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While Hughes praises itself as providing liberating technology for the Third World, Oracle infuses its technology into the lives of children living in American urban tenements. An Oracle commercial begins with a shot of a lilac-wrapped porch of a middle class home. Inside a child types a message to a friend on the keyboard: "Mike, Check out..." His room contains all sorts of science objects, suggesting that he is a culturally enriched child. In counterpoint to this scene is a shot of a boy (Mike) sitting in a tenement window next to a fan. The boy inserts a disk and receives his friend's message. The message: because Oracle provides cheap technology for the underprivileged, the boy is able to connect to a web site about oceans and experience seeing a whale surface. Oracle technology eliminates/overcomes cultural deprivation.

The voice-over replays the Information Age narrative.

There's no question that computers open up entirely new worlds.
But what about children who live in a world that can't afford personal computers?
Fortunately after today, we'll never have to ask that question again. Network computers allow everyone to join the information age and we'd like to say welcome.
Oracle - enabling the information age.

The Hughes satellite commercial and the Oracle Internet commercial are constructed from common elements. The backdrops suggest an environment of poverty, but this a poverty which might be remedied by addressing the relationship between technology and what Pierre Bourdieu calls "cultural capital." Concerns about the growing gap between technology "haves" versus "have-nots" focus on how this inequality is likely to reproduce social and economic inequalities.

But what about children who live in a world that can't afford personal computers?

The Hughes, Oracle and GE ads claim that economic deprivation need no longer be an inevitability, because enlightened corporations can ensure that Technology is made accessible to all. Oracle's claim is not simply for purposes of legitimation, but because of their corporate effort to challenge the software model of personal computer (PC) ownership by establishing a market for network computing.

In an act of contemporary noblesse oblige, the corporation plays the role of an active subject (it provides as well as speaks) concerned to provide for all God's children. Those to be saved, the poor children, are cast as relatively passive viewers, who gaze in fascination at the images on screen. How their lot will be improved by exposure to images of nature isn't immediately clear. Why is it that the representations that appear on the monitors are all photographic scenes of oceanic nature?

These ads for Hughes and GE offer idealistic narratives in which Capital acts on the basis of humanitarian motives, while its profit motive disappears from view. The Oracle ad is slightly different in that it is promoting an alternative model (the network computer) to the personal PC approach dominated by Microsoft.

These commercials acknowledge the existence of the realm of poverty. However, the limitations of poverty are one-dimensional, the lack of access to information. For Oracle, connecting to the Internet opens up a world of possibilities thereby creating an equal playing field. Distributed information means distributive justice. The Internet provides a lifeline out of the drab environment of poverty into the world of the fantastic, constructed out radiant and saturated colors. These idealistic narratives only acknowledge structure in order to deny its power.

And yet another contradiction underlies this narrative. Access to the Internet or to satellite distribution is not equivalent to universal access to information. Technology may provide access but there are still real economic costs for attaining anything more than basic information. Information is not a monolithic entity. There are layers, hierarchies, and relevancies. The purported universality of the information age narrative disguises the role of accessibility to various forms of information in constituting social class (Schiller, 1999). It also fails to recognize the underlying trend -- that information is becoming increasingly commodified. Infrastructure costs decrease only when there are high expectations that the costs for a regularly distributed commodity such as content will increase. Dish technology is cheap because there is the expectation that the subscriber will pay for a steady flow of content. The AOL-Time Warner merger signals the expected profits for a content driven Internet.

The Enlightenment project celebrated universal education, the technology of the book, and the development of vast libraries. It also constructed a conception of selfhood whose value was the consequence to Western bourgeois hierarchy of knowledge. While proclaiming the values of democratization, bourgeois ideals were presented as that which should be pursued and valued by all. In a post-literate society what is the value of being in this new information flow? Is it just white noise? A form of spectacle? The medium determines the nature of signification. The Internet is rapidly changing from providing access to textual information to providing a steady stream of visual information. Knowledge is equivalent to a visual experience-the nature documentary. This narrative proclaims childhood wonderment as if this kid had never seen a whale before. Postman (1985) argued that the super ideology governing television was entertainment itself. All flows were infused with its logic - infotainment. As television and the Internet merge into one medium, will the logic of information on this medium be dominated by the logic of entertainment? As information streams outward, will users become viewers?

By the way! The Oracle project to provide networked technology to 'everyone' was discontinued. It wasn't deemed profitable.


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Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey