Companies ad, the motivation seems to come entirely from altruistic desires to help others, for example, a sister who is suffering. At the major pharmaceutical companies, it would seem that love, care and a desire to prevent suffering drive scientific advances.

Typical of such ads is a DuPont commercial that personalizes the laboratory quest to resolve Arthritis pain without the side effects of aspirin. Lest we forget how profit considerations color these matters, recall how investors hailed a comparable drug from Monsanto, a Cox-2 inhibitor called Celebrex (TM) to treat arthritis pain with less risk of stomach bleeding. Return on investment can figure just as prominently in determining which technologies to pursue. Like DuPont, Monsanto has refashioned itself as a Life Sciences company. But calling oneself a Life Sciences company does not mean that important discoveries are pursued regardless of market considerations. Monsanto discontinued a technology of genetically modified plants that could produce biodegradable plastic because, "Despite impressive technical strides, the near term market potential for a premium priced biodegradable plastic was not sufficient to justify further development" (Monsanto 1998 Annual Report).

Another missing element is the tedious discipline and often laborious character of laboratory work. By their very nature, media representations spectacularize. The boredom of routine is edited out. Thirty-second spots turn instead to cliché signifiers, peak moments, and notable accomplishments to inflect the corporate role in the paradigmatic breakthroughs or accidents that we come to "value" as discoveries. And developing safe, effective, and useful applications from these laboratory breakthroughs always involves false starts, failures, and innumerable trials. While, occasionally a car commercial will allude to the testing process, even this is spectacularized through the use of jump cuts and explosive shots. But in most ads touting technological advances, the actual work of scientists, technicians, and engineers disappears from view. When scientists or technicians are represented it is generally at the moment of discovery such as holding a test tube in the air and looking at it with wonderment. Or, a scientist giving testimony about how their discovery enhanced the life of another particular human being.

One could easily infer from watching these ads that no other agents play a significant role in the discovery of bio-medicines. Missing in action are the State and academia. Yet, these institutions have played a crucial role in subsidizing the research that lies behind biotech breakthroughs. Discoveries are not made in isolation but along global networks of scientists. The state through funding and research often moves scientific discovery along certain paths, e.g., NASA or the Human Genome project. Research is often subsidized in government-financed labs or in academic institutions. Most likely, there are alliances between government agencies, academic research, and business. However, these commercials represent the world of scientific research as corporate.

The military has long been a primary market for technological development. Castells sees it as the prime mover in stimulating the present technological revolution. The military is often the initial market for new technological innovations - e.g., global positioning systems, now being marketed as a consumer feature in new cars. Funding from the military often underwrites the high cost of the initial development phase of a technology. Later phases can then be supported by business and consumer markets.

Science and technology, as portrayed in our set of ads, has been purged of power relations. Technological control gets translated not into authority and power but into orderliness and the efficiency that flows from it. Technological innovation takes its spark not from the desire to master markets or build capital, or even dominate the world, but from a desire to serve consumers. Scientific labor as shown on television is customarily abbreviated into the gesture. It might involve a hand holding a beaker of fluid, or an eye at the microscope, or simply a lab coat. There is no sense that the dark side of power and scientific knowledge is linked. For example, the satellite revolving around is linked to more efficient information flows not to spying. Fingerprint scan technology safeguards our identity; it is not presented as a panoptic sorting technology. Likewise, corporations present themselves not as power brokers but as representatives of the public good. They use knowledge to enhance and liberate not control.


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© Copyright 1998-2003
Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey